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Here’s a movie that kept cropping up on late night horror movie slots, causing some consternation amongst fans expecting crepe hair werewolves or cardboard robots going berserk – a reasoned, almost stately historical drama. The station’s programmers couldn’t really be blamed – this was produced by Val Lewton, who similarly produced Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, you know. It starred Boris Karloff, for pete’s sake. Similar reasoning/excuses held for Tower of London (though Camp on Blood Island was a little less forgivable).
This was the last of Lewton’s movies produced at RKO, the most expensive, and the first one to ever show a loss at the Box Office. In 1945, as Bedlam was being filmed, America was dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Small wonder that horror movies were on the wane; there’d been enough horror to go around in the real world, no need to visit it in our entertainment. Lewton would only produce three more movies in his life, and when you look at what he accomplished with remarkably small budgets, you wonder how the heck that ever happened.
It’s probably Lewton’s intellectual bent, as Bedlam is pretty much derived from an engraving by William Hogarth in his Rake’s Progress series. Quick views of other satiric Hogarth art is used for scene dissolves, and I can just imagine studio execs scratching their heads over that. The artwork was, in fact, excised for the TV version.
Bedlam is short for St. Mary of Bethlehem’s Hospital, an insane asylum in 1761 London. Our story concerns the Apothecary General of the hospital, George Sims (Karloff) and his increasing clashes with the protege of the Tory Lord Mortimer (Billy Law), the quick-witted Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). Horrified by the conditions in Bedlam – especially during Bedlam‘s most famous scene when an inmate, gilded to portray Reason in a show to honor Mortimer, suffocates (two decades before Goldfinger!) – Nell becomes a crusader for reform, eventually losing all her standing with the politically queasy Mortimer, and finally committed by Sims and a kangaroo court to become an inmate herself at the very asylum she is attempting to reform.
Nell still manages to reform Bedlam from the inside out, turning the huge common room into a much safer, healthier place. A Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser), who had inspired her, is meanwhile working with the Whig reformist John Wilkes to get her another trial. Seeing that this new trial would be disastrous to him, Sims decides to give Nell the 18th century equivalent of a lobotomy, but the inmates rise against him, and while Nell escapes, hold a trial for their abusive warden, with surprising (but ultimately horrifying) results.
The Breen office hacked the script to pieces before it ever started filming, and it is still surprising what got through. Director Mark Robson recreates several of Hogarth’s prints in real space, often on hastily improvised sets (in fact, that enormous commons room in Bedlam is the church set from The Bells of St. Mary’s!). If Lewton could get this much period accuracy out of a tiny budget and some painted flats, it’s incredible he had to fight to get any work afterwards. Robson often said that he wouldn’t have been able to make movies like Earthquake if not for the lessons he learned under Lewton.
Karloff’s three movies with Lewton were probably the last of the classy horror movies he would make until he teamed with Richard Gordon in the late 50s. He always rankled when Bedlam was termed a horror movie, claiming it was historic drama. So it is… but nonetheless, here we are, talking about it during Hubrisween, because honestly – sometimes there is nothing so horrible as truth and history.
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