Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.
So brace yourself, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Director: Mark Robson
Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House
After changing the face of horror since his debut feature Cat People in 1942, up through the previous year’s Karloff double Isle Of The Dead and The Body Snatcher, by 1946 it must have seemed that Val Lewton could do no wrong.
Unfortunately, as strong as it is, Bedlam would be his undoing.
Based on the William Hogarth engravings The Rake’s Progress, it would be the last of three films the producer would make with Boris Karloff and the first to lose money, and would result in him splitting with RKO Studios, with only another three films (none of them horror) for three different studios ahead of him before his untimely death in 1951 at the age of 47.
In the London of 1761, whole accompanying her patron Lord Mortimer (Billy House) to a visit to St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, young actress Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) discovers that the inmates are being put on show for the paying public by apothecary general Master George Sims (Karloff). Appalled, she first tries unsuccessfully to persuade Mortimer to do something about it, but then seeks the help of Whig politician John Wilkes to reform the conditions at the asylum.
Master Sims is not a man to be threatened though and conspires with Mortimer to commit her to Bedlam herself….
As enjoyable a film as Bedlam is (and it is enjoyable) you can see why it possibly never connected with an audience. Lewton’s films were always exercises in subtle, understated horror, but this time the horror was more low-key than ever, with the most disturbing concepts on screen being man’s inhumanity to its fellow man and how badly misunderstood mental health was in the so-called “Age of Reason”.
It’s to Lewton and Robson’s credit that their story doesn’t take the obvious route of making the “loonies” of Bedlam the cause of the horror while pretending to empathise with them (unlike the exploitative and ultimately unpleasant Freaks), instead offering a condemnation of the conditions the inmates were forced to endure, as well as the barbaric practice of using them as entertainment. Whether for amusement, thrills, scares or even the strongly hinted at sexual exploitation, people in those days were used horribly and Bedlam pulls no punches in showing it.
As the despicable asylum runner Sims, Boris Karloff again delivers a masterful performance under Lewton’s wing. He’s an odious, slippery reptile of a man, happy to commit any crime up to and including murder to maintain his grip on power and Karloff clearly relishes the role. Even when he’s not the focus of a scene he’s a poisonous presence in the background, a black, black villain who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He’s a monster, plain and simple.
Anna Lee puts in a credible shift as his opposite number, young and principled against old and corrupt, she shines in a part that could have been preachy or shrill in less capable hands, but this is very much the Karloff show.
Bedlam isn’t up on a par with previous Lewton/Karloff pairings, but it’s an interesting and engaging piece with something to say, even if it’s not the most revolutionary comment you’ll ever hear. Definitely worth investigating though, if only for another great slice of Karloff.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy