Val Lewton scared Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger so much that he was afraid to get up from the couch—for a good ten seconds or so.
Karloff. Lewton. Twice the terror!
The RKO logo gives me warm fuzzies because I associate it with great, but obscure, film noirs (that are often good because they're so bad). So when I heard about this guy Val (no relation to Val Kilmer, I assume) and his cerebral, moody horror flicks made under the RKO banner, I was intrigued. Would his films employ the same visceral chiaroscuro that gives me chills in even mediocre noirs? Could this B-movie director pull me into a fantastic world of horror, touch something deep in the back of my mind that would send me scurrying for the covers? He's got two shots: Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.
Isle of the Dead gives us Boris Karloff as General Nikolas "The Watchdog" Pherides, one of Greece's fiercest, least sympathetic military men. He takes a break from shelling villagers to visit his wife's island grave with war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer, The Adventures of Don Coyote). While on the island, the pair comes across the lively house of the cemetery keeper and a gaggle of quirky houseguests. Among them is Thea (Ellen Drew, Man in the Saddle), who is whispered to be a Vuldrini (wait, that's Ghostbusters). Anyway, she supposedly kills people, and people start dying on the island. It might be the plague. It might also be this vampire chick, Thea, so the General talks about killing her. But he never really does; instead, he mumbles a lot and waves his arms wildly whenever Thea walks into the room. Then a nice lady gets buried alive, people run around, and the end credits roll.
It may not be in my best interest to admit this, but I'd had a rather large beer before sitting down to Isle of the Dead (a 750 of Duvel, if anyone is curious, and it was great). I admit this in the interest of full disclosure, so that Val Lewton enthusiasts can decry me as a drunken heretic before ripping me in two. Perhaps it was the beer that dulled my senses so, clouded my vision, and sent me into a stupor. Perhaps, but I think it was the movie.
Isle of the Dead spent its 72-minute run time looking for something scary to spook us with, and came up with some folderol about a woman in a crypt at about the 168-minute mark. Is it about man's inhumanity toward man? The subversive power of suspicion and fear? The primitive desire to hold onto tradition? I'm not sure, and I don't get the feeling that Isle of the Dead is either. The script was constantly setting up horrific scenarios, only to discard them a couple of scenes later.
More damning is my niggling suspicion that Isle of the Dead was attempting to create a cloistered atmosphere of forced isolation, a stifling island quarantine that was driving people mad. If that is indeed what Val was shooting for, he missed the mark by a wide margin. The prisoners are too blithe about their situation: No one really seems to mind being cooped up all that much. Blocking emphasizes their forced proximity, but the sets don't properly convey isolation. Many a film has created more tension out of much less raw material.
But the weakest link in Isle of the Dead's paper chain is the characters. I don't know whether listless acting begat uninteresting characters or vice versa. All I know is there wasn't a compelling character in the lot, and that includes Karloff's General Pherides. Karloff gets points for his restrained take on the material, and his face is as expressive as ever, but he simply wasn't as gripping as I'd hoped. That goes double for his supporting cast, who as a group failed to create much spark. Ellen Drew is bland even in a can't-miss role, the misunderstood hottie on an island full of trapped, suspicious, lustful men. I only watched this film yesterday, and I'm struggling to recall a memorable look or turn of phrase from her (this from a guy who could find the contents of the fridge sensual in the right light).
Speaking of the right light, Isle of the Dead didn't use it. There were two modes: dingy grayscale and extreme darkness. Most of the would-be scary scenes were shot in such a dark key that I couldn't tell what was happening. There were exceptions to the rule, such as the fantastically lit opening sequence in the general's tent. Otherwise, Val seemed to think that the mere image of a black screen with three highlit bricks would send us into convulsions of fear.
In the end, I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to be scared of boogiemen or appalled at humanity. I didn't know whether the film was creating a surrealistic fantasy world or was firmly set in reality. As it stands, Isle of the Dead is an ill-formed slog through a garden of little seeds that might have blossomed into horror had they been nurtured. Even one of the microthemes could have been something worthwhile—but none of them got their day in the sun.
