The most celebrated star in the history of screen horror headlines these two atmospheric works filled with producer Val Lewton's trademark mix of mood, madness and premeditated dread. Boris Karloff shares a quarantined hou... more »se with other strangers on a plague-infested perhaps spirit-haunted Isle of the Dead. St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum in 1761 London is the setting for Bedlam. Karloff gives an uncanny performance as the doomed overseer who fawns on high-society benefactors while ruling the mentally disturbed inmates with an iron fist. Mark Robson, who edited three films for Lewton and directed five, guides both films.« less
ISLE OF THE DEAD is Very Weak; BEDLAM is Very Strong
Gary F. Taylor | Biloxi, MS USA | 10/23/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Val Lewton (1904-1951) was brought to RKO when that studio decided to compete with Universal in the horror genre. As it happened, RKO was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy at the time--and Lewton was given the audience-tested title CAT PEOPLE and ordered to create an inexpensive movie to fit it. Without the budget to create "a monster movie," Lewton responded with a remarkably artful film that relied on suggestion and implication. He would go on to produce nine such films in all, three of them starring Boris Karloff.
Released in 1945, ISLE OF THE DEAD was inspired by a celebrated Brocklin painting. The film had a troubled production; Karloff collapsed mid-way through the shoot due to back problems and was unable to work for several weeks. When he was able to return, other members of the cast were tied up with other projects--so the film sat half finished while Karloff worked in Lewton's memorable THE BODY SNATCHER. It was quite some time before the ISLE cast could be reassembled.
This may account for the fact that ISLE is by far and way the single weakest title in Lewton's films. Whatever the case, the script is certainly no help. Credited to Josef Mischel and Ardel Wray, the story lacks focus and the dialogue is remarkably awkward. The story concerns a 19th century Greek military commander (Karloff) who visits his wife's grave, located on an island described as a cemetery. But plague breaks out--and in order to prevent its spread the commander quarantines the island. Even as various residents fall ill and die, others attribute the deaths to a Greek-style vampire; to further complicate the story a premature burial leaves the prematurely buried considerably annoyed, to say the least.
The performances are equally weak. Karloff, having just given the performance of his career in the earlier THE BODY SNATCHER, now gives what may be his weakest performance of the 1940s with this film--and frankly he looks incredibly ridiculous with curly hair. But Karloff is not alone: the entire cast is truly at sea, their performances clashing at every possible stylistic level, and director Mark Robson is unable to chart any direction that might give these issues any interest.
True enough, the film does pick up steam in the last fifteen minutes or so, but it all proves too little to late. ISLE OF THE DEAD is a film that only a Lewton, Karloff, or classic film horror fan would care to see--and even they are unlikely to find much to admire in it.
On the other hand, BEDLAM is a remarkably strong film, and many feel that it challenges the very memorable THE BODY SNATCHER in terms of power and style. Released in 1946, BEDLAM was suggested by several engravings by English artist Hogarth, and the film itself echoes both the content and style of Hogarth's work. Set in the 1700s, the story concerns the infamous English asylum Bedlam, which is governed by George Sims--who uses his control of the asylum for personal pleasure, monetary gain, and in order to curry favor with the aristocracy.
When spirited Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) has a falling out with her mentor Lord Mortimer (Billy House), Sims convinces Mortimer to commit her to Bedlam--a process that was unexpectedly easy at the time. But Anna proves resourceful: although she is now at Sim's mercy, her growing sense of responsibility toward the horribly mistreated inmates provides her with an unexpected and unlooked-for powerbase, and she is able to turn the tables with horrific consequences.
Although I myself do not quite class BEDLAM alongside THE BODY SNATCHER, it is nonetheless a powerful, beautifully made film. Mark Robson's direction is equal to his cast, which finds both Karloff and Anna Lee at the top of their form, and the supporting roles give equally memorable turns. The style of the film is classic Lewton, a memorable mixture of dark and light. When all is said and done, it is easy to see why BEDLAM is so highly regarded.
Unfortunately this was not actually the case when the film was released. Although reviews were good-to-excellent, BEDLAM ran into significant censorship problems and was even banned from England, and post-World War II audiences were not in the mood for such a singularly dark story. The film lost money. BEDLAM would be Lewton's last film for RKO, and although he would produce three more films none would equal his earlier successes.
Neither ISLE nor BEDLAM is offered in a pristine print, but in truth the picture and sound quality probably represent a "best case" scenario short of digital restoration, and in any event the quality is more than adequate, easily the best print I have seen of either film. There are no extras relating to ISLE OF THE DEAD, but film historian Tom Weaver offers a memorable commentary for BEDLAM in which ISLE is also discussed to some degree.
