OTR – The Shadow of Fu Manchu Episode 1

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During the month of February, I’ll be taking a look at the character of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu. The first of a three-part series begins this Friday, February 10, with a description of who Fu Manchu is and the novels in the adventure series. In the following weeks, I’ll be looking at the films and television shows before discussing whether this character has a place in the 21st century.

To start off this month-long analysis of Fu Manchu, let’s start with the 1939 radio program, The Shadow of Fu Manchu. It wasn’t the first time Fu Manchu had been featured on the radio. There were radio appearances on The Collier Hour as far back as 1927, followed by a CBS program in 1932 along with several BBC productions.

In 1939, The Shadow of Fu Manchu aired as three-times weekly serial before eventually expanding to five daily episodes. In total, there were 156 episodes. Ted Osbourne played Fu Manchu with Hanley Stafford as Nayland Smith and Gale Gordon as Dr. James Petrie.

For a much more detailed analysis of Fu Manchu on the radio, I recommend you read the January 20, 2012 edition of Martin Grams Blog. Martin is a legend in the field of old time radio history and has written numerous books on various programs, including The Radio Adventures of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. Both are highly recommended!

Now, warm up next to the fire and listen to the first episode of The Shadow of Fu Manchu. The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu originally aired on May 8, 1939.

Classic Horrors Club Podcast – It’s a Disaster II

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While the world falls apart around us, Jeff and I focus on two specific disasters. In San Francisco, a fire rages out of control in the world’s tallest building. In New York, a meteor splinter decimates the city. It’s going to take more than your regular hosts to cover what’s happening, so we’ve invited some special correspondents…Steve Turek, Alistair Hughes and Jonathan Angarola!

In episode 76 of the Classic Horrors Club Podcast, we’re discussing the pinnacle of 1970s disaster films, The Towering Inferno (1974), and what some would consider the nadir, Meteor (1979). Among the first-time viewings and revisits of your podcasters, you’ll find much agreement, but also some surprising conclusions.

Don’t forget to check out the video companion on our YouTube channel. Put images to the voices… if you dare!

Call us at (616) 649-2582 (CLUB), email at classichorrors.club@gmail.com or join us in our clubhouse at https://www.facebook.com/groups/classichorrors.club/!

We’d also appreciate if you’d give us an honest rating on Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud. Thank you!

You can find Jeff at:

Coming up next month, we journey back to the year 1971 for a pair of flicks where women take the reigns in tales of two legendary monsters…Lady Frankenstein and Countess Dracula!

Scrooge Comes to Life in the Silent Film Era – Part 2

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“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

With three film adaptations of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol by 1910, early film was already beginning to advance. Slightly longer production times were becoming more common and many eyes in Hollywood were focused on adapting stage productions for the silver screen. This was also common in the UK, as many stage actors would begin to make the transition to cinema. However, the stage was still considered legitimate while film was thought of as a passing fade by many. Enter Sir Seymour Hicks, the first actor to bring his stage performance of Ebenezer Scrooge to celluloid.

Hicks was born in 1871 and would make his stage debut at the age of nine. By 16, he was joining a theatrical company and touring America. In 1901, the year of the first film adaptation, Hicks graced the stage as Scrooge for the first time as well. At the young age of 30, Hicks began a lifelong relationship with the role. He would play the role thousands of time on stage, so it’s no surprise that he would also play Scrooge on film not once, but twice. The first was in 1913 before Hicks had even turned 40.

Scrooge (1913) opens with a brief description of the story to unfold with a vision of Charles Dickens writing the story. Then, a description of Scrooge is seen before the story proper begins with Scrooge arriving at his office. With a running time of 40 minutes, Scrooge is still considered a short film. However, at more than double the length of the previous 1910 adaptation, the extra running time allows for an expanded vision of the classic story.

Some aspects of the story seen in this version are not commonly present in other adaptations. There is a seen where a grocer comes to Scrooge for assistance to help feed the poor but is turned away. This replaces the more common scene of the local businessmen asking Scrooge for money. There is also a brief scene where Scrooge gives Cratchit a gift of a used quill which is also never seen in other versions. Granted, Scrooge makes a comment about it making Cratchit work better but I still found that scene particularly odd as it shows Scrooge in an almost more pleasant light too early in the film.

