The Body Snatcher (1945) ***
You’re about to see something that doesn’t happen very often, so remember it well. I am about to agree, at least in principle, with great numbers of people whose taste is not merely fully mainstream, but indeed outright stodgy. While I don’t quite share the enthusiasm of the Roger Eberts and the Leonard Maltins of the world on this point, I have to concur that The Body Snatcher is quite a good film, and that with his performance here, Boris Karloff created what may well be the greatest screen villain of his time.
The Body Snatcher (which was based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson) looks and sounds an awful lot like all the rest of the horror films of the 30’s and 40’s. It’s set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1831, and over the course of the movie, you’ll be presented with just about all the brooding, fortress-like European manors; musty, raucous taverns; and cramped, rustic shacks that you can stand. Donald Fettes (Russell Wade, from The Ghost Ship) is a young medical student, studying under a world-renowned surgeon by the name of Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell, of The Thirteenth Chair and From the Earth to the Moon). MacFarlane has high hopes for Fettes, so much so that he one day decides to make him his personal assistant. Fettes will henceforth help the doctor with his teaching (one amusingly forward-looking scene has Fettes leading what looks an awful lot like a modern college discussion section) and oversee the procurement of supplies for the laboratory.
This is where the trouble starts. The most important supply for an advanced anatomy class is, of course, a cadaver. The only problem is that the law of the time permits doctors to use only the bodies of deceased paupers for their anatomical investigations-- people whose families could not, in any case, afford to have them properly buried. Even in 1830’s Edinburgh, the number of people who die penniless is not sufficient to keep the medical schools stocked with human corpses, so men like MacFarlane are sometimes forced to take extraordinary measures. In MacFarlane’s case, he has an understanding with a local coachman by the name of John Gray (Karloff), who doesn’t mind digging up a body now and then if the pay is right (and ten pounds went a long way in 1831). Lucky Fettes, he now gets to be the one to deal with Gray directly.
Meanwhile, a woman named Marsh (The Black Castle’s Rita Corday) is attempting to persuade Dr. MacFarlane to perform a risky experimental operation on her daughter, Georgina (Sharyn Moffett). Georgina, you see, has been crippled by the after-effects of the carriage accident that killed her father some years ago. All the top doctors of Europe have pointed Marsh toward MacFarlane as the man for the job. The snag is that MacFarlane no longer considers himself a practicing surgeon-- teaching is his thing now, and a difficult and delicate operation like the one that Georgina requires would bite deeply into the time he needs to prepare his lessons. When Marsh is unable to persuade the doctor, Fettes tries his hand at the task over drinks at a local pub. He meets with no more success, but surprisingly, John Gray (who happened to be at the pub as well) does manage to bend MacFarlane’s ear. The circumstances of this conversation are suspicious indeed, hinting at some grim secret past that the doctor shares with the “resurrection man” (one of my favorite euphemisms for “grave robber”). The details are, for the moment, left shrouded in mystery, but MacFarlane’s mentor, Dr. Knox, and a pair of grave robbers named Burke and Hare seem to be somehow involved.
The next day, though, insulated by time and space from the menacing presence of Gray, MacFarlane comes up with an excuse not to operate on the Marsh girl after all. The procedure, as I said, is experimental and extremely tricky-- indeed, it has never actually been performed on a live subject-- and MacFarlane is a bit out of practice working on the living. He would need to bone up on the technique, to rehearse the operation on the spine of a cadaver, and right now, MacFarlane is fresh out of stiffs. You see, the last grave Gray dug up had been watched over by a small dog, which had become famous in the town for keeping an unending vigil by the grave of its deceased master. Gray had to brain this dog with a shovel to shut it up while he did his work, and the next day, all of Edinburgh was up in arms over the emergence of a body snatcher so vile that he would compound his crimes by slaying a faithful animal while disturbing the repose of the dead. Night watchmen have thus been posted at all the nearby cemeteries, and Gray has been lying low while the furor runs its course. So Fettes is faced with a dilemma: Unless he overcomes his scruples and persuades Gray to risk discovery by stealing another corpse, Georgina (whose condition is worsening rapidly) will never walk again, and may even find herself fully paralyzed before she reaches adulthood. Ultimately, Fettes decides that preventing the suffering of the living is more important than paying respect to the dead, and he goes to Gray to make his case. Fettes seems to have been very persuasive, because Gray returns later that very night with the body of a young woman.
