As if Edinburgh were not scary enough, The Body Snatcher depicts the dark and deceitful world of grave robbing. A literal body snatcher, John Gray (Boris Karloff) treats himself to the freshly buried corpses, turning a profit here or there when he finds the mettle necessary to hand them in to the highest bidder. Who can blame him? The economy was tough back then, maybe as tough as it is now. He spins a few quid here or there eliciting immoral acts, digging up the dead and flogging them to the nearest doctor. How very Victorian of Gray to do so. But it is more than light treachery, The Body Snatcher depicts a man in the throes of complete psychosis, hacking away at buried bodies.
Karloff portrayed monsters, both man-made and naturally bred. Here, he opts for the latter. His immediate impressions are of creepy cunning. We can see from his deep-set eyes and old-hat Victorian connotations to his vocabulary. He is villainous, but sporting. The Body Snatcher from the first act to final moments has that stuffy English aesthetic to it. Even with thick American accents cutting through this adaptation of the West Port murders, it is surprising how well the Yankee cast and director Robert Wise adapt to the cold and relentless streets of Scotland. A ghastly figure that taunts and mocks Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), the star student under the wing of Dr. Wolfe Macfarlane (Henry Daniell).
But that relationship between Fettes and Macfarlane is secondary to the horror Karloff elicits. It is not through shown action, but through stark and dark technical merits. The singing nun whose tune comes to an abrupt end as Gray rounds the corner. Wise directs those moments with an unmoving camera, and relies solely on the horror of what we can no longer hear. True to the horror genre, there is something rather terrifying about this craftsmanship. It blurs impressive, technical merits with the fear of a cold-blooded murderer selling souls to desperate doctors. Underlying horror is pertinent here, and there is a great example to be made of how this is adapted to the narrative. Horror is an ever-innovative concept, and there are moments within The Body Snatcher that give off glimmering surprises of sublime, confident scares.
Thoroughly entertaining, Wise adapts the Burke and Hare murders with a loose grasp. Loose enough to allow fictional, interesting admittance, but firm enough to move the story along with a clear end goal in sight. His characters reference the murders as if they were horrid examples of why grave robbing is wrong and how it can lead to disaster. The Body Snatcher is good at that, and with the foreboding presence of Karloff always lingering around a corner or in the shadows, there is a true, grim understanding of what makes horror so delicate. It is not the presentation of murder that is so discomforting, but the implication and impact of it. Why see the horrors of a bludgeoning or beating when we can hear Karloff twist the knife with words? The Body Snatcher shines bright and fast, needing that little push more to provide the true fears of its text.