ISLE OF THE DEAD/BEDLAM
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Boris Karloff, Ellen
Drew, Marc Cramer, Anna Lee, Billy House
Director: Mark Robson
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Bedlam commentary
Length: 151 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 2005
“Wash all you want to. You cannot wash away evil.”
What do you get when you pair up Boris Karloff, a towering icon of classic film horror, with RKO Studio's Val Lewton, one of the genre's greatest producers? You get a trio of films which deliver some of the best chills and thrills that 1940's horror has to offer. The Body Snatcher (1945) was arguably the finest of the three films, but Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) were nearly its equal, serving up deliciously atmospheric explorations into the inherent horrors of pestilence, insanity, and even warfare.
For Karloff, the new RKO contract meant the rejuvenation of a career quietly approaching its twilight. As Karloff had always considered himself a serious actor rather than just a horror film actor, the collaboration with Lewton presented the best of both worlds - an opportunity to display his thespian skills in a series of challenging roles while simultaneously appealing to his loyal fans.
For Lewton, the arrival of the new star brought a certain marquee quality to his films. Karloff's presence also guaranteed a larger budget with which to weave Lewton's intelligent tales of psychological horror. Still, Lewton was appalled at the idea of merging Karloff’s more graphic approach to horror with the producer’s more subdued brand of horror. In the end, Lewton needn’t have worried. The marriage of disparate styles worked quite well, and Karloff was thrilled with the depth of his roles. The two men quickly became good friends, and Karloff would later describe this period as among the most satisfactory in his film career.
This disc brings together Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Read on below for a synopses of these vintage RKO horror films!
1) Isle of the Dead (1945, 72 min.)
“No one may leave the island!”
RKO was a beleaguered studio by the 1940's. The horror unit, as run by Val Lewton, kept the studio financially afloat, although studio executives would have been happier had Lewton's films strived to replicate the graphic style of the Universal horror films. By signing Karloff, RKO hoped to influence the direction of future horror productions more towards a blood-and-guts approach. Did it succeed?
Well, as Isle of the Dead opens, we are immediately thrust into the midst of widespread death and carnage. The setting is Greece circa 1912 as the countryside is caught in the throes of a dreadful war. The lives of innocents are claimed daily with little remorse or due consideration from anyone. Field executions are the law for the slightest infraction. In the aftermath of one battle, the cruel and brutal General Pherides (Boris Karloff) walks amongst his exhausted troops, surveying the remnants of the battlefield. The day is won, the general victorious, and yet there is little rest for the weary.
While the dead are being buried, the general and his field reporter inspect a local island. However, they find themselves trapped in a quarantine when a case of septicemic plague breaks out among the island's small populace. To return to the troops now is to risk spreading death and contagion, rendering the general’s victory a hollow and empty one. There is no choice for the men but to remain in isolation until the disease has run its course…or until they and everyone else on the island is dead.
The general bides his time in the home of the local archaeologist Albrecht and his companion, Madame Kyra. Also in the house are St. Aubyn the British Consul from Adrianople, his invalid wife and her healthy, voluptuous nurse, Thea (Ellen Drew). They are joined by the army physician whose unfortunate fate it was to arrive in time to diagnose the plague. For the next several days, this group of strangers must await its final fate, be it life or gruesome death.
Such tense proximity can only breed suspicion and fear. Soon, a cultural divide begins to separate the strangers into factions supporting contemporary thought or the superstitions of the Old Ways. The army physician claims medical causes for the current plague, but Madame Kyra believes in the old folklore. For her, these signs are a harbinger of impending evil, a reflection of the sins committed by those who seek warfare and misery. These evils have awaken a Vorvolaka, a nightmarish spirit able to assume human form while it drains its victims of their strength and vitality until they die. Does a Vorvolaka walk now among them? How else to explain the sudden plague? How else to explain the frailty of Mrs. St. Aubyn, who suffers dreadfully from catalepsy, while her young nurse remains fit and healthy? Is the nurse's irrational desire to flee the island (and her apparent seduction of the general's dim-witted field reporter for this purpose) further indication of her true nature as a creature of evil?
Madame Kyra casts strong suspicions upon Thea, and soon her beliefs begin to sway even the stubborn general himself. Where does the truth lie? Is General Pherides correct to stand against a seemingly unholy force, or are the others correct to cling stubbornly to a contemporary rationale that pooh-poohs the very idea of supernatural forces?
In the end, the frightening and murderous climax is surely among the most gruesome of any Lewton production. Themes of premature burial, accursed sirocco winds, and even insanity abound in this film. The recurring motif of imprisonment is quite prominent in the film as well, whether it be the psychological prison that arises from belief in folk superstitions or that arises from a blind faith in modern medicine and technology.
