In 1831 Edinburgh, Cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff) delivers a paralyzed little girl and her mother to the office of Dr. Wolfe "Toddy" MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). A body snatcher by night, Gray has a special hold over the doctor, who has lost his clinical nerve and hides in the teaching of anatomy. The earnest medical student, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), is on the verge of abandoning medicine, but MacFarlane notices his good bedside skills with the little girl, makes him his special assistant, and initiates him into the business of grave-robbing. His wife (Edith Atwater) is opposed to this action, complaining that the student will be "ruined."

Fettes is unaware that Gray and MacFarlane narrowly missed conviction for murder in the Burke and Hare affair of 1823. Obsessed with helping the child, Fettes begs Gray to find a subject on which they can practice spinal surgery. Gray complies by "burke-ing" (murdering) a well-known street singer. MacFarlane forces Fettes to remain silent and they begin their research, but they are overheard by the servant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), who then tries to blackmail Gray only to be "burked" himself.

The child's operation does not supply immediate results and in a fit of frustration MacFarlane murders Gray as he cries: "you'll never be rid of me." Buoyed up by the news that the child has finally begun to walk and mostly to prove to himself that he does not need Gray, MacFarlane robs a fresh grave.

On the return journey from the cemetery in a driving night rain, MacFarlane is tormented by Gray's last words; the elderly woman's corpse changes into the partially animate body of Gray. The doctor loses control, his horse breaks loose, and the carriage plunges down a bank where Fettes finds the doctor dead beside the woman's corpse.


An interesting, but not particularly horrifying horror film that pairs for the last time two great actors of the genre: Karloff and Lugosi. The justification for grave robbing is clear: if laws would only allow dissection, then cures might be discovered to prevent the untimely deaths of those whose graves must be robbed.

The singer's demise is a memorable scene: stark, black, her warbling abruptly hushed. The repeated allusions to blackmail and MacFarlane's dreadful clinical manner are overdone, but the strain of his guilt is credible, while the ambivalence of wholesome Fettes, played with all the ingenue of a young Jimmy Stewart, evokes an era fraught with dilemmas that medical students no longer face. This film reminds us that ambivalence over the peculiar role of dissection in medicine was still a subject of ghoulish fascination in the mid-twentieth century.


Based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Primary Source

RKO Collection, Turner Home Video, 1991