Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
If you like horror movies at all, you have to at least respect the work of Boris Karloff. The man was a true master, and like many a horror icon, was evidently kind and sweet in real life. Karloff was typecast as a madman and a monster early in his career, a casting that was only enhanced by his gaunt features and creep-inducing voice. Sure, he made plenty of stinkers but I’m of a mind to suggest that he was never at fault for a movie being bad. With Bedlam, he’s one of the main attractions and with right. This is the sort of low-budget, not-very-scary creep show that Karloff was meant to bring to life.
Bedlam is set in the mid-18th century in London, in and around the neighborhood of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, typically called “Bedlam.” As the film opens, we see an inmate fall from a high window of the asylum to his death. A passing nobleman named Lord Mortimer (Billy House) and his constant companion, actress Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) are riding past in a carriage and stop to see what the fuss was all about. It turns out that the dead man was an associate of Lord Mortimer, and the man had been paid for work that had not yet been completed. This angers Mortimer and he demands an audience with the asylum’s keeper, George Sims (Boris Karloff).
It won’t be a shock when I tell you that George Sims is a crooked, evil, underhanded man. He is, after all, played by Boris Karloff. Sims runs the asylum as a way to acquire personal wealth. He charges people to come and tour the asylum, pocketing the money for himself. His solution to the dead man is to undertake the contract himself of writing a play for Lord Mortimer, and suggests that as an added diversion, he can cast some of his inmates to perform it. The performance is hardly perfect, though, and one of the performers dies from being covered in gilt paint and suffocating. Neither Sims nor Lord Mortimer seem to think this is worth any concern, but Nell is horrified, as is Mortimer’s opposition in politics, a man named Wilkes (Leyland Hodgson).
Nell decides that she’d like to reform Bedlam and demands that Mortimer undertake the cost. He balks, and she leaves him; he responds by repossessing her furniture and leaving her destitute. To get back, she trains her cockatoo to recite an unflattering rhyme about Mortimer and then offers to sell the bird to the highest bidder, refusing any and all offers from Mortimer himself. Since this is starting to have a negative effect, both Mortimer and Sims try to bargain with Nell to no avail. Instead, they concoct some evidence against her and have her thrown into Bedlam to be “treated” by Sims himself.
The ringer in all of this is a stonemason (Richard Fraser) named Hannay. Hannay wants to contract work from the asylum, but because of his Quaker beliefs, is unwilling to bribe Sims to get the job. He is similarly appalled at the conditions in the hospital, and once Nell is thrown in, works to get her released. Since this is a film made in the Hays Code years, there’s no real doubt that Nell is eventually going to get out of Bedlam and that Sims will get what is coming to him. It’s the getting there that makes this interesting.
Bedlam certainly comes with real horror elements, but it isn’t that scary of a film. It’s kind of not supposed to be. It’s about as scary as a film could get for 1946. There are a couple of decent jump moments, but as with many a film produced by the great Val Lewton, it trades much more on its atmosphere and what it wants the audience to think and feel than it does on outright scares. Good moments include Hannay wandering the asylum looking for Nell, for instance, and the closing moments with Sims as the inmates of the asylum stat to turn on him for his vicious treatment of them.
This is also a movie with a very short running time, like a lot of Lewton’s films. Bedlam clocks in at about 78 minutes, which is really just long enough. The set-up is fairly substantial, and while we get an early look at some of the inmates when Nell pays to see them, we don’t really get the full horror of them until much later in the film. Bedlam trades on that idea of being scared of the insane. None of the other inmates are really safe, and even the ones that proclaim themselves to be sane or at least not dangerous are still suspect. This is a good use of mood in the film; it creates an edge that stays with the story for its entire length.
While the particulars of the ending are never in doubt, the actual execution of the ending turns out to be pretty interesting and one of the better scenes in the film. Again, this doesn’t really shoot for jump-out-of-the-seat scares, but more a sense of growing horror at what is actually happening and of what we won’t see on camera. Again, this is smart filmmaking, because it allows the audience to fill in those blanks in the worst way possible.
Bedlam isn’t going to shatter any records or probably be anyone’s favorite movie, but it’s a lot of fun for something this quick. You could do a lot worse than spending 78 minutes in the company of Boris Karloff.
Why to watch Bedlam: A fun plot and some great moments from Karloff.
Why not to watch: Like many an ancient “horror” film, it’s not really that scary.