Classic Film Talk: ‘The Body Snatcher’ (1945)

Reels of Gold: Classic Film Talk

Today we reminisce about

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Directed by Robert Wise

Cast of Characters:

Boris Karloff – Cabman John Gray

Béla Lugosi – Joseph

Henry Daniell – Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane

Russell Wade – Donald Fettes

Synopsis

It is through error that man tries and rises. It is through tragedy he learns. All the roads of learning begin in darkness and go out into the light.” – Hippocrates of Kos

Edinburgh 1831. A young man and an elderly woman are speaking to one another in a church cemetery. Though an odd place to strike up a conversion, they are both there for different reasons; he because his father is the Vicar at the church and she because her son is buried there. The woman explains that her son’s dog has not left the gravesite of its former master since the burial over a week prior, so she comes to give it food and water. The reasoning for the dog’s presence is that graverobbing has become frequent and it is the animal’s innate way to continue protecting its master.

We soon find out that the young man is Donald Fettes, a medical student under the supervision of Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane. Fettes has come to announce that he cannot continue his studies due to financial difficulty so Dr. MacFarlane decides to promote him to be his lab assistant, for which he will receive a stipend and housing. One of his duties will be to receive and sign for bodies that are brought in for experimentation. No mention is made of how the bodies are procured but Fettes begins to figure things out when he is awoken one night by a tall, mysterious man called Gray. He pays Gray £10 for a body and when he leaves the medical clinic the next morning, he sees a crowd at the church cemetery. The same elderly woman from before leaves the cemetery gates holding the body of the dead dog, clearly an indication that a graverobber stole her son’s corpse and killed the dog to get to it, just as she had feared.

Gray is indeed not only deliverer of bodies but he is also a graverobber. Worse yet, he turns to murder when there is a shortage of corpses to be stolen. And though Gray is initially the only person to commit murder, both Fettes and the doctor play a part in the crimes due to their indirect involvement.

To what lengths will these men go to get fresh bodies? Despite the gruesome nature of the experiments, do they serve a higher cause? Will they be discovered? All answers can come to those who wait … or who watch this hauntingly appealing movie. 🙂

Observations

The film is based on a short story of the same name that was authored by Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson. It was published in the newspaper Pall Mall Gazette in December 1884 as a “Christmas Extra”, believe it or not. Edinburgh happened to be the leading European centre of anatomical study and medical experimentation in the early 19th century. The real-life events surrounding surgeon Robert Knox and the Burke & Hare murders inspired the basis of the story. Knox sought the acquisition of bodies but did so illegally because he was not registered with or approved by the Government to do so. He started paying two men by the names of Burke and Hare to graverob bodies with the promise of a £7 and 11 shillings payment per body. When it became too difficult to locate and exhume acceptable corpses, the duo turned to killing victims themselves. They were all eventually arrested and put to trial for their crimes. Interestingly enough, the Knox-Burke-Hare trial is weaved in to the film adaptation of The Body Snatcher. Gray testified to being a graverobber in order to cover-up for the real perpetrator, at the time a young boy. He also gives a first-hand account of how Burke and Hare would lure and eventually kill their victims.

Boris Karloff gives a stand-out performance in the role of Gray, creating a truly frightening and dominant persona. Gray is physically daunting with his evil gaze and creepy clothing. His look is reminiscent of the Shadow Man. You have no difficulty in believing that he can easily overcome his victims, thereafter undertaking (no pun intended) the taxing effort of lugging bodies around. He displays several bouts of shocking, raw violence in the film. In one scene, we see Gray in the cemetery with the intent of digging up a body and he kills a dog with one seemingly nonchalant violent whack of a shovel.

There is no surprise that Karloff is given top billing in the film. In fact, his is the only name that appears above the film’s title. Béla Lugosi receives second-billing for a role that pales in comparison to the other two male co-stars, Henry Daniell and Russell Wade.

Lugosi’s role is almost that of an extended cameo. He appears in a handful of scenes, usually delivering one line of dialogue and with his on-screen presence feeling slightly rushed. Physically, he is a poor sight, looking very old and ill. I had initially chosen this movie to review after seeing the names Karloff and Lugosi on the DVD cover but I am disappointed that Lugosi was not more prominently featured. Clearly, the studio was profiting from their two names to bring in more money. That being said, I cannot find fault in Karloff because he was perfect for the role and the rest of ensemble cast delivers rather solid performances.

Henry Daniell is slightly hard to warm up to in the beginning because his character is quite rude and does not have much talent in connecting with other people. Though MacFarlane seems heartless, his mindset is constantly perturbed by Gray’s existence and his agitation only increases over the duration of the film. He becomes obsessed with Gray, particularly after hearing his wife say, “You will not rid yourself of him saying the Devil is dead.” With this, MacFarlane is consumed with finding a way to distance himself from his past, once and for all.

Russell Wade is a sturdy addition to the cast though clearly not at the same level as the three other men. His character starts the movie being uncomfortable by the doctor’s dealings with Gray yet does not evolve a great deal by the end of the movie. Even though Fettes knows what is going on is wrong, he does not do anything to stop it and does not run away from it when he has the chance.

The Body Snatcher has some very interesting camera movements, including a beautifully executed zoom-in on Karloff in a scene when he is calculating his next murder. That is coupled with thrilling insinuation of doom and violence without showing excessive gore. The atmosphere is undoubtedly gothic and morbid without being vulgar or tasteless. The sets are also simple yet not understated by any means. The mood is very nice for a Classic thriller/horror wannabe; the result is even more amazing when you take into account that director Robert Wise later went on to make musicals like The Sound of Music and West Side Story.

My verdict is that this film is an excellent, intelligent thriller that will stay in your mind well after you have finished watching it. I highly recommend you check it out!