May 25, 1945
Robert Louis Stevenson (story), Philip McDonald and Val Lewton
Boris Karloff as John Gray
Bela Lugosi as Joseph (assistant to Dr. McFarlane)
Henry Daniel as Dr. Toddy McFarlane
Russell Wade as Donald Fettes
Predating The Exorcist by 27 years, it stars horror sensations of the 1930s – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Like many films of the era, The Body Snatcher, is based on a Victorian work of fiction – in this case Robert Louis Stevenson’s story by the same name. The setting is Edinburgh, Scotland. The renowned Dr. McFarlane runs a small medical school, where he teaches human anatomy through dissection of corpses. Yet in order to obtain enough corpses, McFarlane must purchase them from Mr. Gray (Karloff), often through Donald Fettes, a student who serves as an intermediary. Gray digs up the recently deceased and occasionally engages in more extreme measures to get the doctor what he needs. His relationship with McFarlane is complicated and in the end, the audience is not left with an allegiance towards either one, but sympathizes with Fettes, hoping his involvement in illicit activities does not corrupt him further.
Unlike the monster films of the time, The Body Snatcher terrorizes audiences through the actions of individuals. Hence, the most disturbing aspect of the film for movie goers would be to ponder that the stranger on the street, or the one sitting next to them in the theater could be just as capable of despicable acts, as the Wolfman, or the Mummy. Even when it threatens to become supernatural, after the last grave robbery, it maintains firm rooting in the limits of human thought and action. Although on-screen depictions of gore were still taboo, the movie contains the first on-screen murder, which does not spare the audience an intimate look at the struggle. This scene is no doubt the gratuitous ‘sensationalism’ that shocked critics. Although bloodless, it is unflinching and if the photography was updated would be worthy of any modern horror movie. This action, combined with a gloomy mood, eerie plot and well-maintained suspense create a classical horror gem.
So, if you would like to take a trip back through time and watch horror legends of the silver screen lay the groundwork for all that was yet to come, this one is for you.