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Film / The Body Snatcher

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Dr. MacFarlane: What is Gray to me? He's a man from whom I buy what I need when I need it. The rest is forgotten.
Meg Camden: You may deny him, Toddy, but you'll not rid yourself of him by saying the devil's dead.

Loosely based on the short story of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson (which you can read here for comparison), The Body Snatcher is a 1945 horror film directed by Robert Wise, and produced by Val Lewton. It is notable for being the last film to have both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together.

Set in Scotland in 1831, the story opens up on an aspiring young man, Donald Fettes, who is training to be a doctor under one Dr. Wolfe "Toddy" MacFarlane. However, Dr. MacFarlane's dirty secret is he has hired a cabman, John Gray, to dig up bodies as specimens for dissection. Soon, the doctor starts to get blackmailed by his worker, who in turn began murdering to provide fresher bodies.

Lugosi, despite being billed second, has a fairly minor role as Joseph, the doctor's dimwitted servant. This was one of the last halfway decent acting parts for Lugosi, whose career by this time was on a long slide that ended with Ed Wood movies.

Karloff, on the other hand, gives one of the finest performances of his career.

Not to be confused with the sci-fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The film has the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Villainy: In the original short story, Gray was just a rude and obnoxious man who fell victim to the Villain Protagonists and returned as a ghost at the end to scare them. Here, he's a fully-fledged villain who's part of the body snatching/murder scheme.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The film ends with both Gray and MacFarlane dead as Fettes walks off into the distance, but it's left unclear whether he will continue his training as a doctor or go down a different path.
  • Arc Words: "You'll never get rid of me, Toddy."
  • Artistic License – Medicine: Somehow, Georgina's tumor was originally caused by a carriage accident.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Joseph thinks that he'll be able to get easy money by blackmailing Gray. He gets smothered by him.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Gray often wears this until someone rankles him and the mask comes off.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Georgina has a tumor that is compressing her spinal nerves and causing her paralysis. MacFarlane says the word "tumor" but never says "cancer".
  • Driven to Madness: MacFarlane starts stealing bodies himself after Gray's death and suffers a Villainous Breakdown shortly afterwards.
  • Dr. Jerk: MacFarlane is a highly respected doctor, but he's also arrogant, emotionally distant, and has terrible bedside manner, in contrast to his more compassionate student Fettes.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Subverted with Gray's first scene, where he comes across as deeply charming, treating an ill girl with great kindness. In his next scene, however, he sheds his facade with a big, almost literal Kick the Dog moment.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Gray comes of as charming and polite, but beneath his pleasant demeanor, he's a vile grave robber and an unrepentant murderer.
  • For Science!: MacFarlane justifies his body snatching by claiming that it will help advance medical science and thus save more lives in the future.
  • Grave Robbing: MacFarlane pays Gray to deliver corpses stolen from cemeteries to him for medical studies.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: After Joseph comes to Gray and attempts to blackmail him with his knowledge of Gray's crimes, Gray says "You came here of your own accord?" After Joseph admits that he came of his own accord and no one knows he came there, Gray kills him.
  • Jerk Ass Has A Point: Gray calls MacFarlane out on his terrible bedside manner, as well as his hypocrisy in wanting the bodies but not wanting to know where they come from.
  • Kick the Dog: Gray actually kills one before kicking it aside to dig up its master's body. His character morale goes downhill from there.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: The street singer's song is cut off mid-lyric when Gray kills her in order to get another body for MacFarlane.
  • Madness Mantra: After MacFarlane has killed Gray and resorted to stealing corpses himself, Gray's words "You'll never get rid of me" start echoing in his head.
    "NEVER get rid of me! NEVER get rid of me! NEVER get rid of me!"
  • Married to the Job: MacFarlane, according to his mistress.
  • Motive Rant: Gray gives one explaining why he won't accept MacFarlane's offer to permanently buy his silence, explaining that it's not the money he loves, or the things he can compel the doctor to do: it's the feeling of power itself. Without it, he's just a coachman and a grave robber, but if he has power over a gentleman, he's somebody.
  • Mugging the Monster: Joseph tries to blackmail Gray, which doesn't end well for him.
  • Nice Guy: Donald Fettes is friendly and compassionate, which is why Georgina prefers him as her doctor over MacFarlane.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed:
    • Robby, the dog that sticks around at his master's grave in Greyfriars Cemetery, is very clearly modeled on a real dog called Greyfriars Bobby.
    • Overlapping with Expy Coexistence, it's clear that MacFarlane is based on Dr. Robert Knox, while Gray is a one-man version of William Burke and William Hare. All three of these people are mentioned in the film: MacFarlane is said to have trained under Knox, and Gray was apparently a witness in the Burke and Hare trial.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: There is nary a Scots accent to be found. Gets especially ridiculous when Meg points out to Fettes that he's a Lowlander, not a Highlander like her, even though both of them have spoken in American accents the entire movie.
  • Pet the Dog: Subverted when Gray forces MacFarlane to operate on a paralyzed girl he earlier refused to help, as it's made clear that he doesn't actually care about her — he just enjoys seeing MacFarlane bend to his will. He also thoughtfully provides 'Toddy' with the body of a murdered blind girl for practice.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Gray's cat, Brother, whom he picks up and strokes in a few sinister scenes.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: Gray's murder of Joseph is shown in shadows, as his cat watches.
  • Shovel Strike: Gray kills a dog that's barking at him when he goes to a graveyard to do his trade.
  • Signature Sound Effect: The white horse's clip-clops.
  • Sound-Only Death: The street singer's death is signified by a sudden silence when Gray reaches her.
  • They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: MacFarlane hates being called "Toddy" by Gray, but doesn't seem to mind it when Meg calls him that. Presumably, it's Gray's familiar tone he resents.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Joseph plans to blackmail Gray whom he knows is a murderer. Gray is easily able to get Joseph drunk when he goes to Gray's place alone, then smothers Joseph when he's too sloshed to fight back.
  • Villain Ball: Gray had several chances to kill MacFarlane during their fight, but Gray kept sparing MacFarlane instead. This just leads to MacFarlane escaping from Gray and beating him to death.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: MacFarlane's Motive Rant would indicate he's so devoted to his job (and advancing medical science) that he sees nothing wrong with stealing corpses. How much of this is sincere and how much simply self-justification is open to debate.