There is a blog-a-thon going on over at the Evening Class and I just thought I’d put in my two cents.
When I started sifting through the Val Lewton collection (I’m still not done 😦 ), I was at least familiar with Cat People and Zombie and in all honesty I had thought of skipping over this one. Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, a doctor running his anatomy classes must rely on a ruthless criminal to supply him with extra cadavers so that he can properly run his school. I was surprised to find this has been my favourite film I’ve seen in the series yet, and what raises this film (and really all the Lewton films) above the rest of the pack is their reliance on psychological turmoil and uncertainty for their horror.
Unlike most films of it’s type, the acting is what holds the film together. Unlike Cat People, or even I Walked With a Zombie there is little reliance on the supernatural. The horror is almost exclusively based on the capacity for good and evil within the individual. Unfortunately for Doctor MacFarlane, his fate and the measure of his own morality is linked (quite literally) eternally with that of grave robber/cabman Gray. Boris Karloff plays Gray, and suggesting this is probably the best performance if his career is not a compliment to be taken lightly. Arguably the great actor of a generation, his incarnation of Gray is twisted and ambiguous. While his motives are clear his intentions and performance is riddled with ambiguity. Henry Daniell is Dr. MacFarlane, he’s an actor who has been a character or supporting player in countless Hollywood pictures and I have to say, he holds his own against Karloff. It’s essential that their performances be on par, as the film plays out in a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manner. While two clearly separate entities, they are two halves of the same soul. Gray is everything MacFarlane fears he has become, while also serving as that nagging voice in all of our minds to remind us of our mistakes and reduce us to our weakest state. Gray is elusive, only appearing when MacFarlane, or as he teasingly calls him “Toddy”, is emotionally at his worst or least wants to see him. MacFarlane is an authoritative and even frightening figure on his own, but while he speaks to Gray he’s reduced to nothing; a shadow of a man. In the end Gray drives MacFarlane to becoming all that he fears, ironically just as he succeeds in the operation of his career.
The emotional turmoil of the characters is tied with the visual strength of the film. Considering the limited resources at Lewton’s disposal he makes the best of this film and more. The set is from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, re-dressed to look like Scotland instead of France. To create the cramped illusion of twisted streets and much larger/longer sets deep focus is used extensively. Everything is dimly lit, even daylight is dark and overcast. It’s one of the films most successful at really creating a gothic ambiance that suits the macabre nature of the story. The final half hour in particular are brilliantly crafted as MacFarlane spirals faster out of control. In one Gray is slowly pursuing a street singer, we never see him but his presence is always felt. The sound of the singing is haunting and beautiful, as are the exteriors. Then, the climatic final scene in the rain is like pumping adrenaline, and combined with some editing tricks and the uncertainty of the surroundings the terror is only augmented.
Few films get under my skin like this chilling and macabre tale of corpses and souls. The delicious irony is that the characters become tradesman in death, when it seems that’s what they fear most. Dr. MacFarlane fears his soul as much as he fears Gray until his life becomes nothing less than a living hell.