Monday, October 10, 2011

Film Reviews: Bedlam & Isle of the Dead

"Bedlam" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Since starting this blog some years ago I have always devoted the month of October to horror films in honor of Halloween. This year will be no different. In the past I have usually written about classic horror films such as "Dracula" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931). I have also spent a great deal of time reviewing the films made by producer Val Lewton. And here we have two more films produced by the great horror/suspense master; "Bedlam" (1946) and Isle of the Dead" (1945).

Both films were directed by Mark Robson and star Boris Karloff. Of the two films I would say "Bedlam" is the better one, though not the best collaboration between Karloff and Lewton, who worked on three films together. My favorite is "The Body Snatcher" (1945), which I have already reviewed.

"Bedlam" plays around with some religious themes, as most horror films do, and themes of nature vs nurture. What makes people bad? What brings about violence? Is it something simply within humans or does environment play a role? How are we suppose to treat the less fortunate, like animals or with kindness?

Boris Karloff plays Master George Sims. He runs an insane asylum. A fatal accident, of a sane man, has allowed Master Sims to fall out of favor with Lord Mortimer (Billy House). The man who died was a friend of his Lordship. Sims has explained that is was all an accident and in order to win good favor once again with his Lordship as invited him and his protege, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), to his asylum where they may laugh at these people as they attempt to put on a play. His Lordship loves the idea but Ms. Bowen isn't sold on the idea.

At the asylum Sims regards these people as less than animals. He beats them, steals their food and does not provide stable living conditions. No beds or treatment. You see, they are violent, uneducated people. They do not deserve proper treatment. They wouldn't be able to appreciate it anyway, they are too ignorant to know any better. You mustn't treat them the way you would a civilize person.

Ms. Bowen arrives at the asylum to see exactly what goes on there. Sims, who doesn't like her, agrees to show her and explain his views. Though Ms. Bowen has a cold exterior, inside she is deeply affected by what she sees. Sims' views disgust her. She vows to reform this asylum with the help of Lord Mortimer. But this doesn't meet the approval of Sims. Ms. Bowen must be gotten rid of. Sims decides to have her locked up in his asylum. Then we shall see if she still regards these less fortunate individuals as "people". If they are worthy of kindness.

When we watch a Val Lewton production you expect a lot of shadows, danger lurking in the darkness. Lewton's films are more about atmosphere than say screen violence. In fact, violence is never shown on-screen in any of his films. If you walk into any of these films with a slasher mentality you will be gravely disappointed.

However, "Bedlam" misses a few golden opportunities. It required more scenes inside the asylum. At first Ms. Bowen is scared to be there. She wants to leave. Here Lewton and Robson should have shown us what type of place this asylum is. What exactly goes on there. How are the people treated? How do they react to Ms. Bowen. The setting is a perfect backdrop for a suspense/horror film. We aren't in the darkness so much. And we never come to fully understand what exactly happened to his Lordship's friend. Was he on to Sims? Was he about to expose him?

When compared to "Isle of the Dead", Karloff gives a much better performance here. He is more animated. More entertaining to watch.

The director, Robson, worked with Lewton on a few movies. He replaced Lewton's best director, Jacques Tourner, who directed "The Cat People" (1943) and "I Walked with A Zombie" (1943). Robson seems to have lacked Tourner's vision and understanding of what makes a Lewton film work. Robson directed "The Seventh Victim" (1943) and "The Ghost Ship" (1943) with Lewton and would go on, after Lewton, to direct the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Von Ryan's Express" (1965) and "Earthquake" (1974). Nothing he would work on suggested a man who understood horror.

Still "Bedlam" is perhaps Robson's best film with Lewton. He doesn't take full advantage of the film's setting, which would have worked nicely with this genre, still the film has some nice moments and interesting ideas.

"Isle of the Dead" *** (out of ****)

On paper I suppose "Isle of the Dead" should have worked but the final product is a bit weak. Once again we have a wonderful setting which isn't taken full advantage of.

We are in the midst of the war of 1912 on a Greek island. The plague has struck. A group of people are stranded on an island together for fear of spreading the disease. There is also the threat of an evil spirit, the vorvolaka, which may live inside a young woman, Thea (Ellen Drew).

The premise sounds creepy enough to get a few scares. It reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None", where one by one each character will die off due to the plague. Who will be the last person standing? It also reminds me of other Val Lewton films like "The Cat People" also a story about an evil force within a young woman. And "I Walked with A Zombie" which takes place on an island where evil lurks. All three works are better.

Karloff stars once again as Gen. Pherides who arrives on the island to visit the grave of his wife. He along with an American war correspondent, Oliver (Marc Cramer) discover that the bodies are no longer in the graves. They notice a house on the island and pay a visit. A gentlemen named Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.) has been living on the islands for years and knows all about the grave robbers. But there is nothing he can do. He suggest the general and Oliver spend the night with him and his guest; Mr. and Mrs. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier, best known for playing Alfred on the 1960s TV show "Batman" and Katherine Emery) and Thea.

When one of these characters dies the general believes it is the plague and everyone must stay on the island. But could it be something else? Could it be the evil spirit called the vorvolaka? Thought originally to be an ancient Greek myth perhaps it is true.

Once again Robson doesn't fully understand what makes a Lewton film work. The movie should be drenched in atmosphere. Isolated island, dead bodies, evil spirits, it doesn't get much better than this for a horror film. And Boris Karloff is it. It should all add up but it doesn't. Karloff in particular is quite stiff in this movie. Almost everyone seems in a bit of a trance. I guess in theory still goes along with the title, "Isle of the Dead", why should these actors be acting "alive"?

I'd put "Isle of the Dead" pretty low on Lewton's scale. Better to watch "Bedlam", "The Cat People", "The Leopard Man" (1943) and "I Walked with A Zombie".