Edinburgh, 1831 and there's a little girl, Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett) who has been paralysed from the waist down for a number of months, and she is visiting the city's medical academy, taken there by her mother (Rita Corday) who believes the establishment's chief surgeon, Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) will be able to restore the girl's ability to walk. They are brought there by a cabman, Mr Gray (Boris Karloff), who is very kind to the child - but if only they knew what he and the doctor schemed, as they both collude in the criminal practice of body snatching.
This film marked the last time that Karloff and Bela Lugosi, partners in chills for nearly ten productions, would work together, and thereafter if Karloff was ever asked about his erstwhile co-star he would only say "Poor, poor Bela," and refuse to be drawn any further on the subject. Certainly Lugosi didn't get much of a role here, despite being second billed, though his last scene with the leading man was one of their best as Gray conspires to murder Lugosi's dim assistant Joseph, a stark example of how corrupt the soul of Gray has become. But really the collaboration to savour here was between Karloff and Daniell.
Gray makes it plain that he believes he and MacFarlane are closely linked thanks to the little business that he carries out for the doctor, something the medical man resists, recoiling in disgust that they need each other far more than he could ever be willing to admit. And yet, neither are entirely evil, as the script points out that they are both capable of decency: seeing how Gray treats little Georgina so well makes his killing of the Greyfriars Bobby type of dog shortly after to get at the corpse in the fresh grave all the more brutal. And while she recognises that MacFarlane contains darkness within his character, he does think he is pursuing a course of good.
Not only by teaching his students how to save lives and cure their patients, but by performing surgery himself, though he takes some persuading to return to the operating table. He does eventually carry out the procedure on the girl in a wince-inducing scene when you know there was no anaesthetic being used (she passes out, thankfully), but even then the child refuses to walk, as if MacFarlane has to make a grand sacrifice before light can return to the dark streets of Scotland's capital (not that anyone in the cast tries the accent). Needless to say this is richly atmospheric, although being based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story, itself inspired by the true life Burke and Hare murders, some were wont at the time to criticise this for being too stuffy and literary.
Certainly for producer Val Lewton, here creating a run of classic horrors in the forties, he was aiming high and rewrote the script to reflect his ambiguous attitude towards morality in his characters, but watching it now there's so much to relish about this low budget work that it's hard to see what the problems people had with it were. Karloff in particular offers a career best performance, not bad at all considering how excellent he could be, but here his silky villain has an insinuating quality that really gets under the skin, not only of MacFarlane but of the viewer as well. Robert Wise, too, earning one of his first directing assignments after graduating from editing was obviously very capable in creating precisely what Lewton had ordered, with such scenes as the beggar girl's death, the reaction of the cat to another murder, and the most famous part where a corpse appears to come to life, all vivid and justly winning The Body Snatcher its classic reputation. Music by Roy Webb.