After House of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff was sick of his most famous role. He called that movie a “monster clambake,” as it included Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, The Wolf Man and a hunchback. The film was a success, yet he decided not to renew his contract with Universal. He signed for three films with RKO — the other two are Isle of the Dead and Bedlam — and referred to producer Val Lewton as “the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”
Shot concurrently with Isle of the Dead Lewton worked as producer on both films and as the screenwriter* on this, as well. An adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher, Lewton and Philip MacDonald expanded the story and made references to 1828’s West Port Murders.
Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell, The Philadelphia Story) is a famous teaching doctor, one so busy that he turns down a woman (Rita Corday) who needs an operation that will allow her daughter (Sharyn Moffett) to walk.
Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is his best student, but one who can no longer afford classes. The doctor extends the offer of being an assistant, but this brings Fettes into the dark world of the resurrection man.
That title comes from a time when Edinburgh was the leading European city for anatomical study. The demand for cadavers to experiment upon was far more than the supply, as the law stated that medical research corpses could only be from who had died in prison, suicide victims or orphans. The resurrection men were, to take the title of this movie, body snatchers who illegally took bodies from fresh graves.
The body snatcher of this movie is John Gray, a cab driver in public but a taker of corpses in secret. He’s been the secret behind MacFarlane’s success and he even uses their secret to force the doctor to operate on the little girl. The operation isn’t a success and even when he tries to drink away his failure, Gray is there to remind him that he owns him. How the doctor attempts to escape forms the dramatic center of this film.
Bela Lugosi has a small role here as one of the doctor’s assistants. As he had just signed an RKO deal, it only made sense to have him appear one more time with Karloff. This would be their last movie together.
It was directed by Robert Wise, who would later make The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and The Haunting. He had been an editor at RKO and replaced Gunther von Fritsch,the original director on The Curse of the Cat People, when it went past schedule.
*Lewton wrote under the pen name Carlos Keith.