Almost always, horror movies and stories are invented out of whole cloth. Very rarely are horror movies and stories based on events in real life. One rare exception is the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson entitled “The Body Snatcher.” This story was inspired by the real life exploits of William Burke and William Hare who carried out a murder spree in Edinburgh, Scotland during 1827-1828. These murders were carried out so that Burke & Hare could sell the corpses to a Dr. Robert Knox who used the corpses for teaching medical students. In 1945, “The Body Snatcher” was made into a movie by producer Val Lewton.
The movie version of “The Body Snatcher” is one of those movie adaptations where the movie starts out the same as the original story, but eventually branches out in their own scenarios. In the hands of most producers this is a bad thing since most Hollywood types cannot get beyond the familiar and comfortable cookie cutter formulas that have helped Hollywood get into the creative and financial rut that it is now in. However, Val Lewton was not your typical flick producer and the result is a literate and intelligent horror film that Robert Louis Stevenson likely would have approved.
The movie begins with Dr. Wolfe ‘Toddy’ MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) fretting over the lack of cadavers that are available for both medical research and for training medical students such as his protege Donald Fettes (Russell Wade). He meets up with the sinister Cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff) and arranges for Gray to supply him with corpses that Gray presumably would obtain either by finding dead bodies on the streets before the authorities do, by breaking into the morgue, or even worse grave robbing or as it is referred to in this movie, “body snatching.” However, Gray has other ideas and embarks on a murder spree to bring the doctor the nice, fresh corpses that the doctor so desires.
John Gray turns out to be a most efficient murderer despite the fact that he is often drunk. One of the most chilling scenes in this movie involves Gray’s killing a little girl who likes to sing in the streets. The girl is shown walking down the street singing and without any cuts, Gray’s horse and coach enters the frame, slowly following the child. Suddenly, the girl’s song ends with a squeak. This is a much more moving moment than what would be the case in recently made movies where there would be multiple onscreen slashings and gore filled effects. Sometimes less is more.
The Body Snatcher is a masterfully produced horror film. It explains to the audience how changes in the law greatly reduced the number of cadavers available for medical study. This, combined with the opening of new medical schools, made the shortage acute and caused physicians to resort to illicit means such as body snatching to acquire the needed bodies. This is a genuinely creepy and well plotted flick that keeps the audience in suspense. The acting of both Daniell and Karloff add much to this movie. If you ever find The Body Snatcher at your local video store, make sure to snatch it right up.