During production of Isle of the Dead, a relapse of Karloff's chronic back problems forced a temporary hiatus. When work began again on this morbid film, the mounting production woes had wracked havoc with Lewton’s original screenplay. The release version was, in Lewton’s opinion, “a complete mess” but RKO liked the film very much, particularly as it felt much more like a Universal horror film than a Lewton film!
2) Bedlam (1946, 79 min.)
“He’s a stench in the nostrils, a sewer of ugliness, and a gutter brimming with slop.”
Bedlam was the last horror film that Lewton would produce for RKO and was based on an actual British asylum. The original institute was established in 1247 near Charring Cross in London and was used for the detainment of violently deranged citizens and promiscuous women. In 1548, the institute was given to the city of London to be used as a hospital for the insane. Thereafter the hospital would develop great notoriety for the mistreatment and starvation of its inmates. Embezzlement of funds would become common practice among the Bedlam administrators, who further supplemented the asylum’s coffers by charging a tuppence for admittance to anyone who might want to come and gawk or laugh at the inmates. Today, the word “bedlam” still evokes images of mayhem and chaos.
Along these lines, Lewton’s film Bedlam is as much a period drama as a horror film. An effective treatise on the inhumane treatment of the insane, the film was also inspired by artist William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress series of paintings, with opening credits and establishing shots in the film displaying various other Hogarth period plates, too.
Bedlam features a very strong heroine, Nell Bowen, unusual for horror films of the 1940's but common in Lewton productions. The Bowen character has been described as “horror’s first true feminist heroine.” That said, the eerie and chilling sequences set within asylum walls still provide ample opportunities for shudders, even for a strong female protagonist.
In Bedlam, Boris Karloff portrays Master Sims, the corrupt Apothecary General of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital, or more commonly, “Bedlam,” the local insane asylum. The period is London circa 1761 during the Age of Reason. Such an age has no place for the mentally insane or even the disruptive, and they are better removed discreetly from society….to Bedlam.
Financial patronage for the asylum arises partially from the local Lord Mortimer. A portent man accustomed to his comfortable lifestyle and quaint amusements, Lord Mortimer is regularly accompanied by his protégée Nell Bowen (sassy Anna Lee). She, however, is sharp-tongued and too progressive in her opinions. The troublesome woman distresses Sims greatly with her talk of reform and tender loving care for his Bedlam inmates, the same sub-humans which Sims considers mere animals to be beaten, caged, or allowed to “wallow in their own filth.” For Mistress Bowen, the all-too-regular deaths of inmates, whether from failed escape attempts, toxic exposure, or torture, are not to be tolerated!
How is Sims to silence the irksome Nell Bowen? Perhaps her compassion might be tempered with a recess of a fortnight or two amongst these same inmates. And should some great, mysterious malady befall the lady during this period, then at least she would have passed in the service of her just cause. That, at least, might placate Lord Mortimer should he begin to miss his young protégée.
So, Bedlam evolves into a deadly power struggle between the fork-tongued Sims and his holier-than-thou female adversary. Will reason and compassion win out in the end, or will the pure-hearted maiden become another victim of the horrors of Bedlam? Among the film's macabre offerings are a masque performed by the Bedlam inmates before an audience of condescending nobles and a mock trial conducted by the insane, with a jury of the insane.
These are solid transfers of mildly flawed black & white prints. The defects are age-associated ones such as minor scratches or dust specks and do not greatly distract from the viewing experience. Contrast levels are good, and the detail levels are generally sharp.
Audio ** ½
The audio tracks are monaural and adequate. Background noise is reduced but the general ambiance remains intact, preserving the gothic quality of these tracks.
Bedlam includes an enthusiastic and non-stop commentary track by Tom Weaver. The film historian provides a biography of the “Sultan of Shudders” Lewton and his film career at RKO and also delves into the career of all the main actors in Bedlam. Interspersed amongst these comments are trivial tidbits about sound clips in the film, cameo appearances by character actors or future stars, and even the Hogarth artwork on display throughout the film.
BONUS TRIVIA: On Anna Lee’s first night in Hollywood, producer David O. Selznick treated her to an exclusive screening of a rough cut of Gone with the Wind. Later, in Bedlam, Lee would wear one of the actual Scarlett O’Hara’s costumes!
These fine vintage films, both starring Boris Karloff, are not to be missed by fans of Val Lewton horror films or fans of classic Hollywood horror in general!