Based on a Robert Louis Stevenson tale, this Victorian-era horror movie stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. While Karloff has most of the fun as a grave robber-turned-murderer, John Gray, Lugosi’s Joseph just kind of helps out around the corpses.
Gray’s client, so to speak, is Dr.MacFarlane (Henry Danielle) who, with assistant Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), develops quite an appetite for cadavers (the fresher the better) for their medical research. Also stuck in this mess are Meg Cameron (Edith Atwater, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), and her daughter, Georgina Marsh (Sharon Moffett).
We begin in 1831 Edinburgh. Gray’s leaving a child client of MacFarlane’s at his office. Mrs. and Georgina Marsh are there to discuss the girl’s paralysis. MacFarlane’s exasperated, as the girl won’t readily reveal where her back pain originates; Fettes has better bedside manner, and he looks to her. A tumor, if removed, might cure her.
Unfortunately, MacFarlane’s not available to do the surgery. Fettes wants to bug-out of doctoring, but MacFarlane makes him an offer he can’t refuse–he’s promoted from student to assistant. Now we meet Joseph; and Fettes is clued in on the medical school cadavers’ origins. Hop to the first graveyard scene.
Fettes awakens to find Gray returning from that hallowed spot. Snooping, he ends up helping Gray with the corpse. Gray explains his “humble position.” (Such a leer Gray has on his lantern-jawed face.) Mrs. Marsh calls on Fettes–pretty much begging for him to intercede for her daughter. “Life can’t be all skittles and ladies” suggests MacFarlane, knowing his assistant’s been chatting her up.
For the second time, Fettes threatens to quit MacFarlane. It seems Gray killed the dog that was interfering with his grave-robbing job. In the street a blind beggar sings. The two medical guys go into the pub–eek! there’s Gray. Seems that ‘Toddy’ (MacFarlane) has a past. It’s Fettes chance to sneak in his above-board topic, the poor little paralyzed girl, Georgina.
Now we get a clue to MacFarlane’s issue, thanks, ironically, to Gray. The doctor, it seems, had botched up some operations. This explains why he no longer will take a chance–bad luck for Georgina. We can surmise, however, the Fettes will ultimately be the miracle-worker. “Since when have you [Gray] become the protector of little children?!”
Anyway, MacFarlane grudgingly agrees to perform surgery on Georgina. Gray’s blackmail worked; maybe Gray is a tad altruistic…Meg looks in on MacFarlane later; she thinks he’ll be rid of Gray, he’s not so sure. When Fettes comes in, MacFarlane, not unexpectedly, backs out of his agreement to operate. The quaint nice touch–the street singer–is once again propped up; Fettes inquires of Gray’s whereabouts.
He finds the cabman. Gray’s fake soliticitousness is pervasive. Here’s the problem: they need a ‘subject,’ directly. To help the spinal research; Gray hems and haws. But once Fettes leaves, we see the germ of a plan: he’s going to abduct and kill the singer for the needed ‘subject.’ In a quick effective scene, we see his cab approach her–then her singing abruptly stops. She’s in the hopper.
Well, here’s Gray with his cab fare, so to speak “It’s impossible she could be dead” comments Fettes, astounded. Not so impossible, it seems. He’s not mollified to learn how nonchalant MacFarlane is about the ‘delivery.’ “Grave-robbing is one thing; murder is something else!” Ah, whatever! who’s prowling around downstairs but Joseph.
Upstairs, Georgina’s surgery is on. What’s interesting is that the undoubtedly beneficial aspects of the story are aided by the infamously evil elements; we under that the surgery would not be as easy without a donor spine for practice. Not the least of MacFarlane’s worries is that old fool Gray: “Do you think you’re getting rid of me, Toddy?” Have we seen the last of Gray? Doubt it.
