Isle of the Dead & Bedlam (2005, Warner Home Video)
Original Release: 1945, RKO Pictures (Isle of the Dead); 1946, RKO Pictures (Bedlam)
Run Time: 151 minutes
– Commentary on Bedlam by Film Historian Tom Weaver
Tagged as ‘A Val Lewton Horror Double Feature’, this particular collection just so happens to be a Boris Karloff double feature as well (or even a Mark Robson double feature as he directed both of these films). Val Lewton was a producer/screenwriter who made his name producing nine horror films for RKO Pictures during the 1940s. Warner Bros. owns the rights to these films and released a box set a number of years ago and also paired them up in releases such as this one.
I picked up this particular copy for $3.99 at Walgreens. Pretty good deal for two Karloff movies! Over the years I’ve slowly grown to appreciate Karloff’s roles outside of the typical monster fare. There really is a reason why he’s considered the greatest actor to ever work in the horror genre and a movie such as Bedlam shows it as he plays an intelligent, witty and scheming apothecary general at a London insane asylum set in 1761. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue in this film as there were times when it flowed like beautiful poetry. The best lines are reserved for the film’s star but Anna Lee’s Nell Bowen character was allowed to hold her own against Karloff’s Master George Sims. Somewhat of a stretch to call this movie a horror film, it is really more of a dramatic piece with a few thrills towards the end.
While Bedlam holds the better dialogue, Isle of the Dead has better atmosphere as this is indeed a mystery thriller that centers around a young woman who may or may not be a vorvolaka (the Greeks’ ancient take on a vampire). Nice little claustrophobic chiller that really picks up and gets creepy during the second half. There is a scene in this movie which I actually consider to be quite shocking for its time and even shocked me as I watched it, so that just goes to show you the timeless power a scene can have when executed properly.
It’s notable to mention both movies were inspired by works of art. Isle of the Dead was inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead” (1880) painting and is seen during the title credits while Bedlam takes inspiration from William Hogarth’s “The Madhouse” (1733), the eighth & final painting in a series known as “A Rake’s Progress”, and portions of the painting as shown as the movie goes from one scene to the next.
I have to give Isle of the Dead the slight nod over Bedlam but both are good films to check out for any Karloff fan who wants to look beyond his work with Universal or just for anyone who in general is a fan of 1930s/1940s-style horror-thrillers. Definitely worth picking up should anyone come across a copy.