BEDLAM is certainly a film worth having, and if it were offered as a stand-alone DVD I would certainly give it five stars. ISLE is an entirely different matter, and if it were offered as a stand-alone DVD I would give it three stars for historical interest--and consider that generous. I split the difference for a four-star final.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer"
A Balkan Brute and British Bedlam a la Val Lewton!
Michael R Gates | Nampa, ID United States | 10/12/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A great double-feature DVD offering two greats from famed genre producer Val Lewton.
ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
A staid, low-key Val Lewton chiller that stars Boris Karloff as a tyrannical Greek general during the Balkan war. Due to an outbreak of a mysterious plague, the General is quarantined with a small group of people on an island cemetery. As members begin to meet their doom one by one, an old Greek woman among them claims that a vampiric spirit actually responsible for the "affliction" and thusly opens the debate of reason vs. superstition. Karloff's subtle performance perfectly compliments the film's eerie atmosphere, and the rest of the outstanding cast delivers strong support. Genre fans will recognize supporting actor Alan Napier, who would later gain television fame as Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred Pennyworth, on the classic but campy 1960s series BATMAN.
This creepy melodrama isn't really a horror film as much as it is a period-piece thriller. Set in and around a London insane asylum during the 18th Century, the film stars Anna Lee as an upper-crust sycophant who is wrongfully committed to the asylum when she interferes in the affairs of the institution's cruel director, Master George Sims. Boris Karloff's portrayal of Sims is devilishly delicious, yet he still manages to avoid upstaging the wonderful Lee and the rest of the strong, talented cast (a cast that includes Jason Robards, Sr., Billy House, and a young Ellen Corby, among many others). The atmosphere and mood of the setting are adeptly evoked, and the use of William Hogarth engravings--which Lewton claimed inspired the script--as transitional devices is an aesthetic masterstroke that adds even more to the high production quality and helps the film belie its meager budget. The last flick that legendary B-movie producer Lewton would develop for RKO Studios, it's also one of the best.
As with the other double-feature discs in Warner's VAL LEWTON series, the films presented here do not appear to have undergone any restoration, though both are in pretty good shape considering their age. BEDLAM is accompanied by an optional feature-length commentary from film historian Tom Weaver, but no other extras are offered on this disc. Still, these two films are some of the best examples of Lewton's efforts, and they also feature outstanding performances from genre great Boris Karloff. So this disc is well worth the reasonable price of admission and is a must-have for any serious film collector or Karloff fan."
Karloff excels as master of the insane in Bedlam, and become
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 11/14/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Bedlam: With sad irony, Bedlam, one of the Val Lewton-produced B-movie quickies, was not successful at the box office yet was probably the best constructed of his films. Along with The Body Snatchers, I think it stands up as a compelling story with solid dialogue and better acting than we've come to expect from Lewton's films.
Boris Karloff, in a performance of skill and complexity, plays Master George Sims, the ruler of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum in London...a forbidding hulk of a stone building. Bedlam, for short. The time is 1761. Bedlam is the place where the insane are sent, as well as inconvenient or embarrassing relatives. The violent ones are kept in chains and in cages. The quieter ones are housed in a huge ward, male and female all together, the floor covered with filthy straw, where the inmates mutter or cry or ceaselessly walk or stare at the walls. But they all cower when Master Sims comes in.
Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), is the smart, privileged and arrogant protege of a fat English lord. When she meets Sims her dislike is instant. But Sims counts her patron as one of his sponsors. While many of the upper-class willingly pay a shilling to visit Bedlam and laugh at "the antics of the loonies," Nell finds herself repulsed and outraged. When she sets out to improve conditions, she finds herself blocked by the clever Sims. In a major miscalculation, she aims her furious temper at her protector, Lord Mortimer, leaves him and sets out to make him a laughing stock. Before long, she finds herself an inmate in Bedlam, too. Can she survive in Bedlam by showing kindness? Can she win over the inmates before a confrontation with Sims becomes inevitable? Will she ever be released? Will she find love in the arms of a Quaker she met...and if she does, can she curb her tongue with him? Will Sims ever be brought to justice? All rather mundane questions, but director Mark Robson and the Lewton production team, plus a larger than usual budget, set most of these questions in a fine and repellant reconstruction of an 18th Century insane asylum.
As unsettling and threatening as the movie looks, Bedlam is in no way a horror film. Bedlam is a well-balanced character study pitting the obsequious, envious and dangerous George Sims against the resourceful and unintimidated Nell Bowen. Karloff and Lee are more than up to the task. Anna Lee gives us a Nell Bowen who is remarkably quick with her temper and with her tongue. Her description of Sims is pungent. "If you ask me, my lord, he's a stench in the nostrils, a sewer of ugliness and a gutter brimming with slough." Boris Karloff gives us a fascinating portrait of a man who fawns over his superiors and abuses his inmates. It's a masterful job. Watch the difference in how he walks into Lord Mortimer's bedroom after being kept waiting for hours and how he strides into his own empire, Bedlam. Watch how he compulsively touches his pig-tailed wig to make sure it's on straight whenever he meets Lord Mortimer. Watch the difference in his stare when Nell Bowen is seen as just Lord Mortimer's plaything and when she's seen as a threat to him. There are several times when Karloff's face registers anger, resentment and satisfaction in just moments and with just a slight movement of his lips. And unlike many of Lewton's films, in Bedlam there are a number of capable actors in smaller parts.
With two strong actors, it's good to see that they were given a well-written script to work with. When Sims is accused of abetting the death of an embarrassing "guest" at Bedlam, a sane young man who could cause problems for Sims' sponsor, he simply smiles and says that the man's fall from the roof was "a misadventure, contrived by the victim and executed by nature's law that all who lose their grip on gutters must fall."
Was the treatment of the insane in Bedlam just an historical fact which we have corrected in our modern age? If you are naive enough to believe that you might want to read up on Titticut Follies, a Frederick Wiseman documentary he filmed in 1967. It shows the routine mistreatment and humiliation of the mentally ill by the guards and doctors at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Mass. Or you might sign up for a sociology class in college that could take you to visit a state hospital for the insane. I can recall my own visit years ago to a ward for men which was filled with patients wearing only untied hospital gowns. The men shuffled about or came up to stare and try to touch or simply rocked back and forth. The ward smelled strongly of human waste.
Isle of the Dead: This Val Lewton-produced Poverty Row programer is a good example of why B movies are B movies. The story could be interesting: A small group of people in an isolated setting (in this case, a small Greek island) are forced to deal with a threat to their lives (in this case, a nasty pestilence called septicemic plague), and in the course of the movie some will live and some will die, some will prove brave and some will go mad, some will swear there is an evil force and some will blame things on the wind and the fleas. And yet, while Boris Karloff does a fine job as the aging General Nikolas Pherides, the rest of the cast demonstrate why they never broke out of Poverty Row.
It's 1912 and we're in the middle of the Greek wars. The General has won a victory, but there are many dead on the darkened battlefield. He is a hard man, driven by duty and patriotism, yet by his standards fair. He's not without warmth and friendliness. He and Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), an American reporter, visit a small island, used for decades as a place of burial, where his dead wife lies in a crypt. The island is just off the coast where the General's army is encamped. They find the crypt has been forced open and the body missing. But on this isolated little crag of an island they find a large stone house where there is a Swiss archeologist; his severe Greek housekeeper from whom he bought the house; Thea (Ellen Drew), a beautiful young servant; and three guests...soon to be just two. One of the guests, in the middle of dinner, declares he feels ill and staggers to his room. He is soon dead of the plague. The General has an army doctor come over who confirms their worst fears. The General is determined to fight the plague and keep it from infecting his army. He takes charge of the house. He insists that no one may leave the island. They all can only wait and hope the plague strikes no more of them down. And all this time the housekeeper whispers about death and demons. She sees the work of the dreaded vorvolaka, a wolf spirit in human form, and she insists the vorvolaka has taken the shape of the servant girl. As people die, we have noble death, madness, a live burial and, in at least one case, the triumph of superstition.
What to make of this? The first half of the movie is a taut look at people reacting under pressure, led by the excellent performance of Boris Karloff. We start out on a Greek battlefield at night, filled with the groaning wounded and the dead in carts being hauled to speedy mass burials. "The rider on the pale horse is pestilence," explains General Pherides to the reporter, "and he follows the wars." Then we're off on a small boat to the dark, well-imagined mountainous island, full of rocky, steep paths, threatening trees, a mouldering crypt and crashing waves below a cliff. We meet the cast and, at dinner, see their tentativeness. We can take a measure of their characters. But then the second half of the movie is upon us. We're in the middle of a corny Hollywood horror story with awkward acting (except for Karloff) and even cornier dialogue. "The vorvolaka still lives," whispers the crone of a housekeeper, "rose-cheeked and full of blood!" We're in the poverty-row world of white gauzy gowns slipping around corners, of creaking caskets, a mad death scene, a vicious-looking trident and a leap off a cliff. It's become predictable.
The movie has great atmosphere and Karloff. It's enough for a strong beginning but, in my view, not enough for a strong ending. I particularly enjoyed two members of the cast, in addition to Karloff. One, Skelton Knaggs, is only on screen for a couple of minutes. Knaggs had a distinctive-looking face, weak, ugly and unhealthy. Combined with his whiny voice, he was hard to ignore. In another Val Lewton-produced movie, The Ghost Ship, he plays a deaf-mute who, it's true, narrates the story. The other actor I like is a woman named Katherine Emery. She plays the ill wife of a British diplomat. She has a cultured, precise and unhurried voice. Close your eyes and you'd swear you were listening to Mercedes McCambridge. To see her in full dominant mode, watch Eyes in the Night. ------ Bedlam looks just fine on the DVD disc it shares with Isle of the Dead, There is one extra, a commentary by Tom Weaver, identified as a film historian. The DVD transfer of Isle of the Dead is good but at times is too dark during night scenes."
More Lewton classics
Deborah MacGillivray | US & UK | 10/11/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am a fool for spooky B&W horror films and I consider the Val Lewton series of more sinister than horror horror films utter perfection. I don't think any producer put his mark on films as solidly as Lewton did. Whether with the great Jacques Tourneur or with sharp Robert Wise, all Lewton productions had a distinct feel that had to come from the Producer in this instance rather than the various directors. His had a "feel" for Black and White film, rivalled by only the master Mara Bava. They understood dark was sinister and used shadows in a crisp contrast that struck an atmosphere that is unparallelled today.
You get two Lewton Classic for in in this package. "Bedlam" and "Isle of the Dead", both starring the great Karloff.
In "Bedlam" the setting is St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum in 1761 London. Another of Karloff's sharp, on target, understated performances as the overseer who fawns on high-society benefactors while ruling the mentally disturbed inmates with an iron fist. Chilling.
In "Isle of the Dead" you have Karloff as a General trapped in on an island that is surrounded by the plague. They hope the winds will keep the infestation away, but all they can do is wait. One of the women begins to weaken, slowly wasting away, and Karloff becomes convinced her young companion is a vampire.
Super story telling. Timeless Classics.
Subtitles for the films in Spanish, English and French. Commetary by Film Historian Tom Weaver on Bedlam."
Boris Karloff Plays Cruel Lunatics In Two Entertaining Film
Susan K. Schoonover | Boulder, CO | 06/23/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"ISLE OF THE DEAD and BEDLAM are two of the nine intelligently made "B" horror movies producer Val Lewton made for RKO in the 1940's. Both are short (about an hour in length) films more of psychological suspense than real horror. Boris Karloff is great in both films though ironically his acting is the best in ISLE OF THE DEAD while BEDLAM is the better overall film.
ISLE OF THE DEAD takes place on a Greek island during the 1912 Balkan War. Boris Karloff, wearing a curly grey wig (I suppose to make him look Grecian) plays a Greek General nicknamed "The Watchdog". We first meet him forcing another Greek officer and former friend to commit suicide because he disgraced himself by showing up late with his troops to a battle. This shocks a young American journalist who witnesses this but the journalist still agrees to accompany the General to a nearby island to visit the grave of his long deceased wife. When they reach the island they found the grave of the general's wife and all others entombed there have been ransacked for archaeological finds and the bodies destroyed. On the island the general and journalist discover the comfortable home of a charming Swiss archaeologist. Staying with the archaeologist are an old Greek servant woman named Kyra, a British diplomat and his invalid wife, the wife's beautiful Greek nurse, Thea, a doctor and a cockney salesman. The salesman soon dies of the plague and the rest of the group including the general and journalist are quarantined on the island and begin to sicken and die one by one. Kyra creates hysteria with her belief that Thea is one of the legendary Greek vampires known as the Vrykolakes and the General is particularly susceptible to this belief making his mental health greatly deteriorate. The ending is very over the top and the dialogue and plot become more and more clunky as the movie continues. Karloff's performance remains excellent while everything else sinks farther and farther in to mediocrity.
BEDLAM is a very ambitious movie with incredibly genuine looking sets and costumes. Karloff is a true villain here playing Sims, the head of the infamous 18th century London insane asylum, Bedlam. Nell, a beautiful outspoken former actress now living as the protege of an old obese but immensely wealthy lord takes an interest in improving the lives of those committed to the asylum after viewing the conditions and actually seeing one of the inmates die "performing" in toxic gold paint at a party for the amusement of the rich. Nell and Sims have a mutual hatred of each other and through a variety of rather complex manipulations he manages to have her committed to Bedlam. The story does not end there though since Karloff as Sims has some payback coming from Nell and the "loonies". Though Sims and his fate are fictional the atrocities that are shown in the movie are historically accurate as tourists of that time period were allowed to tour the facility to laugh at the retarded and insane inmates and even prod them with long sticks to incite them in to rage. From the powdered wigs to the women hawking wares in the street the movie does an admirable job bringing 18th century London to life on a B budget and as always Karloff is excellent playing evil."