Georgina isn’t exactly down with the post-op. MacFarlane is so confrontational that she won’t even try to walk. What! Didn’t we know that the problem was fundamentally psychological? That’s going to be Fettes’s thing. Oddly, MacFarlane confers with Gray about the enigmatic results of the surgery. “You can’t put life together the way you build blocks, Toddy.” Gray’s right.
Gray all of a sudden is a cunning genius–a more holistic sort of medical man, anyway. Ah, now it comes out: Gray took the fall for MacFarlane’s earlier misdeeds. Now it’s Joseph who comes calling on Gray. “Give me money, or I tell the police that you kill subjects” Smart, but Joseph shouldn’t accept a drink from the ghoul. “Drink up, man!” He wants Joseph to throw in with him.
That is to say: in the manner of the infamous Dr. Knox, who was in a similar business. Inevitably, Gray throttles and suffocates poor Joseph. But, who’s gonna want his body? Out on the street with his cab and cargo, Gray takes the corpse to a handy indoor cesspool or some such. Gray comes calling on MacFarlane. He going to ‘gift’ him Joseph; it’s doubling down on the blackmail now, can’t look a gift corpse in the mouth, y’know.
For the third time, Fettes gives notice, but he’s an accessory by now. Meg tries to talk him into leaving nonetheless. “MacFarlane is to Knox what he [Fettes] was to him.” Turning the tables, MacFarlane shows up at Gray’s. Obviously, to tell the ghoul off. The essence of this meeting is a proposal to Gray (“the crawling graveyard rat”)–a bribe. Strangely, Gray passes up that for his current stealthy position;as the one who can finger a gentleman.
A fight ensues. As expected, the gentleman loses. Or does he?! MacFarlane was playing possum. A nice second phase to the fight, seen only in shadows. So we don’t see until the next scene that it’s MacFarlane who’s won. He tells Meg of his disposal plans for the body.
Back to the subplot. Here we are at the bridge, symbolic perhaps of changes in life. Then, the semi-mythical white horse at last passes underneath–the one that she longs to see. Motivated and unhindered, she rises up to see it. Cured!
Meg tells the jubilant Fettes where to find MacFarlane. He’s hanging out in a pub; just who’s just basically gives away Gray’s cab. MacFarlane, somewhat superstitiously, notes that Georgina got well as soon as Gray was put right.
He figures to set out to the graveyard with Fettes in tow. Oh, this is quite nice! They duly dig up a corpse, and, as they haven’t use of the cab, they have to set the corpse between them in their carriage. We hear two things, the dark and stormy night, and “Todddy!…. You’ll never get rid of me !” Gray’s voice…on a loop tape, as it were.
Thinking that the corpse is a dead woman’s, they discover, it’s…Gray. The horse bolts, and MacFarlane ends up on a literal death ride with Gray’s unattractive bod. Superb climax. When Fettes gets down to the scene of the wreck, MacFarlane’s dead, and the corpse is a woman after all.
The Body Snatchers is very much of a piece. The atmosphere absorbs the viewer with its grim, period-correct setting. Oddly, MacFarlane, for all of his off-putting manner and nefarious acts, is one of those reform-minded progressive Victorians that somehow fits naturally into what’s essentially a gothic horror story.
Karloff really steals the show–and not just the bodies. This is black humor at its wickedest; clearly, he’s the dominant personality, and almost seems indestructible. The other performances are fine too, especially Danielle’s; he’s got a Christopher Lee-esque suave dastardly look. At first it seems the Georgina subplot might be a distraction; instead it’s a breeze of quiet drama in what is otherwise nonstop horror.
These characters have plenty of nuance (even Gray has a a flicker of enlightened thought). Nothing’s really out of place; if anything, with a minimum of settings and characters, the elements care conjured up for maximum effect. For example, we can we’ll see the makings of something in which the widowed Mrs. Marsh mates up with Fettes; this remains implicit, though. And wisely so, as a thorough romance would be an unnecessary appendage to the plot.
Very entertaining. Interest builds throughout, and The Body Snatchers is capped off by a great ending. 9/10.