But this is a slippery, slippery slope that Fettes has started down. When he unwraps the body, he recognizes it as that of the destitute girl who sings for alms in the streets of Edinburgh (Donna Lee), to whom he gave some money only a few hours before! Now there is simply no way that the girl could have died, been collected, had her funeral, and been buried in the short amount of time that has elapsed since Fettes last saw her. The only possible conclusion is that Gray chose to sidestep the danger inherent in robbing a guarded cemetery by killing someone he thought no one would miss. Robbing graves to save a life is one thing, but sacrificing the life of perfectly healthy girl so that Georgina may walk again is quite another. But Gray has forced Fettes’s and MacFarlane’s hands; the body snatcher happened to pick the best-known pauper in all of Edinburgh for his victim, and unless MacFarlane destroys the body (the only tangible evidence of the murder) both he and his student will surely hang as accomplices to Gray’s crime. And if the girl’s body must be destroyed anyway, why not do so by dissecting it, and gaining thereby the knowledge necessary to perform Georgina’s surgery?
But there is a further complication. MacFarlane does not live alone; in addition to himself and Fettes, he has a housekeeper named Meg Camden (Edith Atwater, from Die, Sister, Die! and Strait-Jacket) and a laborer named Joseph (Bela Lugosi, in a tiny role that seems to say, “I’m practicing for all those shitty movies I’m going to make with Ed Wood in ten years”). When Fettes shows his mentor what an awful fix Gray has gotten them into, Joseph overhears their conversation, and gets it into his head to try his hand at blackmail. Gray is the obvious target (he, after all, is the killer), and a few days later, Joseph seeks the man out at his home downtown. He tells Gray that he knows about the dead beggar girl, and threatens to expose the coachman if he does not pay up. In what might be the best five minutes of Karloff’s career, Gray takes Joseph by surprise, and eagerly, smilingly pays him sixteen pounds. When Joseph expresses his understandable confusion at this unexpected turn of events, Gray starts plying the man with brandy, and explaining that he admires Joseph’s nerve. He suggests that he and a man of Joseph’s courage could make a killing, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the murder-for-profit business, offing anonymous paupers and selling their bodies to doctors, just like Burke and Hare did with Dr. Knox. (Aha! So that’s MacFarlane’s dirty little secret!) We know where this is leading, and Gray confirms our suspicions by “demonstrating” to Joseph the technique Burke used to dispatch his victims.
And now Gray really has MacFarlane-- and, by extension, Fettes-- over a barrel. The coachman stops by MacFarlane’s place the next day with an unsolicited delivery-- Joseph. The doctor had been trying to distance himself from Gray, to cut his ties both personal and professional to the man, but Gray suggests that that would be a bad idea. After all, think what it would do to his career if it got out that MacFarlane had is own household servants murdered to supply his students with cadavers. The people of Edinburgh already believe that MacFarlane and his school encourage grave-robbing, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. The collision course this puts the two men on should be fairly obvious, and the fact that their conflict can only be resolved one way should be equally so.
To my way of thinking, there are two things about The Body Snatcher that put it in a class above the usually lackluster horror movies of its time. The first and most obvious is the character of John Gray. Karloff practically sweats evil here-- exudes it from his pores like the venom of a poison dart frog. His every word carries the subtext, “You know, I have absolutely no conscience at all, and if, for some reason, it occurred to me that I would gain something by killing you, I’d do it in a heartbeat.” The contrast between Karloff’s performance here and that in the contemporary Isle of the Dead is stunning, leaving no room for doubt that the blame in the latter movie lies with the film itself, and not with its star. And that leads me to the other distinguishing feature of The Body Snatcher, the alchemy that occurs when a talented actor like Karloff is put in the hands of a director of equal caliber (Robert Wise in this case, who would go on to bring us The Day the Earth Stood Still), working from an intelligent script. Unfortunately, only the half-hour or so between the scene in which Fettes goes to enlist Gray’s aid in bringing about Georgina’s operation and that in which MacFarlane goes to confront his nemesis has this magical quality-- the listless first act has little to recommend it, and Wise seriously fumbles the eminently predictable conclusion. Furthermore, I don’t share the joy that most critics seem to take in watching the interaction between Karloff and Lugosi. Perhaps the action of the scene in which Gray lethally out-maneuvers Joseph, who is way out of his depth as a criminal mind, parallels a bit too closely for comfort the way in which Karloff acts rings around the vastly overrated Hungarian in the same sequence. But I can’t complain too much. For once, I think the mainstream critics really are on to something in their esteem for The Body Snatcher.