Monday, 26 October 2009

Horror by the Decade: Val Lewton's Bedlam

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the third post in this series, featuring a movie from the Forties).

When it comes to horror movie producers, perhaps no name is as respected as Val Lewton. From 1942 to 1946 Lewton produced some of the greatest horror movies of all time at RKO. Even then he became known for his trademark use of  the suggestion of horror rather than rather than more obvious scenes of horror. Such films he made as Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim would come to be regarded as classics of the genre. Ironically, his masterwork would also be his least financially successful film at RKO, Bedlam.

Before he went to work for RKO, Val Lewton had arranged the scenes of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities and served as a story editor on both Gone With the Wind and Rebecca. Initially at RKO Lewton had nearly complete artistic freedom and reported directly to  Charles Koerner, the head of the studio. After the films  The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, and Curse of the Cat People did not fare as well as his first three movies, Jack J. Gross was appointed by RKO as executive producer to supervise Lewton. Gross hired Boris Karloff, then identified very strongly with the Universal horror movies, to star in Val Lewton's next few movies. While Lewton was initially unhappy with the hiring of Karloff, the two became friends and made three films together. The Body Snatcher (based on the Robert Louis Stevenson short story) and Isle of the Dead would prove to be two of Lewton's best films. It would be their third film together, Bedlam that would prove to be the best film Lewton and Karloff made together, arguably, Lewton's masterpiece.

Initially entitled Chamber of Horrors: A Tale of Bedlam, the title was eventually shortened to Bedlam. Like The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead, Bedlam was a period piece. Unlike Val Lewton's earlier horror movies, Bedlam contains no supernatural elements, instead relying on horror created by the inhumane treatment that man can dole out to his fellow man. Bedlam was based on the final prints in 18th century painter William Hogarth's series A Rake's Progress. These final prints were entitlied "Bedlam" and dealt with conditions at Bethlem Royal Hospital (better known as "Bedlam"). From the 17th century into the 18th century, Bedlam was notorious for brutal treatment often dealt to its patients (then simply called "lunatics").

As might be expected, Bedlam is set in a fictionalised version of Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1761. Anna Lee played the lead character, Nell Rowen. It was after Nell attended a performance by  the patients of Saint Mary's of Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane that one of the inmates died, leading her to campaign for better treatment of the hospital's patients. Unfortunately, Nell found a powerful opponent in the form of the asylum's apothecary general, Master Sims (played by Boris Karloff). Even worse, Nell's opponents eventually have her committed to the very mental hospital she is trying to improve, where she is entirely at the mercy of the corrupt Master Sims. Although marketed as a horror movie (and having no shortage of horror), Bedlam  is as much a historical drama about mental illness and the historically poor conditions at Bethlem Royal Hospital as it is a horror movie. In fact Boris Karloff even said of Bedlam, "It is not a horror picture, it is a historical picture."

It is difficult to argue with the great Boris Karloff, as to a large degree he is right. Master Sims himself was very loosely based on Dr. John Monro, Physician of Bethlem Hospital.from 1752 to 1783. Bedlam is also accurate in its portrayal of the inhumane treatment of mentally ill patients in the 18th century. It was a time when it was not unusual for patients to be chained, fed through the bars of their cells, forced to sleep naked on beds of straw, and even whipped. Even at a time when psychiatric treatment included such practices as bleeding,  induced vomiting, and purging the bowels, Bedlam was considered unusually harsh in its treatment of its patients. Sadly, Bedlam was fairly accurate in its potrayal of Bethlem Royal Hospital. Indeed, its portrayal of the hospital may have been much milder than what actually happened there.

Although it had a bigger budget than any other film Val Lewton made at RKO, Bedlam still had what would be considered a low budget even then. Fortunately, Lewton was able to make the film look like it cost much more than it really did  by using properties previously used on other films. The moive's art directors and set designers recycled and "renovated" the church from The Bells of St. Mary's for use as Saint Mary's of Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane in the film. For a Quaker council room, they reused a dining room set that had been used in several of Edgar Kennedy's comedy shorts. Even some of Anna Lee's costumes had been previously used on other films. The green velvet riding habit which Lee wore at one point in the film had originally been the dress which Scarlet O'Hara made from curtains in Gone With the Wind. A ball gown which Lee wore in the film had originally been worn by Hedy Lamarr in Experiment Perilous (ironically directed by Lewton veteran Jacques Tourneur). Even some of the sound effects had originated in other films. The scream emitted by an inmate falling at the start of the film had originally been the scream of one of the sailors in King Kong!

Bedlam was well received by critics upon its released on May 10, 1946. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther said of Bedlam, "This is a production several cuts above the average run so-called horror films." The Motion Picture Herald wrote of the movie, " will make itself remembered as a powerful use of the camera to tell a story of importance." Bedlam was praised in a way that few horror movies at the time was. Unfortunately, it did not receive as a warm a reception from audiences. Even as the motion picture was in production, the cycle towards horror movies in the Forties that had begun with Universal's Son of Frankenstein had come to an end. Even though Bedlam was not purely a horror movie, it was advertised as such. As a result viewers tended to ignore the film.  Here I must point out a common misconception regarding Bedlam. The film was never banned in the United Kingdom. Instead, RKO never submitted it to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). As a result it was not released in  UK. Over the years it was aired on British television a few times, but it would not be submitted to the BBFC until 1998. Then it was given a PG certificate with no cuts to the film.

