Body Snatcher

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THE BODY SNATCHER: A Mystery of Science and the Soul.

Oct 8, 2000 (Updated Jun 1, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A truly horrific story, which does not depend on supernatural claptrap.

Cons:Some secondary performances and the ending show the effect of a tight budget shooting schedule.

The Bottom Line: This little sleeper, shot cheaply by a B-Picture production team, is one of the one or two best horror films ever made because the horror is simple, human and timeless.


THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) is, to my mind, one of the few true Horror Films. It had its origins in calotypes invented by Fox Talbot, employed by Edinburgh Artist David Octavius Hill and Partner Robert Adamson in series of classic photos passed down by these Scots of the 1840's: strange, startled faces staring out at us from long time exposures. Figures among the tombstones of Edinburgh. Humans more like quaint spectres, or aliens from out of space, than our immediate ancestors.

For several decades in the early 19th Century, Scotland burgeoned with the scientific likes of Michael Faraday (Discovery of Electromagnetism and Electrolysis) and James Maxwell (Theory of a common source for Light and Electromagnetism). Scottish medicine thrived, too, applying these discoveries and others, beginning medical studies that would make Edinburgh, until after World War II, one of the great medical and surgical training centers of the World.

In the early days, medical schools (as they do today) ran into religious, social, economic and political barriers. The scarcity of cadavers for dissection led doctors into a kind of scandal that marks even our highest "Progress" now. Two particularly ripe characters named Burke and Hare robbed Edinburgh graveyards for years to provide doctors with dead bodies, until entrepreneurship tempted them to go after live subjects. In the City's Grass Market, and its Port of Leith, the pair preyed on prostitutes, the old, the drunkards. They developed a method of murder that left no visible marks on the bodies. It became known as Burking: a simple, concentrated pressure of the murderer's palm on the victim's mouth, then the pinching of the nose with a thumb and forefinger.

Many practiced the trade, but perhaps because they were Irishmen in what the English considered savage Scotland, Burke and Hare got the infamous credit. Their apprehension and execution led to "The Anatomy Act of 1832," which reformed in Great Britain, but did not entirely end, the abuses by which medical schools had procured their subjects for practice. Gossip about the case around the fire, photographs of the time, influenced young Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson in writing his classic short story "The Body Snatcher" -- as another true account of Edinburgh hypocrisy and crime, that of Deacon Brody, inspired him to create the novella Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde. Stevenson's stories became famous round the World.

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In the years after he was brought to America in 1909 from Russia by his pioneer female chemist mother Nina, Stevenson's tales were favorites of a young voluminous reader, Vladimir Lewton. The mother and child lived, off and on, with his Aunt, distinguished stage and screen actress Alla Nazimova. Val Lewton, as he became known, declasse, from a troubled family, grew up to be a paranoid visionary, who was torn by dreams of Tolstoyean love and acceptance, crossed with the dark ghosts and demons of Russian Folklore. He came to travel in New York literary and theatrical circles. He wrote news articles, novels and radio scripts. While working in MGM's New York office, he attracted the attention of David Selznick, who brought him out to Hollywood in the summer of 1934. For eight years, Lewton labored as a story editor, writing seedy pot boilers on the side (under the name Carlos Keith), and dreaming of finer things. (He recommended rejecting Gone with the Wind as a film project, in favor of War and Peace.)

Through the influence of Nazimova, and perhaps Orson Welles, Lewton was hired at RKO. In 1942, new Production Chief Charles W. Koerner, possibly to assuage criticism of the banishment of the Mercury Players, put Lewton in charge of a new production unit. Lewton had a free hand to create a series of motion pictures -- as long as they were horror films, cost no more than $150,000 apiece, and ran no more than 75 minutes. The tenth of eleven interesting films Lewton produced was THE BODY SNATCHER. Although it strayed from or stretched Koerner's commission (going two minutes over the Producer's limit), THE BODY SNATCHER stands out as one of the great films of the horror genre.