Another difference here is that Jacob Marley represents the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Now, this was a plot device that had been done in some of the previous, shorter versions but is an odd choice here considering the slightly longer running time. I also found the special effects less effective here than in the earlier versions. It may be that the shorter American productions were more innovative or had a bigger budget. The script also limits Scrooge’s mobility, having everything take place in his office as well as Scrooge having visions of him helping Cratchit’s family rather than actually displaying on screen. Poor Tiny Tim gets the short end of the script again but, at least, he gets mentioned here more than in the past. All that said, this UK production is still very well done and well worth watching to see the progression of Scrooge on screen.

Scrooge wouldn’t be seen in America until 1926, by which time it would have the title of Old Scrooge. It’s likely that American audiences were less than impressed with this production as there had been quite a few advancements in film in the previous 13 years and 40-minute films were becoming overshadowed by longer and more elaborate productions.

In recent years, a copy of A Christmas Carol (1914) has resurfaced for audiences to rediscover. Charles Rock portrays Scrooge in this two-reel London Films Production from director Harold Shaw. Rock seems to be channeling Hicks in his performance as there are many striking similarities, at least visually. George Bellamy’s Bob Cratchit is a bid odd (those wide eyes are bit unnerving) as he seems to be a little too gleeful. I’ve always thought the better portrayals of Cratchit are those that show him to meek and almost sorrowful around Scrooge. This leads to highlighting how much of a changed man he becomes once he leaves the office and spend times with his family. All of the ghosts are done quite well here and the story breezes along at a rapid pace of just over 20 minutes. Overall, it’s quite entertaining considering the time limitations.

In 1916, Rupert Julian directed and appeared as Scrooge in The Right to be Happy. This film was nearly one hour long but is now sadly lost to the ravages of time. Six years would pass until the next adaptation appeared. A two-reel version made in 1922 as part of the UK series Tense Moments with Great Authors was directed by George Wynn and starred H.V. Esmond as Scrooge. It now exists only in its 1929 edited American version.  At 9 minutes, it clearly tells a greatly abbreviated version and is really nothing more than a curiosity by today’s standards. That said, Esmond looks quite convincing as Scrooge with a performance that seems very similar to that of Alastair Sim from 1951s Scrooge. We also get to see two of the ghosts in addition to Marley, something overlooked in some previous versions. I would love to see the full-length version but, for now, this edited release gives us a glimpse of a fairly well-done production.

Next came A Christmas Carol (1923) starring Russell Thorndike, another adaptation that is once again available to enjoy and compare to other productions. The current state of the film is poor but is still enjoyable enough although it might take a little bit of an effort. Due to poor contrast, Thorndike’s visual performance tends to wash out at times, making it hard to truly judge how well he played Scrooge. Marley isn’t as effective here, nor are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who appear in rapid fire succession. I’m thankful to have recently seen this but it’s not quite as enjoyable as other versions. This would be the last time we’d see Scrooge in the silent film era (aside from the 1926 American release of 1913s Old Scrooge).  

With the arrival of sound, Scrooge would lay dormant until 1935 when Sir Seymour Hicks reprised the lead role some 22 years after his 1913 film. It would start a new era of Scrooge with so much more of the original story making it to screen with the longer running times and bigger budgets. From Reginald Owen and Alastair Sim to George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart, many actors would bring Scrooge to life in ways the actors from the silent era never could. However, there is a great charm and a certain amount of old world grittiness present in these early silent films. Future adaptations would expand on the tale, allowing the viewer to hear the change in Scrooge’s voice and see all three ghosts on-screen. However, these silent films kept the story of Scrooge alive in the hearts of film lovers for generations, solidifying their importance in cinematic history.

“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” 

I’ve created a special Scrooge: A Christmas Carol playlist on my YouTube channel to make it easier for you to find these early adaptations of the much beloved Christmas classic.

A previous version of this article was published in December 2017. This edition has been updated to include new information.

1843 illustration by John Leech

Scrooge Comes to Life in the Silent Film Era – Part 1

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“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

The immortal opening paragraph of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol sets the stage by establishing the death of Jacob Marley, who is, ultimately, a very key character in Ebenezer Scrooge’s life and in the journey that awaits him. A Christmas Carol is one of the most beloved tales of the holiday season, having been told countless times on stage, screen and radio since its’ first publication in December 1843. Charles Dickens himself even began public readings of his story in 1849, further cementing the fact that it would never be out of print.

