Released 25 May 1945, The Body Snatcher was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 short story of the same name. It was the first of three films Boris Karloff did with RKO Radio Pictures after leaving Universal, and the final film in which he co-starred with Béla Lugosi.
Though Karloff continued doing horror pictures, he felt the Frankenstein’s Monster franchise had run out of steam, and didn’t want to be involved with it in any capacity any longer, even though he no longer played the Monster in these films. He lauded RKO producer Val Lewton as “the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”
In 1831 Edinburgh, cabman John Gray (Karloff) drops Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) and her young daughter Georgina (Sharyn Moffett, now 84 years old) off at the home of the esteemed Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Little Georgina was paralysed after a carriage rolled on top of her, an accident which took the life of her father. She seemed to be recovering at first, but then her condition worsened.
Mrs. Marsh says all the other doctors recommended Dr. MacFarlane very highly, and feels he’s their final hope. The consultation doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, since Georgina can’t even tell him where exactly it hurts, but everything changes when Dr. MacFarlane’s student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) comes in.
Georgina immediately warms to him, and lets him pick her up and put her on a table in another room. Without even trying, Fettes gets all the preliminary information needed. He calls Dr. MacFarlane in to take a look at the bony tumour at the base of Georgina’s spine, and surgery is suggested.
Dr. MacFarlane bears no ill will towards the Marshes, but begs off performing surgery. He’s far too busy with his teaching duties, and isn’t sure if he’s still as good of a physician as he is a med school teacher. If he operated on all the desperate people who come to him, he’d have no time to teach.
After the Marshes leave, Fettes announces he’s quitting med school because he hasn’t enough funds. Dr. MacFarlane, loath to lose one of his best students, offers him a paid position as a lab assistant for a very important research project.
At night, Gray arrives with a fresh corpse for Dr. MacFarlane’s anatomy class, and tells Fettes to unlock a desk where the money is kept. His fee for this service is £10. Fettes doesn’t think too much of it until he discovers just where this body came from.
Fettes is horrified to discover the body was the victim of grave robbery, and that the young man’s loyal little dog was murdered while standing watch over his lost master. He understands the importance of human vivisection for teaching med students, but doesn’t feel it’s right to obtain the bodies by robbing graves.
Mrs. Marsh returns to beg Fettes for Dr. MacFarlane to operate on Georgina. Initially Dr. MacFarlane agrees, but soon walks back to his fear of no longer being a good enough surgeon and better-suited to the classroom.
Gray and Fettes manage to convince Dr. MacFarlane to do the operation. Fettes appeals to his humanitarian side, while Gray reminds him there’s a dark secret in his past. It would be a shame if that secret were revealed.
Not realizing what kind of trouble he’s about to wade into, Fettes asks Gray to get another body for anatomy class. He assumes Gray will dig up a grave, but instead is delivered the fresh corpse of someone who was alive and healthy just that night.
When Fettes shares his suspicions with Dr. MacFarlane, he’s told he might be arrested as an accomplice to murder if he reports Gray to the cops.
Georgina’s operation appears to be a success, but she doesn’t think she can stand up and walk. Dr. MacFarlane did everything right, but Georgina insists it’s impossible. As someone who couldn’t walk for eleven months following my car accident, I know all too well that powerful mind-body connection.
Dr. MacFarlane goes to the local tavern to drink away his disappointment, and Gray once again taunts him about that dark secret from his past.
Then Dr. MacFarlane’s servant Joseph (Lugosi) pays a visit to Gray and attempts to blackmail him, which sets in motion a thick and fast parade of horrors.