William Henry Pratt, known to horror lovers as Boris Karloff, was born on November 23, 1887. He toiled for years on stage and in small film roles until being cast as The Monster in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. Karloff became an overnight success at age 44, and starred in some of the era’s most memorable fright films (The Mummy, THE BLACK CAT, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). After conquering Broadway in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (in a role tailor made for him), he triumphantly returned to Hollywood and signed a three-picture deal with producer Val Lewton at RKO. Lewton was making intelligent, subtle horror films and Karloff had taken notice. Their first together, THE BODY SNATCHER, was not only their best, but one of the genre’s best, a masterpiece’s of Lewton’s brand of quiet terror.
Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, THE BODY SNATCHER is set in 1831 Edinburgh, Scotland. Karloff plays Cabman Gray, who drives a carriage by day and robs graves by night, selling the bodies to anatomist Dr. MacFarlane. The two are old acquaintances, and Gray holds a dark secret over the doctor. He delights in torturing MacFarlane verbally, calling him by the nickname ‘Toddy’, mocking him at every turn, claiming “You’ll never be rid of me”. When we first meet Gray, he’s dropping off a crippled young girl and her mother to MacFarlane’s home. The cabman is sweet and kind to the poor child, but then we see him at night in the graveyard, smashing a barking dog’s head in as he digs up a fresh body to sell. Gray is in turn charming and chilling, not above committing murder to provide ‘specimens’ to MacFarlane, against the doctor’s wishes. This dichotomy is what sets Gray from being just a stereotypical boogeyman. It’s a fascinating performance, and of all Karloff’s roles, I think this is his best.
MacFarlane is a brilliant doctor, but cold as a mackerel. The crippled girl could be cured by an operation, but MacFarlane refuses, saying his duties at his medical school are more important. It’s only when Gray goads him into performing the operation that he consents. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the doctor, especially after we learn he was assistant to the notorious Dr. Knox, who worked with the murderous ‘resurrectionists’ Burke and Hare. Gray once took the rap for MacFarlane, and won’t for a second let him forget it. MacFarlane has an assistant of his own, the student Fettes, who’s uncomfortable with accepting bodies from the odious Gray. When a blind street singer’s body is brought in, Fettes realizes she was murdered by Gray. But Fettes signed for the body, and could now be considered an accomplice to the gruesome scheme.
THE BODY SNATCHER is also memorable as the last pairing of Karloff and fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi. While Boris became the toast of Broadway, Bela had fallen on hard times, appearing in a series of no-budget shockers at Poverty Row Monogram Studios. His role as the blackmailing Joseph was small but pivotal to the film. Gray smiles while paying the dimwitted Joseph off, then proposes they become partners in crime. My words can’t possibly do the scene justice, so here’s the last shared screen time of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi:
When MacFarlane discovers Joseph’s body in a vat of brine, he’s finally had enough. Confronting Gray at his home, the two engage in a fight in which the doctor kills the cabman. He then brings the body home and dissects it for the student’s use. He travels to another town to sell Gray’s horse and carriage, thus believing he’s finally rid of the sadistic graverobber. Fettes comes into the tavern and tells MacFarlane the little girl is now walking. The two then do their own graverobbing, and return to Edinburgh in a blinding rainstorm. But MacFarlane keeps hearing Gray’s voice mockingly calling, “Toddy….Toddy”. He hears Gray’s voice in rhythm with the clip-clop of the hoofs, :Ne-ver get rid-of me, ne-ver get rid-of me”. He stops the carriage and has Fettes get out to light a lamp. MacFarlane takes a look at the corpse and sees Gray. His scream causes the horse to wildly take off, Gray’s corpse bobbing alongside the doctor. The carriage goes off a cliff, killing MacFarlane. Fettes looks at the corpse, but sees only a dead woman. It was all in MacFarlane’s mind, Gray haunting him til the end.
THE BODY SNATCHER is an early directorial effort from Robert Wise, who went on to helm blockbusters like WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Wise never forgot his horror roots though, with the ghost stories THE HAUNTING and AUDREY ROSE also on his resume. The art and set direction evoke the time period, and Robert DeGrasse’s cinematography is dark and moody as the best noir. Roy Webb adds a haunting score peppered with Scottish folk songs. The entire crew deserves a round of applause for contributing to this eerie film.
Dr. MacFarlane is played by Henry Daniell, one of the screen’s greatest villains in films like CAMILLE, THE GREAT DICTATOR, THE SEA HAWK, and JANE EYRE. Daniell even played Professor Moriarty, matching wits with Sherlock Holmes in THE WOMAN IN GREEN. The only weak link is Russell Wade as Fettes, as bland an actor as there was. But it’s King Karloff’s performance as Gray that makes the movie, a showcase role proving he was not just another scary face, but a great actor as well. Cabman Gray stands tall in Karloff’s Rouge’s Gallery, and THE BODY SNATCHER is a film that frightens to this day. Happy birthday, Boris!