Produced by Val Lewton, and directed by Robert Wise (who would direct “The Sound of Music” twenty years later), “The Body Snatcher” involves a doctor and student in Edinburgh in the nineteenth century, who are involved with a grave robber who sells them cadavers for dissection. The wonderful Boris Karloff stars as the grave robber (and eventual murderer) who harasses the doctor. The doctor (Henry Daniell) is unable to do anything about this, as Gray (Karloff) has knowledge of his involvement with previous shady dealings. The student (Russell Wade) is drawn into this world, allowing his mentor’s persuasion about the necessity of furthering science to overcome his scruples. Of course, the audience can already see this is going to end badly.
I am a huge fan of Boris Karloff. I think he was a very good actor, and it was a shame that he was relegated to ‘B’ movies, especially horror. He is delightfully sinister as the creepy Gray, a cabman who uses his horse and cab to move around the city without notice and to transport bodies. His smooth and captivating voice is used here to great effect, to enhance the feeling of dread and danger when he is on the screen, as is his smug smile. He never loses his cool, and we know instinctively that this is a dangerous man. This is all thanks to Karloff’s excellent performance.
The script is literate, and the settings are as authentic as they could manage. A minor character, a blind girl who sings in the street, sings Scottish folk songs of the period. The streets are as dark as they should be, not lit up with artificial lighting as was often the case in movies of the period. This enhanced the spooky atmosphere – when the audience cannot see what is happening but know something nasty is, our imaginations work to fill in the gaps.
Lighting is very well used throughout. Karloff’s face is lit to highlight the angles and make him look even more sinister. The dark, poorly lit streets make us wonder what is going on. A brilliant scene is when the street singer walks down a street at night, singing as she goes. The cab follows, both of them disappearing into the darkness under a bridge. Suddenly the song is cut off with a small cry. There is no blood-curdling scream and certainly no blood to see. Everything is left to the viewer to imagine, and it is extremely disconcerting.
Sound is also used to enhance this atmosphere. In the same scene, the girl walks, and the only sound is her singing. Then the cab appears in the frame, and there is the clop clop of horse’s hooves added to the song. The hooves stop and the song is cut off. Silence. It is a superb moment.
Bela Lugosi is in the movie as well, though regrettably only in a small part. He does share one big scene with Karloff, when he (playing a servant of the doctor) goes to Grey to try and blackmail him. Of course, he is out of his depth. The audience knows before it happens that Grey will kill him. This scene is done without the necessity of on-screen violence. The men fight, and there are shadows jerking about in the light from the fire. A cat sits on the windowsill, frightened, its ears back as it hisses at the commotion. (Incidentally, this was the last time Lugosi and Karloff would appear together on screen. It’s just one scene but it’s a good one).
There is some unintentional humour, mostly with the actor Russell Wade. Wade did not sound anything except blatantly American, and the fact that his dialogue included words like ‘wee’, ‘aye’, ‘bonny’ etc just exacerbated this to me. The scenes in which he strolls around in a traditional tam o’shanter hat didn’t improve things. I’m not saying he was bad in the role because he wasn’t, however, the accent issue just made him stick out for all the wrong reasons.
Henry Daniell as Doctor MacFarlane was extremely good in this role. He was an actor better known for villain roles, and in this movie he impeccably plays the arrogant doctor who is not averse to a little grave-robbing as he believes that it is necessary to advance the cause of science. He tries to rationalise his actions and dealing with Grey, even when it is very obvious that the bodies being presented for sale did not die naturally or come from a grave. At the same time he is tormented by his past, full of sordid secrets known only to a few, such as Grey. And this is Grey’s power over McFarlane. Daniell was very believable as he switched between smug superiority and guilty wallowing. His deterioration during the movie is believably handled, with an excellent performance.
“The Body Snatcher” is an excellent film, dark, creepy and very enjoyable. Karloff did some of his best work in this, arguably even his very best. It covers so much ground, grave desecration, murder, blackmail, greed, pride, medical ethics. An intelligent script in the hands of a capable director and a fantastic cast, makes this so much more than a B movie. It is a very good movie, and I recommend it highly.