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Based on Stevenson's story, written for the screen by Philip MacDonald and Carlos Keith (Lewton), and directed by tyro Robert Wise (previous editor of CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS), THE BODY SNATCHER was shot, like the others, in about four weeks. In daylight scenes copied in costume and detail from early Scottish photographs; and night scenes influenced by German expressionism and Wise's experience with Welles, the film tells the story of dedicated, brilliant, if cocksure Surgeon Wolfe "Toddy" MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who practices and lectures in Edinburgh of the 1840's. Like many doctors of his time, some of whom began as barbers, chemists or animal handlers, Dr. MacFarlane has had a checkered career, known only to his mistress, Meg Camden (Edith Atwater), and few others.

When MacFarlane selects a promising assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), from his students, he entrusts him with the task of dealing with his body merchant, Cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff). Gray is a lonely man, strangely appealing to children, who lives alone at a livery stable with his horse and a cat. The idealistic Fettes soon learns horrors about the medical profession he had barely suspected. "My fee, as usual," says Gray. "Ten pounds, Master Fettes."

The crux of the story, and why it is such a great Horror Film, involves a pro bono operation carried out on the spine of a paralyzed little girl, Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett), by the reluctant MacFarlane. He carries out the operation perfectly, but the girl does not get better. It is rather like FRANKENSTEIN in reverse. Something in the methods of a technician who has dealt mostly with the dead seems to stymie the operation's success.

The drama is energized by a contest of wills between MacFarlane and Gray. The marginally respectable Toddy MacFarlane must have bodies as an addict must have dope, and evil John Gray is always there to urge him, blackmail him if necessary, to buy more, even after the good doctor is revolted by the practice. Daniell and Karloff are superb in scenes of adult cat and mouse. Latterly, Gray himself is blackmailed by Toddy's custodian at the school, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), who joins the contest in his own way. They become entwined to the death.

Scored to Roy Webb's traditional Scottish music, THE BODY SNATCHER overflows with economical, character driven scenes that probe the nightmare of death, blood, corruption and the mystery of the soul that haunts us all: humans struggle in shadows cast from a fireplace while a cat cringes terrified on the mantle; MacFarlane blots out the dread and ambition of his life with whisky as Gray's knowing gaze and kindly sinister voice taunts him further into Hell; a beautiful, young, blind street singer (Donna Lee) attracts Gray's professional eye; patients are splayed on operating tables to be cut open without anesthetic; the little girl's condition responds better to the ghoul Gray's encouragement than to the benefactor MacFarlane's advice.

It may seem bizarre, but this little B-Film has stayed with me more meaningfully, more hauntingly, than all the expensive special effects-festooned, expensively monstrous A-Features of the Horror genre over the last 50 years.

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Val Lewton completed one more picture for RKO (BEDLAM, Robson, 1946), making it eleven films in four years, at least half of them small masterpieces. Then, he moved on to produce one picture each at Paramount (MY OWN TRUE LOVE, Compton Bennett, 1948), MGM (PLEASE BELIEVE ME, Taurog, 1950), and Universal (APACHE DRUMS, Fregonese, 1951), but none of these approached the poorest of his RKO work. He seemed to have lost his touchstone. He needed the freedom of his models, Welles and Albert Lewin. He died in 1951, at age 47.

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THE BODY SNATCHER has its weaknesses, of course. No film done on such a meager budget, at such a brief length, can avoid them. Some scenes, and a number of the secondary and minor characters, have their bad moments. A shot of sheep herders driving sheeo in front of a castle, taken from stock footage, for instance, was obviously done in the 1930's; the men dress nothing like Scots of the 1840's. And the final sequence seems hurried.

Still, the film's virtues overpower these failings, both a result possibly of Production Chief's Koerner's miserliness. See the film, if only for the performances of Karloff and Daniell. They were never better. Which is saying a lot.

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