It would have been quite understandable had Boris Karloff done a “happy-dance” after seeing the script that Philip MacDonald and producer Val Lewton (under his nom-de-plume “Carlos Keith”) handed him for his upcoming film “The Body Snatcher.” Cabman John Gray was the most complex character that Karloff had been called upon to play in years. Far from being a simple menace–as Dr. Hohner, the character portrayed by Karloff in Universal’s 1944 Technicolor quasi-horror film “The Climax” had been–Gray is a man who is kind to crippled children, yet will murder a blind ballad-singer, who is gentle with his horse and his pet cat, yet will kill a small dog guarding its master’s grave without a moment’s hesitation.
The key to Gray’s personality is his relationship with Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane. On the surface, theirs is a simple business arrangement. MacFarlane needs fresh corpses for the students in his medical academy to dissect. Gray provides them at ten pounds a head. But there’s more to it than that. Gray once took the blame for MacFarlane’s crimes in dealing with the notorious body snatchers Burke and Hare. Irrevocably ruined by this, he now drives a cab and taunts the doctor at every turn as a sort of cruel sport. In a more conventional film, Gray would be a simple blackmailer bleeding his victim, but as I said, Gray in a complicated character. In the rigidly stratified world of early-19th Century Edinburgh, where even taverns are divided into rooms for gentlemen and “the commonality,” Gray is intensely aware that he is as common as dirt–just a cabbie, nothing more. Except that he can make the eminent Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane dance to his tune. As Gray explains to his victim, having just refused a handsome financial offer to leave Edinburgh forever, “My pride has need of you.” Gray may be forced to smile and grovel to others, but MacFarlane must grovel to him. This role, with its sinister charm, its sudden mood shifts from jovial to threatening, fitted Karloff and his silky voice like glove.
In fact it was such a good match that Lewton repeated it the following year in the 1946 historical drama with horror overtones “Bedlam.” Now cast as Master Sims, the director of the lunatic asylum St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, he again plays a small man who must bow and scrape to the proud and stupid “gentle-folk” who visit the asylum to be amused by the antics of his charges, but when the quality has gone and the doors are locked, then Sims can be a giant among men–the godlike master of his unhappy charges over whom he has life-and-death power. At the film’s climax, with Sims overpowered and put “on trial” by the inmates, his defense is strikingly similar to that of Gray’s. His pride had need of them; they must be bullied so that Sims could feel strong.
Pride of another sort is the downfall of Karloff’s character General Pherides in “Isle of the Dead,” the Lewton-produced film that appeared between “The Body Snatcher” and “Bedlam.” Pherides sees himself as a soldier, pure and simple. As a general, he gives orders and expects them to be carried out. But how can order away a wind-borne plague that menaces him and a party of travelers isolated on an island? As the travelers sicken and die, one by one, a witch-like servant woman who addresses him simply as “Soldier” works on his mind to convince him that the plague is the work a vampire among them. Pherides at first dismisses her old-wives tales. He is a modern man. But centuries of superstition and fear win out over the general’s veneer of modernity.
These three Lewton films gave Karloff a marvelous opportunity to display his acting chops. They were constructed more like stage-plays than “horror movies” and they provided Karloff with the meatiest film roles he would see in the 1940s–and the only ones that could compete with the work he was doing on the New York stage.