Every December, I listen to several different audio adaptations, but nothing ever seems to surpass the 1939 Campbell Playhouse broadcast featuring Lionel Barrymore in the lead role. He would portray Scrooge on radio for 20 years from 1934 to 1953 with only two exceptions. In 1936, he elected to skip the performance when his wife died and, in 1938, he let Reginald Owen have the spotlight for his performance in MGM’s film adaptation. In fact, Barrymore was cast to play Scrooge in that 1938 film. However, poor health due to arthritis forced him to pass on the role, robbing generations to come of what could have been an iconic performance. Barrymore died on Nov. 15, 1954, a little more than a month before what would have been his 21st performance.

While Barrymore is rightfully credited with making Scrooge a household name in the 1930s and influencing MGM to produce their own film version, old Ebenezer had already been seen countless times on the big screen. In fact, there were nine different adaptations made in the silent film era, from 1901 to 1929, with varying degrees of success. In those early days of film, most productions were often quite short, lasting anywhere from mere seconds to less than five minutes.

The very first adaptation came in 1901 and was entitled Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost. Directed in the UK by Walter R. Booth, it boldly attempted to tell the tale in just over six minutes, with the emphasis on Jacob Marley. Rather than being shown the errors of his ways by the three visiting ghosts, it’s Marley, wearing a stereotypical ghostly white sheet, who presents the visions to Scrooge. Despite having limited resources, the film actually has some impressive special effects and some scenes were enhanced with early color tinting. Daniel Smith does an adequate job of portraying Scrooge, despite the fact that the overall presentation seems more like a stage play, which was a common story telling device in early cinema. Thankfully, this earliest film version, only 30 years removed from the death of Dickens himself, still exists more than a century later. Despite that it is missing much of the classic story, it remains a nice curiosity and a glimpse into Christmas past.

The next adaptation came in 1908 from Essanay Studios, marking the first American adaptation. Unfortunately, this film has been lost to the ravages of time, so very little is known of this early production. It is believed to have been approximately 15 minutes long and starred Thomas Ricketts as Scrooge. Early scene descriptions give us an idea of what we could have seen and it appears that the three ghosts were actually present on screen this time. Unlike the 1901 film, it doesn’t appear that the film ended on Scrooge helping Tiny Tim. Rather, it concludes with Scrooge simply realizing the errors of his ways. The film received high praise from the critics of the day, so we can only hope that a print resurfaces someday so that modern audiences can once again experience the first American version of Scrooge.

Two years later, in 1910, another film version was produced in the United States. This time, the legendary Edison Manufacturing Company gave us a ten-minute adaptation featuring Marc Dermott in the lead role. McDermott is actually well-known amongst silent film aficionados for his roles in such classics as The Sea Hawk (1924) and He Who Gets Slapped (1924) alongside Lon Chaney. This 1910 film is just one of over 140 films McDermott would do for Edison, establishing him as a star in early Hollywood. McDermott does quite well in the role of Scrooge, for as much as we can tell without being able to hear his voice. The extra running time allows more of the ghostly interactions to play out with greater detail. Early special effects help give the past visions a more spectral appearance, rather than being a limitation. This is really the first time we get to witness the longer redemption of Scrooge on screen. Once again, Tiny Tim is less of a presence here, due most likely to the limited running time. However, it doesn’t hurt the overall presentation, which is well-worth watching.

Three years later, A Christmas Carol is finally adapted into a film with a longer running time and Seymour Hicks would give us the first of his two cinematic versions of Scrooge. Return tomorrow as Scrooge enters the twilight of the silent film era.

I’ve created a special Scrooge: A Christmas Carol playlist on my YouTube channel to make it easier for you to find these early adaptations of the much beloved Christmas classic.

A previous version of this article was published in December 2017.

1843 illustration by John Leech

A Old Time Radio Christmas Present

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It’s been my personal Christmas tradition for more than 40 years now to listen to broadcasts from radio’s golden age. It’s not the holiday season unless I hear Jack Benny go shopping or Fibber get emotional as Teeny (really Jim Jordan’s wife Marian aka Molly) sings ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. And ever since Christmas Eve 1989, I’ve enjoyed hearing Lionel Barrymore give what I believe to be his best performance of Ebenezer Scrooge on The Campbell Playhouse in 1939.

