Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), a renowned and highly respected doctor in early nineteenth century Edinburgh, takes medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) under his wing when he recognises the young man's potential. The idealistic Fettes sees his role as a fledgling doctor as an opportunity to help and do good. So does MacFarlane. However, to progress medically he needs bodies for his students to experiment on and, in that era, there was one popular (all be it illegal) method to get them - grave robbing. Over the years MacFarlane has built an uneasy relationship with the dubious John Gray (Boris Karloff), a cabman who has an unsavoury sideline in procuring freshly buried bodies for those in the medical profession who are happy to ‘ask no questions’. However, when the supply of bodies becomes more difficult to sustain, Gray goes to extreme measures to keep his profitable night job going. Measures which have tragic consequences for all involved.
The film's evocation of the early 1800’s where the poor and rich lived in alien worlds separated by high gates and thick walls, is as disturbing as any modern full on, subtle-less horror, and masterfully achieved with the appearance of the occasional street beggar and trundling carriage, rustling crinoline and doffed top hat. As with most Hollywood films of the period, particularly horror and suspense, the feeling and atmosphere is highlighted by recognisable landmarks or over emphasised accents. Big Ben always looms tall out of the London smog, and in the case of The Body Snatcher we know we are in Edinburgh when a young girl wrapped in a shawl welcomes the viewer with a ballad sung in a thick highland brogue, a man in full kilt passes through the gates of a turret fortified house or the incidental strains of a Scottish melody haunt the soundtrack.
But authenticity of scenery and backdrops was always secondary with many of these films. Though they certainly looked the part, the streets of the fairytale towns along which Frankenstein's monster or the wolf-man lurked, could as easily have been in rural France, the remote German mountains or a quaint English locale. More often than not the real atmosphere came from the film makers' use of shadow, lighting and minimal sets even when, as in the case of The Body Snatcher, a period parlour or sitting room would have been better known for their overindulgence in twee trappings.
However, along with this minimalism, it was for the already mentioned psychological horror that Lewton's film's are best remembered today. The predicaments in which the characters find themselves, as with the young Fettes whose initial good intentions are slowly eroded as he becomes more deeply involved with the heinous crimes of the unscrupulous MacFarlane and his murderous associate Gray, have always been what lifted Lewton's productions above the level of B movie potboilers.
Karloff proves here, perhaps more than in any of his other films, that he required no make-up or outlandish costumes to give his characters a truly monstrous and evil air. The sneer of Gray's mouth when he makes simple statements like, "You're entirely mistaken. You'd better give me my money and make the proper entry", uttered when he is quizzed by Fettes about how he procured the latest body for dissection, is enough to make even the most stolid viewer's skin crawl.
The film also serves to highlight the difference between Karloff and Bela Lugosi (who as Dr MacFarlane's manservant Joseph, has a distinctly curtailed, walk on role). In films where he did not have to play second fiddle to the undisputed king of Hollywood horror, Lugosi was more than capable of turning in suitably disturbing performances. However as in the case of 1934's occult classic The Black Cat, and here in The Body Snatcher, he never quite manages to emerge from the shadow of Karloff (figuratively and literally as here their main scene together takes place in the flickering light cast by Gray's humble kitchen fire).
For those of you who have never experienced the malign beauty of Lewton's seminal shockers, there could be no better guide to introduce you than Karloff's Scottish grave robber. If, like me, Lewton's films are a reminder of your first forays into the the chilling heyday of Hollywood Horror, then The Body Snatcher will bring back happy memories of many sleepless nights.
The Bodysnatcher is currently on DVD re-release