1 Hr., 12 Mins.
Isle of the Dead / Bedlam October 16, 2018
had a predilection for audience-attracting, sensationalist monikers. Lewton's starting salary was $250 a week, which, when adjusted for inflation, is the equivalent of roughly $4,000.
Lewton, though, was a moviemaker compelled by the artistry, not the financial virtues, of the craft. If you were to only hear the plot descriptions of his films, this might be hard to believe: His first production, 1942's Cat People, involved an evasive Frenchwoman (Simone Simon) who would turn into a jungle cat and promptly kill her object of affection when sexually aroused.
Unexpectedly, that feature was not a chintzy exhibition of cinematic pulp. Memorably, it was drenched in lush — albeit budget-saving — Tintoretto-like tenebroso. It cleverly, and obliquely, also commented on the repressive nature of the sexual mores of the 1940s. It felt something akin to art — a strange development for a studio who, at that moment, was purely intending to quickly make something that could accrue a respectable net profit.
Cat People was a financial success. It was made for a little under $135,000 and managed to see grosses somewhere in the low-millions. (To this day, its exact box-office returns are disputed.) The movie, often ranked among the great horror films, was then enough for RKO to minimally interfere with later Lewton productions. Only the overblown, foisted-upon title rule, which resulted in such eye-catching names as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), was rigidly enforced.
As the decade wore on, Lewton’s films became increasingly unconcerned with livening up potboiler formulae. If anything, his products leaned more heavily into the quotidian and psychological thriller sides of things, with only the penchant for swooning, shadowy cinematography sticking.
One of the last movies Lewton produced under RKO's tutelage, Isle of the Dead (1945), is one such example: It does not so much feel like a horror movie in the ways previous efforts à la Cat People and The Ghost Ship (1943) did as it does a one-setting, inessential Hitchcock exercise. (I found myself thinking of the latter’s Lifeboat, from 1944, in which the morality of boat passengers was tested in the face of a prospective capsizing.)
In the film, Boris Karloff, a horror bulwark who would make three movies with Lewton, stars as Pherides, an army general. As the movie, which is set during the Balkan Wars of 1912, opens, Pherides is visiting his wife’s grave, and is being accompanied by an American reporter named Oliver (Marc Cramer). When they happen upon her tombstone, though, they discover that the plot has been tampered with, and that the woman’s body has disappeared.
The particular region they’re visiting, concerningly called the Isle of the Dead, is supposedly uninhabited. But Mrs. Pherides’ vanishing, which is punctually followed by a spell of distant, disembodied singing, leads Oliver and Pherides to discover that there are, in fact, people living on this spot of land. The taking of Mrs. Pherides’ cadaver was, simply, an effect of local peasants robbing graves in the name of possibly finding, and then selling, ancient Greek artifacts. Pherides is relatively forgiving.
He and Oliver, given few other options, eventually end up spending the night at the home of the influential local Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), with an intent to leave in the morning. Upon waking, though, it is discovered that one of the houseguests, an English tinsmith named Andrew (Skelton Knaggs), is dead. It is possible that he died of a plague-esque illness, which is a conclusion offered by a visiting doctor (Ernst Deutsch).
The island is thus quarantined. But as the film progresses, we, and the inhabitants promenading about Aubrecht’s home, are increasingly unsure whether a continuous living up to the “dropping like flies” truism actually has to do with an epidemic, or if there’s something either homicidal or supernatural afoot.
Isle of the Dead, directed by the frequent Lewton collaborator Mark Robson and penned by the pioneering screenwriter Ardel Wray, is one of the Lewton era’s lesser efforts — an artful, sometimes-spooky effort undercut by ill-fittingly ornate dialogue and stilted performances. (Only Karloff, who is unsettling to watch from the get-go, suits the macabre atmosphere.) Its economic 72 minutes are languorous and drippy; the attempts to build tension are labored.
The last act, however, is so excellently staged and photographed that it almost makes up for the largely unappealing lassitude of everything else. Involving a quasi-she-ghost wandering about the property in a phantasmic white gown, knifing down those who purportedly wronged her, the coda captures why the Lewton period was so remarkable. Even when a piece of merchandise was mostly uninspired — like Isle of the Dead — it would still contain more stylistic innovation and intrigue than most extensions of the genre’s zeitgeist at the time.
1 Hr., 19 Mins.
it marks a becoming evolutionary step. One wonders how the latter might have built on its germane narrative ideas had he been given the chance.
The film, which takes place in 1761 London, stars Anna Lee (fantastic) as Nell, a young woman who puts on an investigative reporting hat for the sake of exposing the malpractice of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, a psychiatric hospital run by a corrupt apothecary general named Sims (Karloff). Her mentor, the aristocrat Lord Mortimer, was recently a patient there, and mysteriously died while trying to escape.
In the middle of her investigation, though, she inadvertently finds herself locked up with the patients she’s trying to help. Sims, a snaky authoritarian, has caught on to what she is trying to do, and must strain to keep her quiet.
In contrast to Lewton’s reliance on the unsaid as propellers of fear, most of what makes Bedlam so disconcerting is frankly portrayed. In one of the movie’s more unnerving scenes, Sims shows off a patient, who is half-nude and painted in gold gloss, to guests attending a dinner party. When the patient dies in front of them, laughter erupts. At the film’s climax, our antagonist is buried alive — plopped behind a hole in a wall and expeditiously entrapped by the men he’s wronged. The Poe-like phantasmagory is complementary toward the orphic Lewton touch.
In February, 1946, Charles Koerner, a champion of Lewton who was also RKO’s executive vice president, died of a heart attack, leading to studio turmoil. In part due to budget cuts, Lewton was let go; the latter, whose health deteriorated in the ensuing years, then worked sporadically in the industry until 1951. That year, he died, at the age of 46, following a series of heart attacks — a premature, tragic end to a distinguished, frequently dazzling career.
Isle of the Dead: B
al Lewton (1904-1951) had only worked in the entertainment industry for about a decade when he was named the head of RKO Pictures’ horror unit in 1942. Upon his appointment, Lewton, who had previously acted as a novelist, then an assistant and publicist to the brawny producer David O. Selznick, was given relative creative freedom, so long as he abided by three rules: Every film produced by the unit had to be made for $150,000 or less; clock at less than 80 minutes; and be titled by highers-up, who
sle of the Dead's follow-up, and the last film Lewton produced as the head of RKO’s horror unit, was 1946's Bedlam. It's an exquisite denouement to an exalted run — somehow even more aerodynamic than the majority of the Lewton-backed efforts. Rather than make the most of murky visuals and faint-to-potent interruptions by the supernormal, it's reliant on an unambiguous storyline as the foundation for all its thrills. Surprisingly, considering how well Lewton and his collaborators worked with the implied,