Last year, I created an Old Time Radio Playlist on my YouTube Channel. You’ll find a nice selection of great programs like the Lux Radio Theatre, The Great Gildersleeve, Sherlock Holmes and, of course, Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly. These are just a small representation of some of my personal favorites. Consider it a gateway to another world that has so much more to offer.

I’ve added a few new programs this year. There are some great episodes of Suspense, as well as the Lux Radio Theater’s presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart. Speaking of Jimmy, you should tune into his rendition of A Christmas Carol on the great western series, The Six Shooter. I’ve also added an interesting 1931 BBC radio broadcast and the 1975 CBS Radio Mystery Theater version starring E.G. Marshall.

Speaking of old Scrooge, you’ll still find that 1939 Campbell Playhouse version of A Christmas Carol with Orson Welles and music conducted by Bernard Hermann. But you’ll also hear more of Lionel Barrymore. He first played the role of Scrooge on radio in 1934 and proceeded to play the role annually every year through 1953 with only two exceptions. In 1936, Lionel’s brother John played Scrooge after Lionel’s wife had passed away. Then, in 1938, Lionel elected to abstain from the role to ensure all of the focus was on Reginald Owen’s MGM’s film adaptation, a role he was forced to turn down because of complications with arthritis. I’ve added his 1944 broadcast from Mayor of the Town, as well as his special performance for an MGM record release in 1947. Finally, you can listen to the 1954 Hallmark Hall of Fame rebroadcast of his final performance in 1953. This broadcast was just a little more than a month after Lionel’s death on Nov. 15.

So, put another log on the fire, grab a glass of Smoking Bishop and a Christmas cookie (or two), then settle in for some wonderful programs from a bygone era. Let the theatre of your mind take to you to Christmas Past. Merry Christmas!

Classic Horrors Club – A Val Lewton Retrospective

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In episode 75 of the Classic Horrors Club Podcast, Jeff and I discuss the life and films of producer Val Lewton, with a deep dive into two of his “less popular” movies, The Leopard Man (1943) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944). We’re also “joined” by two guests. Okay, we’re just sharing their thoughts but they are a pair of legends…director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and author/historian William K. Everson (Classics of the Horror Film).

While we agree on their opinions of the films, we disagree on whether or not it matters that The Curse of the Cat People is supposedly a sequel to Cat People (1942).What do you think? In either case, these films are a revelation and you’ll want to watch then again after you hear the discussion!

We’ve had some copyright issues with the video companion this month but if you live outside of the U.S., check it out on our YouTube channel.

Call us at (616) 649-2582 (CLUB), email at classichorrors.club@gmail.com or join us in our clubhouse at https://www.facebook.com/groups/classichorrors.club/!

We’d also appreciate if you’d give us an honest rating on Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud. Thank you!

You can find Jeff at:

Coming up next month, the long awaited sequel finally arrives as we kick off the new year with…It’s a Disaster Part Deux! This time around it’s fires and asteroids as we take a look at The Towering Inferno (1974) and Meteor (1979).

Val Lewton – Bedlam (1946)

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This article was originally published on October 19, 2014 as part of a Boris Karloff film celebration. It’s appearing once again as part of a salute to the films of producer Val Lewton both here at Monster Movie Kid and on this month’s episode of the Classic Horrors Club Podcast.

The third and final film collaboration between Boris Karloff and producer Val Lewton came in 1946 with Bedlam.  It also was the last horror film Val Lewton did for RKO Pictures. It was inspired by a series of paintings by 18th century English artist William Hogarth entitled A Rake’s Progress. The paintings chronicle 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, and 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 yourself into the mindset of the period to thoroughly enjoy 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).

Over the years and after multiple viewings, I now find that Bedlam is the lesser of Karloff’s three films with Lewton, although I do enjoy it more than I used to. Isle of the Dead is a film I’ve grown to appreciate more but it’s still not nearly as good as The Body Snatcher, which is a true classic. 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 out-of-print Val Lewton Collection. Bedlam is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection paired with another great Lewton film, The Ghost Ship (1943).

The Mean One is a Pink Elephant Gift You Just Might Want to Keep

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In recent years, there has been a seemingly unending gift bag of Christmas horror movies arriving on home media and streaming. The output is nowhere near the levels of Hallmark but when you start getting a string of quickly produced horror flicks intended to cash in on a holiday, there’s bound to be a few lumps of coal. Sometimes, you find a diamond in the rough and others, you get a gift that’s not bad, not great but somewhere in the middle and that’s exactly where The Mean One falls.

