+++ Opinion +++
Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, the horror film The Body Thief once sent shivers down the spine of audiences. The atmospherically dense, suspenseful horror story is now considered a genre classic with morally complex, well-acted characters. Now, a whopping 77 years after its world premiere and 51 years after its first German TV broadcast, the time has finally come: “The Corpse Thief” celebrates its local uncut home cinema premiere.
Then so far only a cut version shortened by several minutes has appeared in the German trade, the full film was only shown sporadically on television in this country. This has an end now: The Filmjuwelen label will be releasing The Body Thief in its entirety for the first time on August 19, 2022 – both on DVD and as a Blu-ray premiere.
» “The Body Thief” on DVD and Blu-ray at Amazon*
In addition to the darkly atmospheric film, the disc also includes an almost hour-long one Documentary about producer Val Lewton, who is said by quite a few film historians to have invented the (sub-)genre of the sophisticated horror film. In addition, the DVD and Blu-ray editions come with a 20-page booklet about the creation and historical aftermath of “The Corpse Thief”.
Scotland anno 1831: The medical student Donald Fettes (Russel Wade) receives an assistant position with Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who has a dark secret. He secretly had corpses stolen from the cemetery in order to use them as illustrative specimens during anatomy lessons and for experimental purposes. MacFarlane’s source of supply is the coachman John Gray (Boris Karloff), a nasty fellow who soon turns against his employer. Or does he even have a laudable motivation with his empathy for the paralyzed girl Georgina (Sharyn Moffett)?
While Val Lewton worked at RKO Pictures, he established clear rules for the filmmakers working for him: They had to stick to a runtime limit of 75 minutes and couldn’t go over the budget of $150,000. In addition, the film titles were strictly monitored by a marketing department to guarantee effective promotion of the projects. In return, those who submitted to these laws enjoyed an artistic freedom that was almost unheard of in the studio system of the time. Say hello to today’s horror producer Jason Blum and his “stick to your budget and I’ll let you do it” mentality!
One of the filmmakers drawn to Lewton’s approach was Robert Wise, who previously edited Citizen Kane and later directed such cinematic classics asWest Side Story“ should stage. With his directorial work “The Corpse Thief” he experienced one of the few cases in which Lewton was involved not only as a producer but also as a screenwriter. But the debacle that often occurs when full-time producers do sit down at the typewriter never materialized:
“The Corpse Thief” takes the short, atmospheric Stevenson template, expands it atmospherically and underpins it with a larger number of characters and psychologically complex, compelling character drawings. John Gray in particular is a gripping personality: Boris Karloff, best known as Frankenstein’s Monster, plays one of his best roles here – a cunning, dangerous man with grumpy persuasiveness, who nevertheless has more kindness and empathy than the harmless-looking but ice-cold Dr. MacFarlane.
Bela Lugosi, meanwhile, has less to nibble on in his supporting role as MacFarlane’s servant Joseph, but the “Dracula” icon still lends her a memorable chill. In terms of acting, only Russel Wade stands out as an apprentice who is overwhelmed by the situation – almost as if the mime himself was overwhelmed by the concentrated talent around him. However, this is compensated for by one beautiful-uncomfortable scorea handful of dark, melancholic folk tunes and with memorably designed backdrops.
They can’t keep up with the splendor of the universal horror films from the 1940s, but an intense atmosphere was created with little effort. The oppressively sinister imagery created by Wise and cameraman Robert De Grasse rounds off “The Body Thief” in a memorable way – This creepy gem isn’t terrifying, but it lets you look into uncomfortable psychological abysses in an atmospheric and lasting way. And that’s awful enough in the best sense of the word!
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