It was tough way back when, learning the doctoring business. You wanted to learn what makes us tick, but, well, it was a little tough cutting apart live folks to see the clockwork mechanism. Most didn’t take too kindly to that, complaining loudly. So, what was a young pre-M.D. to do?
Dead bodies, that was the answer. If you got them fresh enough, and had permission from everyone – authorities, family members – you were good to go. Sometimes, however, demand was greater than supply. Enter two enterprising gravediggers back in Scotland in 1828 – Burke and Hare. These enterprising lads saw a ripe business opportunity, so they went from grave digging to grave robbing to keep up with the demand. Soon, demand out-stripped supply again, so the two entrepreneurs went straight to the source and started whacking folks.
The movie that Wendy and I watched the other night, The Body Snatcher (1945), takes up a few years after Burke and Hare had their spree. Based on the short story of the same title by Robert Louis Stevenson, this is an engrossing little film, perfect for a pre-Halloween watch. At first, I wasn’t enthused about watching it as I thought there wouldn’t be enough horror in it to satisfy me, that it would mostly be mystery/police procedural; but as soon as we started watching it, we were hooked. No supernatural stuff, but the tension and suspense were there.
It’s mainly from the perspective of a young, would-be doctor, a good man, a likeable man (Donald Fettes), played perfectly by Russell Wade, a mostly B-movie actor, but a very capable B actor who, after WWII, went into business for himself. Shame, too. I really liked him.
Donald is learning the sawbones trade from Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), a doctor who spends all his time teaching, very little doctoring. Daniell plays MacFarlane as upper-crust, arrogant, and a bit sad, as we soon learn that he’s dealing with the devil, played oh-so wonderfully evil and malicious by Boris Karloff. Okay, Karloff’s character, Cabman John Gray, isn’t truly the devil, though he may as well be, as he has a choke-hold on MacFarlane’s soul.
Everyone does a terrific job in this film, Mr. Karloff in particular. The way he smiles at MacFarlane at times is just a thing of dark beauty – a smile that looks on the surface so warm and friendly yet carries such oil and ooze that my skin crawled.
This is a story of want, greed, desire, and what any of us would do to get what we want. It’s a tale of conflict, and we as the viewers feel the ol’ hangman’s noose tighten around our necks, and we squirm in our seats as we watch the spider engulfing the fly and the young fly-to-be. The direction is skillful by the immensely talented Robert Wise, who brought to the screen such classics as West Side Story (1961), The Haunting (1963), and The Andromeda Strain (1971). Someone else could have taken this story and it would’ve just laid flat, no feeling or suspense at all. But this master director put us in each of our major players’ shoes.
It’s a fictional story that takes its cue from the real events of Burke and Hare as MacFarlane and Gray began their business relationship when both were young men and MacFarlane served as Dr. Knox’s student and assistant. Dr. Knox was the real doctor involved in the Burke/Hare incidents. Gray began supplying bodies, for pay, for the young Dr. MacFarlane, and now, the soon-to-be Dr. Fettes finds himself in the same position MacFarlane had been years earlier. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Worse, actually. A Jedi hopeful. But would be become Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker?
Further complicating matters is the case of a young paralyzed girl. Her mother has sought the help of Dr. MacFarlane as he is the one person who can perform an operation that could help the girl walk again. MacFarlane refuses for a variety of reasons. Fettes keeps pushing him to perform the operation.
Almost forgot to mention. Mr. Karloff’s old acting partner has a small role, too – Bela Lugosi, who plays Dr. MacFarlane’s assistant, Joseph. No hunchbacked sneering underling here, the Joseph character is a minor one, but important for several reasons.
Edith Atwater played Dr. MacFarlane’s wife (and there’s a great sub-plot to watch there) with a beautiful Scottish accent. She brought a certain intensity to the role. Ms. Atwater was a talented actress on TV and the Big Screen, but never quite got that big break. I thought she fit her part perfectly here.
This is an excellent film. And it gets back to one of my favorite questions. Is it a horror movie? There are no ghoulies or goblins. But there are some downright feelings of horror. Once again, I come back to my position that some of the best movies are without genre. This is a character study, a drama of the highest order. Some classify it as horror, and that’s fine. But horror or not, this is a must-see. You won’t be disappointed.
‘til next time… Adios.