Regardless, Bedlam and the other films he made with Lewton would provide a boost to Boris Karloff's career. After he finished Bedlam, Boris Karloff was cast in three big budget, major motion pictures: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Lured, and Unconquered. 

Bedlam benefits from a well written script by Val Lewton and director Mark Robson. The screenplay works on several levels, as a historical drama, as a social conscience film, and as a horror movie. As a historical drama Bedlam features a wealth of period detail, capturing the look and feel of 18th Century London perfectly. As a social conscience film it also works quite well, making a strong argument for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. And although Boris Karloff argued that Bedlam was a historical movie, it works very well as a horror movie as well. In one scene Nell is placed in a cell with a convicted murderer. In another scene Hannay (Richard Fraser), a stonemason, sneaks into Bedlam. As he walks down the corridor of the most violent patients' quarters, several hands reach out to try to grab him. As a film that is at once a historical drama, a social message film, and a horror movie, Bedlam is a very literate film. While many over the years have claimed that Bedlam is a bit too talky, I have to disagree. Its dialogue is literate, lively, and even at times witty. Indeed, it has some of the most quotable lines of any of Lewton's films.

Bedlam also benefits from very strong performances from its leads.Boris Karloff also delivers a strong performance, making Master Sims one of the most memorable characters from any of his films.  Anna Lee gave a very fine performance as Nell Rowen,  the actress who goes from decadent to social crusader. Nell Rowen ultimately emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters to appear in one of Lewton's films. Nell was an unusuallystrong heroine for a horror movie made in the Forties. She is even a strong heroine for a Val Lewton film, whose films usually featured several strong female characters over the years. In the end, Nell could easily be considered the forerunner of such more recent horror heroines as Laurie Strode in Halloween, Ripley in Alien, and Kirsty in Hellraiser.

Bedlam would be the last film that Val Lewton would make for RKO. Lewton had long wanted to make big budget feature films and was given the chance to do so by RKO, being placed in charge of Woman on the Beach to be directed by Jean Renoir. Sadly,  a heart attack would prevent him from ever working on the film. Lewton would go onto work on films for Paramount, MGM, and Universal. He died in 1951 when another heart attack ended his life.

Not only do I think Bedlam is underrated as one of Val Lewton's films, I also believe it is his very best film. While Lewton made some very effective horror movies, it is only Bedlam that is effective as a period drama, a social message film, and a horror movie all at once. It has what could possibly be Lewton's most literate script, as well as what could be the best performances of any Lewton film. Indeed, even seen today Bedlam can be both intense and disturbing. It is arguably his most powerful film.


J. Marquis said...

I've always been haunted by the scene in Bedlam where the inmate dies because he's been painted with gold so he looks like a statue.

Kate Gabrielle said...

I definitely have to revisit this film now-- I haven't seen it in quite some time! I absolutely love Val Lewton, and I'm glad that lately he seems to finally be getting some recognition for his work.

Did you see the documentary TCM aired a couple years ago? It was fantastic, and really got me interested in his films.

It's interesting that Val Lewton's period pieces always had borrowed sets & costumes, and yet they seem even more authentic than the films they were borrowing from, don't you think? He captured the time period perfectly.

Holte Ender said...

Very interesting that the word "Bedlam" has entered general usage for chaos or a noisy, unsupervised rabble. I remember seeing on TV, Boris was great.

Raquelle said...

I honestly did not enjoy this film or Isle of the Dead even though I love love love Lewton. I do see what you see in it. It's an excellent historical drama, great performances, and a revealing look at 18th century treatment of the mentally insane. I think what I didn't like about it is that the torture and entrapment got to me. This sets me apart from real horror fans who enjoy that. I dislike it immensely. And I remember some anti-Quaker message too. Does that sound right? It's been a while since I've seen it.

For Isle of the Dead, I freaked out so much that I was clawing at whatever was available (sofa? blanket? pillow?).

So I didn't like it but it's probably because those two films were really good!!! I'm strange like that.

Thank you so much for reviewing Bedlam.

Mercurie said...

J., the Gilded Boy scene (as it has come to be known) is the one image that has always stayed with me from the Val Lewton films. I think it may have been the most disturbing image he ever created!

Kate, I have seen the TCM documentary on Val Lewton and I loved it, even though I had discovered his films years ago. You might also want to read Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career by Edmund G. Bansak. It is a great overview of his career!

Holte, it is interesting how Bedlam came to mean chaos or a noisy rabble. As I recall it, it's supposedly from all the racket that emerged from the asylum!

Raquelle, I can understand why you would not like this film. It is a rather frightening and disturbing film, which is perhaps only enjoyable if one likes to be frightened out of his or her wits! Val Lewton and Mark Robson did their jobs a little too well with both this film and Isle of the Dead (I remember seeing that one as a kid and not being able to sleep all night!).

I don't recall any anti-Quaker sentiment in the film. In fact, I always thought of it as pro-Quaker, given Hannay the stonemason is one of the heroes!