The Body Snatcher has half an excellent foundation. Nineteenth century medical genius Henry Daniell can’t escape his past associations with a shady cabman (Boris Karloff). These past associations being of the grave robbing variety. There’s also Daniell’s romance with his maid (Edith Atwater), which humanizes the character throughout the first half, since Daniell’s supposed to be a scary smart doctor guy.
Sadly, the film primarily focuses on Russell Wade as one of Daniell’s students. Wade is occasionally all right–and always earnest–but he’s simply not very good. Some of the problems come from Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton’s script. It’s too obvious and expository. And the story of a little girl who can’t walk (Sharyn Moffett) and her fetching mother (Rita Corday) would be annoying even if Moffett wasn’t awful. Of course Wade is taken with Corday, but the script doesn’t give them enough time. Though more time would have just made for worse scenes.
The best scenes are those with Karloff or Daniell–the ones with them together are absolutely amazing. Without Wade, and even with him to some degree, the men are alter egos, which gives Snatcher a whole lot of depth it otherwise would’ve have.
As for Wise’s direction, he often does very well. Robert De Grasse’s photography is great and the pair come up with some great ways to establish the Edinburgh setting while still shooting economically on a lot. Sometimes, however, Wise is far more overt than need be.
Snatcher should be much better.