The Body Snatcher (film)

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The Body Snatcher
theatrical poster
Directed by Robert Wise
Produced by Val Lewton
Screenplay by Philip MacDonald
Val Lewton
Story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Starring Boris Karloff
Bela Lugosi
Henry Daniell
Edith Atwater
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Robert De Grasse
Edited by J.R. Whittredge
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
May 25, 1945 (1945-05-25)
Running time
77 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Body Snatcher is a 1945 horror film directed by Robert Wise based on the short story The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson. The film's producer Val Lewton helped adapt the story for the screen, writing under the pen name of "Carlos Keith". The film was marketed with the tagline The screen's last word in shock sensation! The frequent mentions of Burke, Hare, and Dr. Knox, all refer to the West Port murders in 1828.

It was the last film to feature both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.[1][2]


The year is 1831 in Edinburgh. A mother stands in mourning over her son's grave. A medical student, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), reassures her that her son's body is secure in its final resting place.

Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) visits the house of Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). She is seeking a cure for her daughter Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), who is a paraplegic. Dr. MacFarlane calls upon Fettes, who is one of his students, to examine the girl. MacFarlane suggests surgery for the girl but he cannot perform the operation himself because his teaching position disallows the practice of medicine. Mrs. Marsh is devastated by his refusal.

Later that night, Fettes confesses to the doctor that he is forced to give up his medical studies because of lack of funds. The doctor offers Fettes a job as a lab assistant to help with an experiment he is planning. The doctor also confides to Fettes that not every cadaver that is dissected by him or the students comes directly from the local morgue.

Fettes is awakened in the middle of the night by a loud pounding on the door. It is John Gray (Boris Karloff), a local cab driver by day and resurrectionist by night, who has arrived to deliver another corpse to the doctor. It is the body of a young boy.

The next day, Fettes is strolling near the cemetery when he sees the same woman whom he met earlier. The woman is carrying the body of the pet dog that had been watching over her son's grave. Fettes feels remorse and regrets his involvement in the procurement of cadavers. He gives a letter of resignation to MacFarlane, but the doctor refuses to accept it. The doctor claims that experimenting on human specimens is utterly necessary for the progress of medical science.

MacFarlane and Fettes go to the local inn, where they meet John Gray, who taunts MacFarlane. Fettes mentions the case of Georgina Marsh. Gray mocks the doctor for not performing the surgery, implying that he lacks the skill to do it. Gray threatens to expose MacFarlane's "dark secret" if he doesn't perform the surgery. The doctor surrenders to the pressure.

MacFarlane later tries to renege on his promise to perform the surgery, claiming that he lacks an adequate spinal specimen to use for practice. Fettes then asks Gray to get another human specimen for the doctor. While visiting Gray, Fettes gives a coin to a blind street singer (Donna Lee). He is shocked when Gray arrives later at the lab with a corpse that resembles the singer.

Fettes shows MacFarlane the body and accuses Gray of murder. The conversation is overheard by Joseph (Bela Lugosi), the doctor's other assistant. MacFarlane tells Fettes that he could be arrested as an accomplice and advises him not to notify the police.

Georgina recovers from the surgery, but she is still unable to walk. MacFarlane is tortured by his failure. He goes to the inn to console himself with drink. Gray torments the doctor about their "secret".

Joseph visits Gray and attempts to blackmail him, demanding money for his silence about the body snatching operation. Gray tells Joseph the story of Burke and Hare, two infamous murderers who were convicted for procuring bodies for Dr. Knox, MacFarlane's mentor and predecessor. Burke would ultimately be hanged for the crimes. Hare had turned King's evidence and walked away. When Gray is finished telling his tale, he lunges and strangles Joseph. Later. he delivers the body to MacFarlane's lab as a "gift". MacFarlane angrily confronts Gray. Meg Camden (Edith Atwater), MacFarlane's housekeeper and secret wife, recalls that Gray admitted robbing graves during the Burke and Hare trial to shield the real perpetrator, MacFarlane. Meg warns Fettes, telling him to leave town immediately, before he becomes another MacFarlane.

MacFarlane offers Gray money to stop tormenting him and to dissolve their association. Gray refuses to take the money and vows that the doctor will never be rid of him as long as he lives. MacFarlane attacks Gray and the two men struggle. The doctor beats Gray to death.

Fettes meets with Mrs. Marsh and Georgina. As Fettes and Mrs. Marsh discuss their disappointment at the result of Georgina's operation, the girl hears horses nearby and stands up to see them; the operation was a success after all. Fettes rushes to tell MacFarlane the good news, but Meg tells him that the doctor has gone to another town to sell Gray's horse and carriage.

Fettes finds MacFarlane at a tavern in that town. The doctor tells Fettes that he plans to rob a freshly dug grave. Fettes sees no alternative than to assist the doctor. During a terrible storm that night, they commit the deed. They load the unearthed corpse onto Gray's carriage.

As they drive through the storm, MacFarlane believes he hears the voice of Gray taunting him from the back of the carriage. He stops the carriage and orders Fettes to check the body. When he uncovers the body and shines a light on it, MacFarlane sees Gray's corpse. The horses, spooked by the storm, bolt. The carriage breaks loose and falls over a cliff with MacFarlane and the corpse. Fettes looks down at the wreck and sees the dead body of MacFarlane. Next to him lies the corpse of a woman.[3]



The Body Snatcher was one of three films that Boris Karloff did with RKO Radio Pictures from 1945 to 1946, which were produced by Val Lewton. The other two films were Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Karloff, who had achieved stardom with Frankenstein, left Universal Pictures, feeling that the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff called House of Frankenstein (the last installment of the Frankenstein franchise) a "'monster clambake,' with everything thrown in: Frankenstein, Dracula, a hunchback, and a 'man-beast' that howled in the night. It was too much. Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so.

In the same interview, Karloff stated that Lewton was "the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul."

The production of the film took place around the same time as Isle of the Dead with Lewton having a role as a screenwriter in both films. Lewton, along with British screenwriter Philip MacDonald, adapted the short story The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson. Lewton wrote under the pen name "Carlos Keith". Bela Lugosi, who became famous with another Universal classic, Dracula, also signed a deal with RKO. Lewton and MacDonald eventually wrote a small role for Lugosi; it became the last film Lugosi and Karloff made together.

Robert Wise (best known for his work in The Set-Up, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, was assigned to direct the film.


Principal photography of The Body Snatcher ran October 25-November 17, 1944. During filming, there was tension between Lewton and executive producer Jack L. Gross. Gross sent Lewton into production of the film with a low budget. [4]

Karloff enjoyed playing the role of Gray, particularly because he could do some genuine acting without the use of heavy makeup, electrodes, and platform shoes.


The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

DVD release[edit]

The film was released for the first time on Region 1 DVD in 2005, along with I Walked with a Zombie, as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mank, Lugosi and Karloff, p. 516
  2. ^ Jacobs, More Than a Monster, pp. 300–304
  3. ^ Hanson, AFI Catalog, p. 270.
  4. ^ Keenan, Richard C. (2007). "The Films of Robert Wise". Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0810858855. 
  5. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-20. 


  • Hanson, Patricia King, ed. (1971). AFI Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-52021-521-4. 
  • Jacobs, Stephen (2011). Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster. Tomahawk Press. pp. 300–304. ISBN 978-0-95576-704-3. 
  • Mank, Gregory (2009). Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: the expanded story of a haunting collaboration, with a complete filmography of their films together. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-3480-0. 

External links[edit]