BODY SNATCHER, THE(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: Philip MacDonald/Val Lewton/based on the Short Story by Robert Louis Stevenson; cinematographer: Robert de Grasse; editor: J. R. Whittredge; music: C. Bakaleinikoff; cast: Henry Daniell (Dr. MacFarlane), Boris Karloff (John Gray), Bela Lugosi (Joseph), Russell Wade (Donald Fettes), Edith Atwater (Meg Camden), Rita Corday (Mrs. Marsh), Sharyn Moffett (Georgina), Donna Lee (Street Singer); Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Val Lewton; RKO; 1945)
“Too stuck on being literate to be a great movie, nevertheless The Body Snatcher has suspense, a creepiness, a fluidity and a credibility that bodes well for its storytelling.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A fine adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story that’s scripted by Val Lewton and Philip MacDonald. Robert Wise (“Star!”/”The Sound of Music”/”The Hindenburg”) does a good job in keeping the macabre story restrained and catching the eerie atmosphere of 19th-century Edinburgh, Scotland. There are horse-drawn carriages, cobble-stone streets, Scottish street singers and dark foreboding streets in this tale about grave-robbers. It’s set in 1831.
The young attractive widow Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) brings her paralyzed daughter Georgina (Sharyn Moffett) for an operation to the renown medical teacher Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Dr. MacFarlane’s student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) has a good bedside manner that makes the sensitive girl relax and agree to the examination, after MacFarlane scares her. Because the operation is risky and the doctor doesn’t have time to take off from teaching his medical students, he disappoints Mrs. Marsh by not doing the new procedure. But the persuasive Mrs. Marsh gets the kind-hearted Donald to ask his boss again and MacFarlane agrees when pressured by a threatening cabbie named John Gray (Boris Karloff), who can involve the famed doctor with the long ago Edinburgh incident where Burke and Hare, two infamous murderers, were hanged for procuring bodies for MacFarlane’s mentor Dr. Knox. In the meantime, Donald, after telling MacFarlane he is too poor to continue his medical studies, gets promoted to assist MacFarlane and is granted a stipend so he can stay on; but Donald has second thoughts when he learns that MacFarlane regularly buys corpses illegally dug up from the grave by the frightening horse carriage-driver John Gray to use as specimens in his lessons because there’s no legal way to get the needed corpses for research.
Things get sticky when bodies are in short supply and the sadistic Gray resorts to murder, and the innocent Donald is drawn into these unpleasant activities and learns how MacFarlane can’t escape from Gray’s bullying presence. There’s also a classic confrontation when Joseph (Bela Lugosi), Dr. MacFarlane’s slimy handyman, tries to blackmail Gray.
Too stuck on being literate to be a great movie, nevertheless The Body Snatcher has suspense, a creepiness, a fluidity and a credibility that bodes well for its storytelling.
REVIEWED ON 7/22/2008 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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