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In Edinburgh in 1831, Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane runs a medical school where Donald Fettes is a student. Fettes is interested in helping a young girl who has lost the use of her legs. He is certain that MacFarlane's surgical skills could be put to great use but he is reluctant to do so. The good Dr. MacFarlane has a secret that soon becomes all too obvious to young Fettes, who has only recently been promoted as his assistant: he has been paying a local cabbie, John Gray, to supply him with dead bodies for anatomical research. Gray constantly harasses MacFarlane and clearly has a hold over him dating to a famous trial many years before where Gray refused to identify the man for whom he was robbing graves. Fettes isn't aware of any of this but soon realizes exactly how Gray obtains the bodies they use in their anatomy classes. Written by
The scene in the pub right after it's announced that MacFarlane sold Gray's horse and buggy for a mere four pounds and the new owner is embarrassed into buying him a drink. Right after the barmaid goes to fetch him one, Fettes enters the pub to talk to the Doctor. When the barmaid returns, she has two drinks. Yet she had no indication that MacFarlane was meeting anyone, and the doctor didn't know Fettes was looking for him. See more »
Cabman John Gray:
I am a small man, a humble man. Being poor I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr McFarlane comes to my whistle, that long am I a man. If I have not that then I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a grave robber. You'll never get rid of me, Toddy.
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Opening credits prologue: In Edinburgh, in 1831- See more »
THE BODY SNATCHER who supplies fresh corpses for an Edinburgh doctor in 1831 soon adds blackmail & murder to his iniquitous deeds.
This was one of a short series of horror films in which Boris Karloff starred for producer Val Lewton, the others being ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) & BEDLAM (1946). Lewton had the knack of producing films full of atmosphere & menace on a very low budget and THE BODY SNATCHER is no exception, getting most of its chills from the wonderful acting and the literate, intelligent script - although the climax is genuinely terrifying.
Karloff is chillingly perfection in the role of the sly coachman who augments his salary with a little grave robbing. A gentle man who is kind to crippled children, yet can murder without a second thought, Karloff paints the cunning portrait of a very human monster. Every step of the way, however, he is equaled by Henry Daniell, a wonderful British character actor who never received due recognition for his skills. Playing a brilliant anatomist who feels he must continue to use Karloff's gruesome deliveries for the light they shine on solving medical problems, Daniell delivers an elegant portrayal of a deeply conflicted man who is pulled ever nearer the center of the vortex.
In a relatively small role - his last with Karloff - Bela Lugosi is memorable as a greedy servant who tries blackmail at the worst possible time. Russell Wade as a medical student and Rita Corday as a young patient's widowed mother help move the plot along, but wisely no romantic subplot is allowed to develop. Edith Atwater does very well as Daniell's housekeeper, a woman with many secrets.
Movie mavens will recognize elderly Mary Gordon, unbilled as the pathetic mother at Greyfriars graveyard.
At one time, the bodies of executed prisoners supplied the medical schools of Britain with all the corpses they could use for the purposes of dissecting & lecturing. But judicial reform nearly dried up the flow of bodies from that source, while the proliferation of new schools and anatomy theatres made the shortage acute. The medieval laws still on the books made the legal acquirement of bodies almost impossible. The ghastly vocation of body snatching thus arose to fill this void.
Body Snatchers - also referred to as grave robbers, resurrectionists, or Sack 'Em Up Boys - would haunt cemeteries by night, looking for the recently deceased to disinter. Often the caretakers in the graveyards would be in financial league with these hooligans, as well as the doctors at the medical schools. Prices paid for the bodies could be quite exorbitant, considering the risks that were taken. Leaving dogs or spring-loaded guns at the graveside were just some of the elaborate precautions taken by the friends of the deceased, who often kept vigil by the graves until enough time had passed to make the corpse no longer desirable. Eventually, it became quite difficult to count on the graveyards to furnish enough fodder for the grisly trade.
'The ruffian dogs, the hellish pair, The villain Burke, the meager Hare... Nor did they handle ax or knife To take away their victim's life... No sooner done than in the chest They crammed their lately welcome guest...'
Arriving in Edinburgh in 1827, William Burke met fellow Irishman William Hare, who was keeper of a low lodging house. Scurrilous rascals both, when an old pensioner died there in November of that year, Burke & Hare sold the body to a surgeon for 7£, 10 shillings. Delighted with this easy money, the nefarious pair soon took to hastening the deaths of their 'subjects.' At least 15 hapless victims were lured into the lodging house and smothered (so as to leave no sign of violence on their flesh), the bodies then sold to respected surgeon Robert Knox. On Halloween in 1828, suspicious neighbors summoned police and enough evidence was found to immediately arrest Burke & Hare. At the trial, Hare turned King's evidence and admitted to the murders. He was released and promptly disappeared. In his confession, Burke completely exonerated Knox of any knowledge of the killings, but the doctor was hounded by the press & public and quickly relocated to London, where he carried on a successful career. Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829. His corpse was eviscerated and his skeleton is still on display in Edinburgh.
A year after the events in the movie, the Anatomy Act of 1832 made it legal for the bodies of those dying friendless in poorhouses and hospitals to be given to local medical facilities for study and dissection.
The film incorporates the story of Greyfriars Bobby (called Robby in the movie) but makes a muddle of the facts. In reality, Bobby was a Skye terrier that refused to leave the graveside of his master, an elderly, indigent shepherd, in the graveyard at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh. Bobby stayed faithfully at his post for years and became a tremendous sentimental favorite of the city folk, before dying of old age. Today a statue near the church commemorates his memory.
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