With my introduction to Val Lewton out of the way, it was time to tackle Bedlam, though I held little hope. With Isle of the Dead, Boris had shown me why he was considered a perennial B-movie actor (granted, a wildly successful one). Val had proven to be dingy mirrors and small puffs of smoke. I grabbed the Duvel just in case and gave Bedlam a spin.
Hark, what light through yon screen breaks? Could Bedlam be an honest-to-goodness B-movie treasure? Indeed.
Bedlam takes us (unsurprisingly, given the title) into the asylum of Bedlam, administered by Master George Sims. In contrast to his stupor in Isle of the Dead, Karloff is immediately ominous as the grimy apothecary general. He's like a smarter Grima Wormtongue, a man who is just obsequious enough to fit in with nobility. Unlike General Nikolas, Master George Sims radiates a real sense of malice and cunning.
His foil is well played by Anna Lee, who crafts Nell Bowen into one of the most dominating female characters I've seen on the silver screen. Like Master Sims, Nell comes from humble roots and seeks an easy life at the elbow of nobility. Unlike Sims, she is staunchly individualistic, retaining pride and a willingness to leave the easy life if it compromises her scruples. Anna Lee lives the role, carries herself with strength and grace, and spouts dense, scornful dialogue fluidly. She also conveys compassion and uncertainty through understated eye movements. Between Karloff, Lee, and keenly observant supporting actors, the acting in Bedlam is superior all around.
Most of these characters thrive because their dialogue sings. Each word tells something about the man or woman portrayed, from the no-nonsense clipped speech of politicians to the smarmy wheedlings of Master Sims. I started to write down the lines that struck me, but gave up because there were so many. Yet this gem from Nell must be mentioned:
"My heart is a flint, sir—it may strike sparks, but they are not warm enough to burn. I have no time to make a show of loving kindness before my fellow men—not in this life. I've too much laughing to do."
Like Isle of the Dead, Bedlam opens with a dot of pure white writhing against darkness. Isle of the Dead's opening shot was of white lather coating the grimy hands of General Pherides as he washed them. The sickening contrast of grime against foamy suds was perhaps the most effective shot in the film. Bedlam presents us with a white-shirted man scaling the walls along the top story of Bedlam. His pristinely clad form struggles in vain against the cold blackness of the asylum, as though the people inside are lambs and the asylum is the real lunatic. Unlike Isle of the Dead, Bedlam follows its opening with a stream of dramatic lighting, rich visual texture, and fine composition. Interior shots of Bedlam are accentuated by steeply angled shafts of light and shadow, as though the place itself is off kilter. The crane shot used to show us Nell's initial reaction to the place is dramatic and disturbing. The sets are artistic, like moving paintings, which was in fact the goal: Bedlam is based on a Hogarth print. Hogarth was referenced for most of the sets, causing commentator Tom Weaver to remark that Hogarth was the art designer for the film. Bedlam is a visual feast. (Incidentally, Weaver's commentary is brisk, lively, well researched, and keenly perceptive about the visual, conceptual, and performance aspects of the film. It is well worth a listen.)
Most of all, I appreciate Bedlam over Isle of the Dead because it has a clear direction that is executed firmly. There's no question of superstition or paranormal activity; Bedlam is firmly rooted in the horrors of humanity. The costumes, sets, speech, and props convey 18th-century England with authority, and the actors are composed enough about the period aspect to sell it. Rarely has a film been so convincing, taken me so completely into a past era.
For all of its strengths, Bedlam is not what it could have been. I'll wager that ninety percent of its subdued impact is the work of the censors. Certain themes, such as rape, torture, and trepanation, are merely whispered instead of directly addressed. This discretion gives Bedlam modest charm, but it could have been a masterpiece of psychological terror and brutality had the narrative been more explicit. Even without the benefits of our modern ratings approach, however, Bedlam rustles up plenty of tension and fear.
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Scales of Justice, Isle Of The Dead
Perp Profile, Isle Of The Dead
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Isle Of The Dead
Scales of Justice, Bedlam
Perp Profile, Bedlam
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Bedlam
• Commentary by Film Historian Tom Weaver
Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.