Friday, July 16, 2010

Film #33: The Body Snatcher (1945)

Boris Karloff wants your body.
Wait, wait, stop putting on that tube-top and heels, Buddy-Roe.
The way to get Boris’ attention is not through hot flesh – but cold.
Only in death will Karloff’s Cabman John Gray take you.

Such are Gray’s ways in this week’s black and whitey “The Body Snatcher.” Set in 1830s England, Gray has been making quite a living trading deadities for dollars. Stupid 1800’s society has pretty much banned the study of human cadavers in science and medicine, forcing medical school instructor Dr. Wolfe "Toddy" MacFarlane to procure dissection subjects from shady Gray via illegal means (which was actually a common practice in those days). How he gets his stiffs, MacFarlane doesn’t care, so long as the bodies keep bouncing into his classroom.

Gray typically prefers to dig up recently buried corpses from the local cemetery, earning 10 pounds an ass. But after a botched grave robbing riles up the natives and sends guards into the cemeteries, Gray turns to the living for his human harvest.

Meanwhile, MacFarlane’s star medical student Donald Fettes has been taken under his wing, and is plunged into the seedy swaps of money for mookies. It is all for the advancement of science, MacFarlane declares. One dead body, that is just lying around rotting anyway, can be used to educate dozens of doctors who can go on to make life better for thousands. The crime is worth the consequence!

That is the mantra, at least until the doctors discover Gray has switched from dead to fresh meat. Ahhh, but they can’t go to the authorities, oh no says ultimate creeper Gray, or else he will turn them in as well for illegal body usage. Don’t play with those bodies too long or you’ll go blind, he warns… oh, wait, that is another movie.

Meanwhile, a side plot develops revolving around a whittle crippled girl whose mother begs MacFarlane and Fettes to operate on her using a cutting edge spinal surgery. MacFarlane can’t do it without first inspecting the spinal column of a human subject… but that means calling in Gray again! D'oh, we hate him!
But that whittle girl is just so cute, come on doctor, you gots to operate!

We soon realize that Gray and MacFarlane are more than meets the eye, and actually have a long twisted history together dating back to a series of serial killings that took place in the area a few years ago. Seems there were a string of slayings in which people were being killed then turned over to medical schools. That sounds kind of familiar…

So many problems come to a head. The girl needs to walk! MacFarlane’s tiring of Gray’s threats! And poor Fettes just wants to learn medicine!
Scientific, and human, ignorance abound in the 1945 spooker “The Body Snatcher.”

RDHP Ratings and Reviews

C-Rating: 3.7
Chris Dimick digs:
“Why can’t people just learn to trust in science? Throughout human history, many of our greatest scientific thinkers have been chastised, and sometimes killed, for proposing radical theories or procedures that eventually turn out to be for the best of humanity.

At the same time though, humans are at a point in their development where we are so advanced, that cutting edge science could actually mean the end of our society. Gene splicing and cloning could destabilize the human race. Genetic engineering of food could eventually backfire and cause famine or mutated men. And let’s not even get into the whole 1950s paranoia of the Atomic Age.

Still, people probably felt the same way when they heard the theories of Copernicus, and thought a world that accepted a heliocentric solar system would lose all fear of a higher power, shed their moral tenants, and disintegrate into mass chaos. “If man is not the center of the universe, than what place do we have! My…head…is…exploding(BAM!) I’m snorting opium through my head hole till I puke, yo!”

If the doctors in The Body Snatcher could have just legally dissected human cadavers in their studies, this big mess that develops in the movie would have been avoided and plenty of people would still be buried safely in their graves. But lucky for us movie lovers, this wasn’t the case.

The Body Snatcher was one of those rare horror movies that you actually feel smarter after watching. The plot circulates around true circumstances in time, and from that realism the classic Robert Louis Stevenson’s (author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island) short story is spun onto the screen with the help of RDHP favorite Val Lewton.

Reading the above synopsis, one might think this movie would be dull. “Oh, who cares, cadavers and body snatching and history and doctors and surgery and YAWWWWWWWWWWWWN!"
But it all comes together in a very gripping way, complete with a thrilling conclusion, and even a timeless moral.

