The third and final film collaboration between Boris Karloff and producer Val Lewton came in 1946 with Bedlam. It also was last horror film Val Lewton did for RKO Pictures. It was inspired by a series of painting by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth entitled A Rake’s Progress. The paintings chronicles the decline of Tom Rakewell, the son of a merchant who succumbed to the pleasures of gambling and prostitution before ending up in Bethlem Hospital or, it’s more notorious name, Bedlam.
In Bedlam, the hospital is referred to St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum. Karloff plays the sadistic apothecary general Master George Sims. He revels in the abuse of the inmates, even using them as entertainment for Lord Mortimer (Billy House, The Stranger, Touch of Evil), an excessively rich man who is far too easily swayed in support of the abuse. Only Lord Mortimer’s protégé, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), seems to care about the well-being of the inmates. However, when she becomes a liability, Sims arranges for her to be institutionalized, it’s a race for her to find a way out before he manages to break her spirit and her mind. Will showing kindness to the inmates turn the tables and put Master Sims at their mercy?
Bedlam suffers from being a period piece and, as such, you really have to put up with a lot of proper English throughout the film. I can enjoy the authenticity to a point but you really have to be in the mood for it. The Quaker storyline gets real tedious at times but the scenes within Bedlam are entertaining. Karloff does a fantastic job as Master Sims, switching back and forth from trying to be a proper gentleman to being evil and sadistic when alone at Bedlam. I particularly enjoyed seeing his frustration when trying to make a lady out of one of his assistants in an effort to get her close to Lord Mortimer. And sharp eyes will recognize actor Ian Wolfe as the attorney/judge Sidney Long. He appeared twice in episodes of Star Trek (“Bread and Circuses” and “All Our Yesterdays”) as well as other genre films such as The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) and Mad Love (1935).
I enjoyed Bedlam better than Isle of the Dead but not nearly as much as The Body Snatcher. Karloff clearly enjoyed these films as they gave him opportunities to do something different than he had been doing for quite some time. All three are well worth tracking down in The Val Lewton Collection. Be sure to watch this clip and plan a triple feature for some rainy fall afternoon.