The Curator of Schlock #296 by Jeff Shuster
The Body Snatcher
Karloff and Lugosi together again for the last time.
I didn’t know that being a body snatcher was once an up and coming profession for industrious men living in the early 1800s. It would seem that medical schools at the time were hungry for fresh human cadavers for study and dissection. You could make quite a nice chunk of change by dropping off a recently deceased person to your local biology instructor, no questions asked. I think I missed my calling.
Tonight’s movie is 1945’s The Body Snatcher from director Robert Wise. It takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1831. A young medical student named Donald Fettes (Russell Wades) is studying at a medical school run by the driven Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). One thing that I find odd about this motion picture is that some of the characters speak with Scottish accents while other speak with proper American accents. Was this a thing back in the old days? I guess if American actors couldn’t fake an accent, they just didn’t bother. Maybe the producers figured if you had enough Scottish accents, you could sneak a couple of American accents in there with no one noticing. Maybe that was the approach taken by Kevin Costner in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.
Anyway, Donald’s heart bleeds for a young widow and her paraplegic daughter. They beg Dr. Wolfe to operate on the young girl for only he has the skills to restore her mobility by fixing her spine. Dr. Wolfe says he can’t operate on every poor soul that comes to his office. He’d never get any work done. Dr. Wolfe is an instructor after all. It’s his priority to train the next generation of Doctors. Little girls who may never walk again will just have to deal.
Dr. Wolfe insists on giving his students real human cadavers to work with, but supply is scarce so he employs a nefarious individual by the name of John Gray (Boris Karloff) to procure dead bodies for him. John Gray robs fresh graves and Dr. Wolfe pays him handsomely for it. But John Gray resents Dr. Wolfe, hates the man to the core and wants to see him brought down. While Donald and Dr. Wolfe are getting hammered at the local pub, John Gray shames Dr. Wolfe into doing the surgery on the young girl. When Dr. Wolfe wakes up, he insists that he can’t be held to any promise made while inebriated. Plus, he would need a cadaver to practice spinal surgery on and they’re all out.
Donald frantically searches for John Gray, says he needs a body right away, but John Gray doesn’t want to do anymore grave robbing. It’s too risky. But he tells Donald that he’ll get him a body. Said body ends up being a street singer Donald ran into earlier that evening. She was alive and well then, but John Gray insists he was there when the woman suddenly dropped dead. Naturally, this slippery slope has turned into a free-fall. Robbing graves is one thing, but murder? There’s a point in the movie when Dr. Wolfe’s assistant Joseph (as played by Bela Lugosi) tries blackmailing John Gray only to get the life choked out of him. Some point to this movie as the beginning of the end for Lugosi’s career.
This would be the last time he and Karloff would ever perform together.