For a low-budget, B movie horror quickie, The Body Snatcher holds up remarkably well as a tightly-told, well-acted story. The horror is in the situation, not the actors' make-up or the staggering around of corpses. Corpses there are, but they're freshly dug up, and their purpose is not to grasp and choke, but to be dissected by a complex and morally ambiguous surgeon.
Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is a brilliant surgeon and teacher in 1831 Edinburgh. He is on the verge of medical breakthroughs involving the spine and the spinal cord. For his work, he needs fresh corpses to dissect for his research. John Gray (Boris Karloff), a cabman, provides those corpses for a price. Gray digs up the freshly interred and delivers them to MacFarlane's laboratory in the basement of the doctor's home. If the pickings are thin, Gray will also create a corpse by applying tightly his hand and finger's over a person's nose and mouth. MacFarlane, who is doing genuinely valuable work, doesn't want to know the details. And it seems Gray also has something to hold over MacFarlane. Only two or three years previously, the body snatching work of Burke and Hare had been discovered. Gray kept MacFarlane's use of the bodies a secret. While MacFarlane may be the verge of a break-through, he is repulsed by his need for Gray and by Gray's increasing familiarity. Gray enjoys his power over MacFarlane and pushes his familiarity to the limit. MacFarlane eventually forces a showdown. The climax is a clattering, rolling carriage ride through driving rain, with MacFarlane whipping the horses on, half-mad, and collapsed beside him is the pale, shuddering corpse of...well, see the movie.
For a low-budget film, the movie looks authentic as well as atmospheric. The wet, cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh gleam in the moonlight, the coal fires in the drawing-room grates cast shadows. Night scenes can cover many shortcuts, and there are a lot of night scenes in The Body Snatcher, but what we can see looks like quality.
The movie is really a duel, as director Robert Wise has said, between the two lead characters. Henry Daniell (in one of the best roles he ever had) and Boris Karloff pull off the trick of combining distaste, arrogance and mutual need. Daniell was a major character actor specializing almost exclusively in condescending or villainous types. He unfortunately, perhaps, had the kind of face that, when relaxed, just looked disdainful. With his deepset eyes and thin, mean-spirited line of a mouth, he was instantly recognizable. But he also was an excellent professional actor. When he had occasion to smile genuinely, rare in the parts he played, he could look quite warm. Karloff matches Daniell in the acting. John Gray is no monster. He is a man of great resentments who enjoys having the great Dr. MacFarlane under his thumb. He kills, but once in awhile seems to regret having to do so. He can also move quickly from false subservience to lethal violence.