Boris Karloff once again steals the show, giving what I feel is the best performance of his career as the sarcastic, patronizing, seedy and evil Cabman John Gray. This film was produced in 1945, a long 14 years after Karloff broke onto the scene in Frankenstein, and his fame was so vast at this point that he totally could have phoned in his performance. Instead we are treated to a hideously unique character that carries the film.

This flick also features Bela Lugosi, in a tiny role as a doctor's assistant, who ends up once again battling it out with Karloff. But by this time, Lugosi’s star and skills had begun to fade, and seeing the former master mix it up with the still-sharp Karloff is actually more depressing than thrilling.

Watching doctors sneak around in order to advance science, my thoughts drifted several times to the current controversy surrounding stem cell research. Just like the feelings that used to come with dissecting human bodies, people have passed laws and raised moral outcry regarding the study of stem cells. And like cadaver research, the potential for using stem cells in medicine is stunning, with scientists claiming they could be the key to curing such horrible diseases as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer.
But, some people believe use of such cells (some of which are formed in the early stages of human embryonic development) is unethical and off limits, regardless of what good can come from their use.

I’m not going to get into it beyond that, as this is not the place to do so. But, I will say that people shouldn’t immediately shut down scientific development purely on the basis of “ethics.” Ethics are relative to the person and society, and continually change. People certainly shouldn’t come out against “science” before getting all the facts on a scientific procedure or development.
The point this movie made was clear: always weigh the positives and negatives before casting judgment on science. You never know how scientific progress will change the world for the better, and the means might just justify the ends. In other words, keep an open mind. I have a feeling in 150 years people will look back at today and laugh at the ignorance surrounding stem cells, much like we laugh at 1830s England's ban on cadaver dissection.

And then again, you never know how science may harm society.
Just look at reality TV, smart phones, and Facebook – the world may just end yet.
Damn you, science!

N-Rating: 3.5
Nick Rich digs:
"The great thing about good movies is that they're good! But for someone who dishes about them, the bad thing about them is that they're not necessarily fun to talk about. The Body Snatcher was a very enjoyable flick - the acting was great, the mood appropriately bended with the plot and the whole film was taken "straight from the headlines" ala Law & Order (a treat for a history buff such as myself)! All that said, it doesn't really make for an exciting regaling of the movie. Oh, sure, I could go on about the how the film was shot and lit and blah, blah, blah... but honestly that would bore me (and I assume you, the reader), so instead I'd much rather get to what I believe the heart of the film was: limits.

We all have our limits don't we? Whether it's waiting in line for 15 minutes only to have someone cut in front of us just as we are about to be served, being told to clean up after ourselves for the ump-teenth time, or someone asking a simple question when you've just...reached... your limit. Every character in this film was struggling with their limits, here's the breakdown:
  • Georgina Marsh (aka whittle girl): dealing with the limits of what a little girl in wheelchair could do in 1830's Great Britian; also with breaking out of those limitations once she is treated for her condition.
  • Mrs. Marsh: dealing with the limits of what medicine can do for her little girl, and with how hard she can rock a bodice in her day.
  • Street Singer (aka blind girl): dealing with the limits of, well... being a blind singer.
  • Meg Cameron (aka MacFarlane's mistress): dealing with her man being a pansy.
  • Joesph (aka Sad Bela): dealing with the limits of an un-hide-able accent and a waning career.
  • John Gray: dealing with the limits of being a creeper - which is to say the only joy he gets is out of his life is holding a powerful secret over MacFarlane.
  • Donald Fettes (aka the student): dealing with limits of his conscience over "price" of being a doctor (or so his mentor says).
  • Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (aka Toddy): dealing with the limits of his intellect, due to the laws of the society he lives in and his idea of what is right - oh and a crazy old man who won't stop badgering him.
As you can see, there are a lot of limits to deal with... but I think the limits of Dr. MacFarlane are the most interesting. As he struggles to do what he thinks is right he slowly gets pulled into the darkness... until his mantra of 'anything for medicine' breaks (along with his sanity) under the pressure of the darkness he has given himself over to to support his mantra. Poor old Toddy learned the hard way that the end doesn't always justify the means... the journey is just as important as the destination... oh, and digging up bodies always ends badly!

