The Body Snatcher


‘…a good example of a kind of horror style that we’ve lost the knack of; intelligent, thoughtful, thrilling and yet subtle in it’s intention…’

‘Good day to you, Madame Tosspot!’ is a fresh contender for best line of the year so far, uttered in Val Lewton’s robust horror film from 1945. Regular readers will know that I’ve had an ongoing obsession with Lewton’s work for a good few decades, and although he’s hardly a recognised horror brand today, it’s notable that the directors he worked with, such as Mark Robson or Robert Wise here, were making blockbusters for decades to come; something about the Lewton style rubbed off on them.

Adding a great deal of his own to Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story, The Body Snatcher takes place in Edinburgh 1831, where there’s a lot of bother due to loose laws about the use of corpses for medical experiments and research. Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is outwardly respected and respectable, but his practice hides a dependence on the cadavers supplied by walking cadaver Gray (Boris Karloff). Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is keen to learn from the doctor, but realises that the older man is being blackmailed through his association with Gray. If that sounds straightforward, there’s a little girl who needs an operation on her spine, and Gray insists that the good doctor takes on this new patient, but as the corpses pile up downstairs, it’s clear that Gray and MacFarlane are caught in a remorseless death grip with no earthly escape.

Lewton scripts here under another name, working with Phillip Macdonald, and the dialogue is unusually literate. ‘I’m sure you won’t hold me to an agreement written in grit,’ the doctor complains, and The Body Snatcher does well to convey the twisted ethics of the time. Karloff is a truly sinister presence here, and yet his character as dimensions; a villain motivated to cure a sick child is hard to argue with, and it’s to the film’s credit that the answers are not straightforward.

With a dramatic climax on a speeding coach, plus the usual Lewton musical diversions including some haunting old Scottish songs, The Body Snatcher is a good example of a kind of horror style that we’ve lost the knack of; intelligent, thoughtful, thrilling and yet subtle in it’s intention. It’s one of Lewton’s best efforts, and a great little amuse bouche for the horror season.


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    • Karloff played Jekyll and Hyde opposite Abbott & Costello in a 1953 comedy. Not A&C’s best, but as always Karloff is compelling to watch

      • I’m coming round to share the opinion of those who rate this amongst Lewton’s best. I’ll check out the Karloff, thanks, just saw Kirk Douglas in the musical version!

    • Got another couple in the pipeline…thanks for reading, and yes, Lewton is an amazing figure who still resonates even as movies change…

  1. Gotta love the oldies. I wonder if I or my parents have this one. We once bought a box full of these old horror flicks starring Karloff, but I don’t remember if this one was a part of it🤔 Either way, it sounds like a good one, and you are so right with that last remark: we have lost the knack of that 😔

    • I guess The Alienist tv show had a bit of this flavour, but it’s a lost art. This is certainly worth seeking out…

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