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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
A later Val Lewton film, from his costume picture period, The Body Snatcher, from a Robert Louis Stevenson story, directed by Robert Wise, is a fine if somewhat moralistic and sentimental horror tale. It lacks the alogical, almost surreal qualities of Lewton's earlier movies, where much is left unexplained, even inexplicable, and a great deal happens off-screen; and even then one can't be sure of what really occurred, as events are often related anecdotally, or merely suggested. In his first few horror exercises Lewton cared as much for gentility as fright, often basing his stories on legends and superstitions, as much of their power came from the vagueness of reality, and the capacity our imaginations have for creating and even shaping our experiences.
By the time The Body Snatcher came around Lewton was moving somewhat closer to mainstream horror. Legends still matter, and the feeling of the dead hand of the past on the present as a Lewton theme is very much alive. In this film it is the notorious case of the grave-robbing Burke and Hare of 19th century Edinburgh, and their effect on a distinguished physician who has continued to do business with one of their former confederates. As the decent-minded but less than morally fastidious doctor, Henry Daniell is outstanding, and surprisingly sympathetic; and he has here perhaps his longest and most sustained role in a movie. He certainly has more screen time than in any other picture I've seen him in. Top-billed Boris Karloff gives Dr. Daniell more than a run for his money as the grave robbing, yet intelligent, observant and not altogether evil cab-man Gray. Karloff's performance is physical as much as anything else, as he uses his body here more eloquently than in any other part outside the Frankenstein series. He knows how and where to stand in relation to others, managing, as always, to look taller than he really is. With his big hat, scarf and long coat, he seems to have walked out of a Dickens novel. Karloff's performance reminds me of how much acting has as much to do with body language as anything else; and that there is a degree of posing,--not fakery--but standing still and letting a character project from the way an actor holds himself as from speech or facial expression.
The movie itself falls just a bit short of being great by it less than brilliant script and the enforced sentimentality of the subplot about a crippled girl. I agree that this was a good idea, and could have made the film all the more powerful, but the scenes around her are stilted, and the actress who plays the girl is none too convincing. It was a good try, though, and almost works, especially in her last scene, but the writing and staging were a little off. I can't help but respect Lewton and Wise's intentions, but they overreached themselves, and I feel bad about it. The climax in the carriage with the corpse, however, and the ghostly repetition of "never get rid of me!" is still impressive, and saves the film in the end.
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