The Skinny: Check this flick out if you're in the mood for some history with your horror, or if you want to see a what a unicorn looks like in chains (aka Bela's performance).

Quote of the Viewing:
[A blind girl known for her vocal street performances is happily singing a song while walking down the street, unaware that John Gray and his body snatching death carriage are stalking behind her. They round a corner on the street, and suddenly the girl’s signing is silenced.]
Chris: “And that’s the day the music died, Nick.”

Things We Learned from “The Body Snatcher”
-Ten pounds is the going rate for a human life in 1831.
-Highlanders have a second sight that sees evil.
-Important actors don’t use accents.
-It is funny to tease crippled kids about horses biting them.
-Don’t sneak around like a “red skin.” It gives doctors the creeps.
-Jaw muscles are to chew our food and bite our enemies, medically speaking.
-Old school wheelchairs sucked.
-Don’t ask blind girls for directions.
-When an operation fails, best to get hammered drunk (below):

RDHP Presents:
Words of Wisdom
In honor of the mind-stirring quote at the end of The Body Snatcher (above), the RDHP would like to honor some other timeless words of wisdom...

“Never eat yellow snow.”

“Whoever said the rhyme did the crime.”
-Our Dads

“I have three rules in life.
Never play cards with a guy named after a city.
Never make love to a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her back.
And never get less than 10 hours sleep."
– Coach in Teen Wolf.

“If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine.”
–Grandpa Abe Simpson

“Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one, and they usually stink.”

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once and awhile, you might miss it.”
–Ferris Bueller

"Man who walk through airport turnstile sideways going to Bangkok."
-Fake Confucius

"I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don't have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future, for our children."

-Caitlin Upton, Miss South Carolina Teen, in response to the 2007 pageant question: "Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?"

"Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
–Yoda from Star Wars

"Have a nice day."
Forrest Gump

"Wise man never play leapfrog with unicorn."
-Fake Confucius

RDHP Ponders:
Why Won't Society Let Science Create...
Seems like “The Man” is always trying to keep science down, ya dig! We here at the RDHP can’t take it anymore, and propose the following things that society should let science create right this minute.

Dog/Cat-erpiller Hybrids
They’re both loyal and clean! Caterpillers are cat-like right? And just look at it... it's just cool! Screw ethics!

I know, we’ve all seen The Fly, but that is a risk worth taking if we can hop in our home teleporter and emerge in the Jimmy Johns line.

Donut Tacos
Oh yes, these would be good... and yes, probably fattening (spoil sport society)

Jet Packs
Walking is for lame-os. Come on science, you’ve been promising these things since the 50s. Get off your union lunch break and jet pack our asses!

You can’t show a 10 year old Nick and Chris a friggin’ hover board in Back to the Future 2 and then never develop them! I heard that Mattel actually did create hover boards, but never put them on the market because they felt kids would get hurt and sue them. Curse you society!

Life Remote Control
Who wouldn’t want to mute that crying baby on the airplane, or fast-forward through your nine hours of meetings and typing. I guess after the movie Click failed so hard, society decided to destroy every reminder of the monstrosity, including the life remote. Bring them back!

RDHP Study:
Other Roadblocks for Dr. MacFarlane
While the law regarding dissecting bodies limited Dr. MacFarlane’s ability to teach his students, as a man living in the 1830's here are some other laws that were roadblocks in his life

Illegal for Men to Cry
Sometimes we all just need a little pain water discharge… even men.

Illegal to Kiss a Woman
He tried making out with himself, but he just couldn’t stand the taste of his whiskers.

Illegal to Drink in Silence
The law of the day insisted that one belt out a song while partaking of ale, perhaps if Toddy had a few moments to reflect in silence while sipping a brandy all might have been well...

Illegal to Show Joy
Only recently legalized in Great Britain, men can now express "happiness"... not poor old Toddy.

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