Europa Cinema > 22:15


Robert Wise


Tuesday 25/06/2024


Original version with subtitles


Film Notes

“It is through error that man rises. It is through tragedy that he learns. All roads to learning begin in darkness and go out into the light.” The Body Snatcher ends with this message, which (I trust) can be attributed to Hippocrates. In any case, it constitutes a convenient way of raising the notions of enlightenment and obscurantism. Two terms which constitute a complex, throbbing organism. It is also a nice way to explain what cinema is: light, dark, and everything that moves in between. Above all in horror cinema. And in the cinema of Val Lewton, where it comes to constitute a readily definable brand. And, masterfully, in this film. It was not quite Wise’s debut, but nearly, and yet he was already in full command of his material. The whole film is rich and coherent but at least two sequences always leave me astonished by their perfection: a blind beggar who disappears into an alley (and with him, his singing) and a frantic carriage ride into one of the most violent storms in the history of cinema. Hovering over both of these is the malevolent, and only apparently harmless, spectre of Boris Karloff, who had moved from Universal to RKO in order to free himself from the now ridiculous burden of Frankenstein’s Monster. An astute move, given the magnificent results. For one last time, he shared the set with Bela Lugosi, slimier than ever. The sight of them battling to the death is a joy to behold.
Enlightenment and obscurantism are also the faithful companions of medical science. Slicing up cadavers means exposing to the light what is normally hidden from view. Tearing off a veil, as it were. Stevenson’s story, which inspired the film, clearly recalled a notorious event that took place in Edinburgh in 1828: the case of Burke and Hare, who, over the course of ten months, killed 16 people in order to sell their corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Even though the event prompted lawmakers to relax the rules surrounding the use of cadavers for scientific research, the practice nonetheless continued to encounter primal resistance. In his excellent Medieval Bodies, the art historian Jack Hartnell notes how a corpse’s integrity was considered an essential condition to enable a soul’s salvation. He also recounts how, in Bologna in 1319, the teacher Alberto de’ Zancariis and his students secretly gathered in the church of San Salvatore for a special lesson involving the cutting up of a cadaver illegally obtained from a local cemetery. The authorities, at the urging of local citizens and blind to the requirements for intellectual advancement, sentenced them to the darkness of the prison cell.

Andrea Meneghelli

Cast and Credits

Sog.: dal racconto omonimo (1884) di Robert Louis Stevenson. Scen.: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton. F.: Robert de Grasse. M.: J.R. Whittredge. Scgf.: Albert D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller. Mus.: Roy Webb. Int.: Boris Karloff (John Gray) Bela Lugosi (Joseph), Henry Daniell (dottor Toddy MacFarlane), Edith Atwater (Meg Cameron), Russell Wade (Donald Fettes), Rita Corday (signora Marsh), Sharyn Moffett (Georgina Marsh), Donna Lee (la mendicante), Robert Clarke (Richardson), Carl Kent (Gilchrist). Prod.: Val Lewton per RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. DCP. D.: 78’. Bn.