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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RUNNING TIME: 69/77 min.
• Theatrical Trailers
“Atmosphere and subtlety—it’s not just for ‘A’ pictures anymore!“
James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell
Disc Two of the Val Lewton Horror Collection (Buy it here!) spotlights a pair of literary efforts. The Body Snatcher (1945) is adapted from an obscure Robert Louis Stevenson story: an 1830s anatomist (Daniell) requires fresh cadavers to further his research, and a shady cab driver (Karloff) displays great initiative in supplying them.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) draws inspiration from, of all things, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. On a Caribbean island, a brave young nurse (Dee) investigates the very strange affliction of her employer’s wife, and journeys into a world of voodoo and witchcraft.
Both films are presented as they were intended: 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with mono sound. Transfers are sharp, with the solid blacks so essential to Lewton’s production strategy. Some print damage is evident—Body Snatcher is in generally good condition but Zombie displays occasional mottling and a nasty mid-frame splice about halfway through.
The primary extras are the commentaries. Zombie features a joint session from British writers Kim Newman and Steve Jones. I don’t usually care for film-scholar tracks but these guys have done their homework and are obvious fans. Their insights into the way the Lewton films were perceived in the UK are particularly illuminating.
The Body Snatcher track is a mixed bag. The first 48 minutes consist of edited recollections from the late great Robert Wise, whose first film as sole credited director this was. He spends most of the time detailing how he got the job; as oral history it’s priceless, but he only occasionally touches on Body Snatcher itself. Film historian Steve Haberman takes over for the final half-hour, and though he does watch the film with us his rehearsed observations and discursions are exactly what I don’t like about film-scholar commentaries.
These are both terrific little movies, and damned if they won’t make you jump once or twice. I incline slightly towards The Body Snatcher. It’s great seeing Karloff act without monster makeup—he seems to be enjoying the opportunity as much as we, especially when he goes toe-to-toe with Lugosi. Daniell is also impressive in a rare lead role; there can’t be too many actors who could sympathetically portray a man who’s more comfortable operating on the dead than on the living.
P.S. If you think the story’s far-fetched, I recommend you read chapter two of Mary Roach’s terrific book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Click here!