If you know the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and who doesn’t by now, then you already know the basic plot points that gets this movie started. A young girl named Cindy witnesses a green monster in a Santa outfit in her house on Christmas. She offers him her necklace as a gift of friendship and it seems as if the encounter is going to end well…that is until her mother arrives and attacks the still unseen creature before she’s accidently killed. Cindy screams “Monster” and a defining moment now turns this seemingly borderline benevolent creature into a killer.

Flash forward years later and Cindy (Krystle Martin) is now returning to Newville with her father to confront her fears. The town no longer celebrates Christmas and it seems that her return unleashes The Mean One from the mountaintop north of Newville. The usual slasher mayhem follows with some crazy fun sequences courtesy of David Howard Thornton. Fresh off of Terrifier 2 and clearly channeling his past life as a member of the Grinch musical, Thornton is wearing a slightly darkened and dirtier version of the Jim Carrey Grinch costume. He also brings forth a little of Carrey’s manic performance with part Robin Williams and even a little bit of Pennywise. The kills are creative and as the back story unfolds, we learn a little more of what is going one. You may actually find yourself enjoying this film if you can chuckle your way through some very bad dialogue as the adult Cindy and Officer Burke (Chase Mullins) are clearly reenacting one of the latest Hallmark Christmas rom coms.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from a very low budget, inexperienced actors and the worst CGI blood I’ve seen in nearly twenty years. It definitely pulls you out of the moment. It would have been better if the producers had chosen to downplay the blood rather than going the CGI route. It doesn’t ruin the film but the end product does suffer because of it. The Mean One is also about 15 to 20 minutes longer than it needs to be. A runtime of 70-75 minutes would have been much better. And let’s not talk about the really bad news broadcaster and social media segments. Nor should we ever have to listen to that horrific pop version of Silent Night that plays as the end credits begin to roll. However, along the way, you can’t help but chuckle as the narrator rhymes his way through the flick or when we get the arrival of a doctor ever so casually referred to once as…Dr. Zuess (John Bigham)!

I think it’s a miracle that the Dr. Seuss estate allowed this movie to be made. That said, after a little research, there appears to be a very gray legal area that just might explain why it wasn’t stopped. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if some legal action does occur at some point because How the Grinch Stole Christmas is most definitely not in the public domain. While the producers of this film are very careful to not cross the line and stay firmly in the territory of parody, it’s on very thin ice indeed.

The Mean One is a lot more fun than I anticipated despite its’ flaws and if you keep your expectations a little low. It could very well be a future Christmas cult classic. In fact, I could easily see Joe Bob Briggs bringing this to a future holiday edition of The Last Drive-in. For now, it’s getting an exclusive theatrical release in Regal Cinemas but be sure to check your local show times because it’s not playing everywhere. It will likely arrive on streaming soon, in which case I’d recommend you check it out for a little something different. It may not be an instant classic but at least it’s not a deranged Easter bunny. That movie arrives in the spring!

All images are copyrighted by Sleight of Hand Productions and Atlas Film Distribution.

Val Lewton – Isle of the Dead (1945)

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This article was originally published on October 18, 2014 as part of a Boris Karloff film celebration. It’s appearing once again as part of a salute to the films of producer Val Lewton both here at Monster Movie Kid and on this month’s episode of the Classic Horrors Club Podcast.

The second of the three films Boris Karloff would do with producer Val Lewton was actually going to be the first. Isle of the Dead (1945) started its’ troubled production in July 1944 but was halted when Boris Karloff suffered a back injury. Karloff’s back problems date back to the original Frankenstein (1931) when he was forced to carry Colin Clive for hours while also wearing those heavy boots. This was the first real sign of the serious problems that would plague him throughout his career and would eventually leave him wheelchair bound.

The film was inspired by a painting entitled Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin. It appears behind the opening credits and would be a strong influence in the script written by Ardel Wray with the usual contributions from Val Lewton, who remains uncredited this time. The film is set during the Greek wars of 1912. This was an important part of Greek history and one of the very few attempts on film to recognize it.

