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The Body Snatcher

USA 1945
produced by
Val Lewton, Jack J. Gross (executive) for RKO
directed by Robert Wise
starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday, Sharyn Moffett, Donna Lee, Mary Gordon, Jim Moran, Robert Clarke, Carl Kent, Bill Williams, Milton Kibbee, Larry Wheat, Aina Constant
screenplay by Philip MacDonald, Carlos Keith (= Val Lewton), based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, music by Roy Webb

review by
Mike Haberfelner

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Little Georgina (Sharyn Moffett) is paralyzed due to an accident, and she has only one goal in life, to see that beautiful white horse of the nice cabman, Gray (Boris Karloff), again, who drove her and her mother (Rita Corday) to Dr. McFarlane (Henry Daniell), the only doctor who might be able to cure the girl. But he knows what's wrong with her, knows what to do, but refuses to do the surgery, insisting his duty's in teaching now, much to the dismay of Georgina's mum, his own assistant Fetis (Russell Wade), and even cabman Gray. You need to know here, Gray has some power over McFarlane: Not only does he provide him with a regular flow of corpses he snatches from the local cemetary - a capital crime at the time, but absolutely necessary for the advancement of medicine -, he also holds a dark secret of McFarlane's past, one that links both their stories to legendary body snatchers Burke and Hare. So when Gray leans in on McFarlane a bit, he agrees to take on Georgina's case - but soon finds he lacks fresh spinal fluid that would be absolutely necessary for the surgery ... something that Fetis drops in Gray's presence, and Gray is quick to murder a street singer (Donna Lee) and deliver her corpse to McFarlane. Fetis is appalled about this, but McFarlane himself is quick to make excuses for Gray.

The surgery on Georgina is a theoretical success, but she lacks the will to stand up and walk - which throws McFarlane into a deep depression. Meanwhile, McFarlane's manservant Joseph (Bela Lugosi) has grown wise to Gray's killing the street singer, so he tries to blackmail Gray - but Gray just kills him, then delivers the body to McFarlane. This throws McFarlane into a rage, and he kills Gray, who before croaking still has time to curse McFarlane with the words "You'll never get rid of me." Oddly enough, when McFarlane takes Gray's horse to the market to sell, this triggers something in Georgina, and she finally jumps up to just see the horse. Fetis, present when that occurs, dashes to tell McFarlane the good news - which gives McFarlane new impetus to teach surgery, and since there has been a funeral only today, he and Fetis dash to dig up the body - but on their way back, McFarlane loses it, believing the corpse in his coach with him to be Gray, and ultimately the resulting fear causes him to have a fatal accident.

 

A very nice piece of slowburn horror that wisely chooses atmosphere over spectacle - except for the finale mayhaps, but that still feels like a proper pay-off for the story - and proper storytelling over scare tactics. And it's on the story level where The Body Snatcher really excels, too, as it refuses to divide the characters into good and evil, and gives all of them an ambiguous side, as while McFarlane and Fetis are both of the "the end justifies the need" variety when it comes to bodysnatching and ultimately even murder, Gray's an irresponsible brute with a heart of gold, as not only does he force McFarlane to operate on Georgina, he - posthumously through his horse - is also the catalyst for the girl to walk again. And it's that lack of proper hero and villain that makes this film so interesting and really sucks one into the story, in a "what would I do?"-sort of way. And of course, an slick yet moody directorial effort, and a top notch cast - only Bela Lugosi, in his final team-up with Boris Karloff, is wasted in a secondary role - make this a very strong piece of vintage horror that really holds up even today.

 

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review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

is all of that.

 

Tales to Chill
Your Bones to
-
a collection of short stories and mini-plays
ranging from the horrific to the darkly humourous,
from the post-apocalyptic
to the weirdly romantic,
tales that will give you a chill and maybe a chuckle, all thought up by
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Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

the new anthology by
Michael Haberfelner

 

Out now from
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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
... and for the life of it,
you can't decide
WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD