Master of Horror: Boris Karloff in BEDLAM (RKO 1946)

 

bedlam1

(This post is part of the TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS blogathon hosted by Kristen at JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM! )

bedlam2

Boris Karloff made a trio of films for producer Val Lewton in the mid-40’s: THE BODY SNATCHER , ISLE OF THE DEAD, and BEDLAM. The Old Master of Terror was given the opportunity to show off his acting prowess in these dark, psychological horrors. Freed from the restraint of playing yet another mad scientist or creature, Karloff excels in the roles of murderous Cabman Grey, plague-ridden General Pherides, and here as the cruel martinet of Bedlam, Master George Sims.

bedlam3

Lewton cowrote the script with director Mark Robson  , “suggested by” William Hogarth’s 8th painting in the series “A Rake’s Progress”. There are a lot of sly references to Hogarth in BEDLAM, and the artist even gets a screenwriting credit. It’s 1761 London, and the class struggle between rich and poor rages (the more things change… ). One of the inmates of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (known to the locals as Bedlam) attempts to escape via the rooftop, but a guard stomps on his fingers, plunging him to his doom. Corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) calls Master Sims, the “apothecary general of St. Mary’s” and noted poet, on the carpet for the death. The unctuous Sims, who’ll do anything to keep his position, offers to amuse Mortimer by having his “loonies” put on a performance for the Lord and his upper crust cronies. Mortimer’s “protégé” Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is appalled when one of the inmates, a young boy gilded in gold paint, dies while doing a recital.

bedlam4

Nell tours the asylum, and is further dismayed at the squalid, deplorable conditions the inmates are forced to live in, and at Sims’ cruelty, referring to them as animals and even keeping some in cages. “They’re all in themselves and by themselves”, she says, and gets Mortimer to agree to make changes. But the wily Sims appeals to Mortimer’s pocket book, and Nell leaves the Lord in a fit of pique. Sims and Mortimer conspire to have Nell committed to Bedlam, and she lives in fear for her life as she becomes a prisoner of Sims’ house of horrors.

bedlam5

BEDLAM is more costumed drama than out-and-out horror, though there are more than enough shocks to satisfy genre fans. Director Robson made his first five films under Lewton’s aegis, and along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, conveys a sense of dread throughout the film. Of course, the fact they had horror’s King Karloff as Sims didn’t hurt. Boris gives us a restrained depiction of evil as the master of Bedlam, his purring voice belying the corruption that lies within. He’s subservient to Lord Mortimer, his rich and powerful benefactor, and takes out his self-loathing on those less fortunate, the “loonies” in his charge. Sims will do anything to retain his minute amount of power, and gets no sympathy when he gets his comeuppance at the film’s powerful conclusion. It’s a bravura performance, and alongside Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER, Boris’ best of the 40’s.

bedlam6

Anna Lee had played opposite Boris before, in the 1936 British horror THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN. She became a favorite of John Ford , and was featured in seven of his films, including HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, FORT APACHE, and THE LAST HURRAH. Miss Lee was also in the horror classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and known to millions as Lila Quartermaine on the long-running soap GENERAL HOSPITAL. She goes toe-to-toe with Boris here, and her transformation from silly plaything for the rich to enlightened woman is a good job of acting itself.

Billy House (Lord Mortimer) was an old burlesque comic who transitioned into a fine character actor, particularly in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. The rest of the cast isn’t well-known, but Richard Fraser does well as a Quaker who aids Nell. More Familiar Faces to film buffs include Ian Wolfe (a standout as a former lawyer, now an inmate of Bedlam), Jason Robards Sr, Elizabeth Russell, Skelton Knaggs, Ellen Corby, Tommy Noonan,  and future horror/sci-fi star Robert Clarke.

bedlam7

This was the last of the Lewton/RKO entries, sending the series of intelligent psychological horror films out on a strong note. Karloff lovers won’t want to miss this one, as Boris adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. He wouldn’t get as good a role as Master Sims until the monster revival in the 60’s, and it’s his last great film of the classic horror era. BEDLAM does with its modest budget what many bigger films fail to do, sending a potent message while entertaining the audience at the same time.

Halloween Havoc!: Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN (Universal 1935)

raven1

Universal’s “Twin Titans of Terror” teamed up for the second time in THE RAVEN. Their 1934 pairing in THE BLACK CAT was the studio’s top grossing film that year, so it was only logical to reteam the two stars in another Poe based outing. But while in THE BLACK CAT they were evenly matched, here Boris plays second fiddle to Bela’s mad Dr Vollin. Lugosi takes center stage and creates one of his nastiest villains, a sociopath out to avenge his unrequited love.

Young Jean Thatcher loses control of her car and crashes off a cliff. The doctors, including her boyfriend Jerry Holden, agree only Dr. Richard Vollin can save her. Vollin refuses over the phone, stating he’s retired from practice, so Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher, travels to Vollin’s estate and, appealing to his vanity, convinces the doctor to do the surgery. He does so, and falls in love with his young patient in the process.

raven2

When we first meet Vollin, he’s in his study with a representative from the local museum, reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (as only Bela can!), while a staute of the bird casts an ominous shadow on the wall behind him. “The raven is my talisman”, he says. “Death is my talisman”. Vollin isn’t interested in donating any of his large Poe memorabilia to the museum; in fact, he tells the gentleman he’s building the torture devices made famous in Poe’s tales. When told that’s an interesting hobby, Vollin replies (again as only Bela can), “It is mooore…than just a hobby”. The thin veneer of sanity is already beginning to give way to Vollin’s madness.

Jean has recuperated well enough to give a dance recital in Vollin’s honor. Her interpretive dance “The Spirit of Poe” is accompanied by an actor reciting the poem, music swirling while she performs her ‘danse macabre’ for the audience. Vollin is enraptured, but the Judge is worried about where this is all heading. Confronting Vollin at his home, he realizes the doctor is more than just infatuated. Warning him away from Jean adds fuel to the madness burning within Vollin. Fugitive criminal Edmund Bateman shows up unexpectedly at Vollin’s door. Bateman’s been told the doctor can “change my face” to avoid the police, but Vollin has other plans. He operates on the criminal’s “nerve ends” causing Bateman to become a grotesque looking monstrosity. When his face is revealed to him before a wall of mirror, Bateman angrily shoots them out (Welles’ inspiration for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, perhaps?) Vollin tells Bateman he’ll turn him back if Bateman’s willing to “torture and kill” for him. Reluctantly, Bateman agrees to assist in Vollin’s demented scheme.

raven3

Karloff’s Edmund Bateman, though a killer, is played for  sympathy. Born with an ugly mug, Bateman felt driven to “do ugly things”. Like the Frankenstein Monster, Bateman’s been battered and beaten by a world he never made, lashing out at the injustice of his lot in life. Boris always gave his best characters a touch of humanity (the monster, Grey in THE BODY SNATCHERS, Elman in THE WALKING DEAD), and makes us feeling sorry for the brutish Bateman.

Vollin invites Jean, her father, Jerry, and two other couples to spend the weekend at his estate. A storm is brewing outside, but inside Vollin it’s already raging. Bateman abducts Thatcher and hauls him down to Vollin’s basement, where his torture devices are set up. Strapping Thatcher to a slab, Vollin gazes up at the blade hanging above the judge’s prone body. He flips a switch and, like in Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum”, the blade slowly descends, swinging to and fro aimed at Thatcher’s midsection. “Try to be sane, Vollin”, Thatcher pleads, but it’s far too late for that. Laughing manically (as only Bela can!), he replies with glee, “Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!”

raven4

Another switch is flipped, and Jean’s entire room drops to basement level. Jerry and one of the couples (the other is fast asleep) hear Jean’s screams and find a panel leading to the basement. Vollin orders Bateman to throw Jean and Jerry in a steel-walled room, and locking them in, the walls begin to close in on them. Now completely insane, Vollin rails the two “will never be separated, never!…What a torture! What a delicious torture!” Bateman, realizing Jean’s about to be crushed to death (she was kind to him earlier despite his hideous kisser), shuts the switch off, but not before Vollin gut-shoots him. Struggling to his feet, Bateman overpowers the doctor and, in a last heroic feat, drags him in the room and pulls the lever, causing Vollin to be crushed by his own devious torture chamber.

raven6

Lugosi’s descent into madness is one of the great accomplishments in horror. Building slowly, by the end he’s completely over-the-top deranged. I don’t think anyone could pull off the role of Richard Vollin the way Beal Lugosi does, and it’s one of his top acting jobs. Karloff gets the most out of his subservient role, and milks it for all the sympathy he can. Irene Ware (Jean) makes a fine damsel in distress (she worked with Bela before in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN), while stalwart Lester Matthews (Jerry) plays the romantic lead (Matthews also was in the bizarre Savage Intruder with Miriam Hopkins). Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Thatcher) is no stranger to horror movie buffs, appearing in MAN MADE MONSTER and SON OF DRACULA, while Ian Wolfe (Snuffy, one of the guests) made over 300 appearences in a career that stretched from 1934 to 1990.

Director Louis Friedlander moves the film briskly along from a top-notch script by David Boehm. Friedlander would change his name to Lew Landers, a workhorse of a director who did everything from Gene Autry Westerns to Boston Blackie mysteries. Landers worked again with Karloff on THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) and Lugosi on RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Grinding em out quickly was Landers’ forte, and though he worked strictly in the B-realm, his films were generally well received. Television called in the 50s, and Landers made a home there, most notably on KIT CARSON, HIGHWAY PATROL, and RIN TIN TIN.

raven5

Karloff and Lugosi made eight films together (including their cameo in 1934’s GIFT OF GAB), and while most genre fans rate THE BLACK CAT as their best pairing, I’m kind of partial to THE RAVEN. Neither film is literally based on Poe (“suggested by” the title cards say), but this one is more close to the “Spirit of Poe”. It’s a showcase for the talents of Bela Lugosi at the peak of his acting powers, with Boris Karloff lending good solid support. If you can only see one Karloff/Lugosi team-up this Halloween, I highly recommend you make it THE RAVEN.

Halloween Havoc!: Peter Lorre in MAD LOVE (MGM 1935)

madlove1

I mentioned in my review of Body Parts that it was a variation of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, a 1920 novel by French author Maurice Renard. The book was first adapted to film in a 1920 silent starring Conrad Veidt. The story has been retold many times, in many different ways, but none have surpassed the 1935 adaptation MAD LOVE. This film really doesn’t get its due as one of the top horrors of the 1930s. Director Karl Freund (THE MUMMY) uses his background in German expressionism and, together with cinematographer Gregg Toland, gives us a Grand Guignol thriller that’s hard to resist.

madlove2

Peter Lorre makes his American film debut as Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon obsessed with beautiful actress Yvonne Orlac. Yvonne is married to concert pianist Stephen Orlac, and rebuffs the strange looking doctor. Returning to Paris via train, Orlac sees the convicted knife-throwing murderer Rollo board, heading for the guillotine. The train is derailed, and Orlac’s hands are crushed in the wreckage. Yvonne pleads with Gogol to restore her husband’s hands. The doctor says he can do nothing at first, then has an idea. He grafts the hands of killer Rollo onto Orlac. The operation is successful, but Orlac cannot play piano the wat he once did. He has, however, gained a peculiar proficiency in knife throwing.madlove3

American reporter Reagan is trying to get a story about Rollo. Gogol was given the body, but won’t let Reagan or anyone else see it. You see, the doctor hasn’t told Orlac his hands once belonged to Rollo. Gogol then devises as scheme to drive Orlac mad by “power of suggestion”. He kills Orlac’s step-father, then tries to convince the pianist he did the deed himself. Gogol costumes himself as Rollo, telling Orlac his head was grafted back on, like Orlac’s hands. Orlac is arrested, but Reagan suspects Gogol’s up to no good. The ending finds mad Doctor Gogol about to strangle Yvonne when Orlac throws a fateful knife and saves his wife from certain death.

Lorre is wonderful as Gogol. With his shaved head, bulging eyes, and fur collar, Gogol is second only to Hans Beckert in 1931’s M as Lorre’s creepiest character. Whether reading poetry to a wax effigy of Yvonne, or dressing as a man with a head transplant. Lorre gives a rich portrayal of a man driven mad by unrequited love. He’s particularly effective in the end scene, laughing hysterically at his misdeeds, believing Yvonne’s statue has come to life (“My Galatea!”), and finally striking out to kill what he loves most. Out of all Lorre’s long career, Gogol is surely his most frightening portrayal.

madlove4

Colin Clive is sympathetic as Orlac. Clive is best known to horror buffs as Dr. Frankenstein in Universal’s classic film and its sequel, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Frances Drake is also familiar to horror fans for her role in THE INVISIBLE RAY, with Karloff and Lugosi. Ted Healey, former Three Stooges boss, is the comic relief as reporter Reagan. Killer Rollo is familiar heavy Edward Brophy. Other supporting stars are Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, Keye Luke, Sara Hayden, Billy Gilbert, and Ian Wolfe.

Freund’s artistry gives MAD LOVE that expressionistic look and feel. Freund was cinematographer on 1920’s THE GOLEM and the Fritz Lang gem METROPOLIS. He was behind the cameras for 1931’s DRACULA and 1932’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. Winning an Oscar for 1937’s THE GOOD EARTH, Freund continued to work his magic on pictures like GOLDEN BOY, UNDERCURRENT, and KEY LARGO. Making the switch to television in its infancy, Freund was a pioneer of the 3-camera set-up, filming most episodes of I LOVE LUCY. Gregg Toland was a fine cinematographer in his own right. Besides MAD LOVE, Toland was behind the camera for such classics as DEAD END, CITIZEN KANE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, winning his own Oscar for 1939’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. MAD LOVE is a true classic of horror cinema, with a chilling performance by Peter Lorre as the deranged Dr. Gogol. Add this one to your Halloween watch list!