Karloff plays General Pherides, a stern commander who orders one of his men to commit suicide in his very first scene. Along with an American reporter named Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), he travels to the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the general’s wife who had died many years earlier. Upon their arrival, they discover the graves have been robbed. They soon meet a group of individuals all displaced from the savages of war, waiting for a lull in the fighting so that they may return home. But they are soon warned by an old housekeeper that vorvolaka is there as well, an evil creature who sucks the life out of human beings. When a fear arises that septicemic plague is on the island after one of the guests dies, they are all quarantined until it runs its course. Is the vorvolaka real and will they survive until they can leave the island?

I first discovered this film on a summer afternoon in 1991. A local television station was airing movies in the late afternoon and many of them were from RKO Pictures. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere that is so typical of Lewton films but I must admit, it’s not one of my favorites. Perhaps it’s because the movie suffered an odd production and appears disjointed at times. However, I did find that after a recent viewing, my appreciation for the film has grown over the years.

After filming was suspended to allow Karloff to have back surgery, Lewton went on to film The Body Snatcher while waiting with Karloff while waiting for the rest of the cast to reunite. The film was one of the most expensive Lewton ever made and, subsequently, barely turned a profit. I think Karloff gives a good performance here but not up to the level he did in The Body Snatcher nor his next film with Lewton, Bedlam (1946).

Isle of the Dead is still entertaining and well worth a viewing. It’s available on DVD as part of the now out-of-print Val Lewton Collection and on Blu-ray from the Warner Archives Collection.

Val Lewton – The Body Snatcher (1945)

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This article was originally published on October 17, 2014 as part of a Boris Karloff film celebration and on July 4, 2020 to honor director Robert Wise. It’s appearing once again to kick off a salute to the films of producer Val Lewton both here at Monster Movie Kid and on this month’s episode of the Classic Horrors Club Podcast.

After a rather uninspiring performance in The Climax (1944), Karloff went to work on another film for Universal, House of Frankenstein (1944). It was another mad doctor role but it was exciting to see him alongside the monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man. However, it was his next film that allowed him to leave the laboratory behind and take on a very different role. Under the production of the legendary Val Lewton, The Body Snatcher (1945) is easily one of Karloff’s best films that showed us he was much more than a man in a lab coat.

The Body Snatcher is based on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson short story with a screenplay written by Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton (credited as Carlos Keith). It is set in Edinburgh in 1831 and tells the tale of Dr. Wolf MacFarlane (Henry Daniell, Professor Moriarty in the 1945 Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film Woman in Green). Dr. MacFarlane runs a medical school where one of his students, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade, The Ghost Ship), has befriended a young paralyzed girl in need of surgery. While Fettes inspires the doctor to perform surgery and reignite his medical passions, there looms a mysterious presence in the background…cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff). It seems Gray “acquires” bodies for the good doctor by any means necessary. Gray and Dr. MacFarlane go back to the time of the infamous Burke and Hare trial as Gray holds a secret that could destroy the doctor.

Karloff is absolutely amazing in this picture. He greatly appreciated the opportunity to play such a well-written and developed character. It was refreshing for him to play something different than the countless mad scientist roles he had been playing. The relationship between Gray and MacFarlane allowed Karloff to display his acting abilities not always possible in some of his other films. When we first see him, he befriends the little girl and seems utterly charming. Seconds later, he shoots an evil look towards the doctor’s housekeeper that tells us all it not as it appears. In every scene, Karloff emits an evil charm that is frightening.

The Body Snatcher would be the eighth and final time Karloff and Bela Lugosi would work together. RKO Pictures insisted Lugosi be added to help with box office appeal and Lewton reluctantly wrote a role for Lugosi. His role is a very small one as Joseph, an assistant to Dr. MacFarlane. However, the scene between Karloff and Lugosi is amazing and a fitting way for the two to end their on screen performances together.

For anyone who has seen a Val Lewton film before, you know exactly what to expect. A tale with some truly scary moments wrapped up in a movie where the horror elements are downplayed in a world full of shadows and mystery. The final scene is horrific and legendary director Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) walked away from the picture with a great deal of respect and a new opinion on the acting talents of Karloff.   

The Body Snatcher was the first of three consecutive films Karloff did for producer Val Lewton. While Lewton only worked on 14 films, his 9 horror films stand out as not only his best but true classics of the genre. Karloff is amazing in this film and I highly recommend it. It’s now available on a fantastic Blu-ray edition from Shout Factory.