Saturday, December 2, 1972 (Midnight): Bedlam (1946) / Return of the Vampire (1943)

bedlamposter
Synopsis: Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is the young protege of the wealthy Lord Mortimer (Billy House).  Nell has a sharp tongue and an irrepressible spirit, and she is distinctly unimpressed by money and prestige.  Lord Mortimer is alternately amused and offended by her impertinence.

One thing Nell doesn’t approve of is Lord Mortimer’s choice of friends.  The sycophantic Master George Sims (Boris Karloff), overseer of the notorious Saint Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum – nicknamed “Bedlam”, is eager to insinuate himself into Mortimer’s company. To that end he provides entertainment to the nobleman’s parties in the form of inmates of the asylum, dressed up to costumes and forced to engage in humiliating perfomances for the guests’ amusement.  One young man struggles to utter the dialogue Master Sims had forced him to memorize; he dies because his body has been thickly coated with paint.  To Lord Mortimer and his Tory friends this is nothing to be concerned about, but Nell has come to pity the inmates who are so ill-used.  She tries to convince Lord Mortimer that the inmates need better care, but any headway she makes with her benefactor is quickly undercut by the cruel Master Sims.

A Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser) encourages her to act on her conscience, and Nell’s protests about conditions at the asylum become more strident.  This, along with Nell’s increasingly public barbs directed toward Lord Mortimer himself, give Master Sims the opening he has been seeking.  He convinces Lord Mortimer to allow an expert panel to examine Nell and assess her mental stability.  With Master Sims serving as the chair of the panel, Nell’s fate is sealed: she suddenly finds herself declared insane and made an inmate in Sims’ ghastly asylum.

None of Nell’s friends have any idea what has happened to her.  The Stonemason learns she has been made an inmate, but when he tries to see her he is denied admittance to the facility.  Going around to the back of the building, he makes contact with her at a barred window.  A terrified Nell asks the Stonemason for a weapon with which she can defend herself from the other inmates.  At first the Quaker balks at doing such a thing, but he takes pity on her and gives her the trowel he has with him.  He tells Nell that he will do what he can to get her released.

At first, Nell is almost frozen with terror at the prospect of an extended stay in Bedlam, and her mood isn’t helped by the fact that Master Sims enjoys coming in to gloat over her fate.  But Nell is stronger and more resourceful than Sims believes; to his great consternation she overcomes her fear and begins ministering to the inmates, doing what she can to improve the conditions they are living under.  She finds that many of the inmates respond positively to better treatment, and she earns the admiration and loyalty of those she has helped.  But as the overseer of the asylum, Sims has many ways to make Bedlam more unpleasant — and even deadly — for the unfortunate Nell….

Comments: William Hogarth’s 1734 series of paintings A Rake’s Progress is a biting satire of unearned wealth and moral waywardness, and its final panel, “The Madhouse”, served as the inspiration for Val Lewton’s film Bedlam.

Told in eight panels, the protagonist of A Rake’s Progress is a young man with the Dickensian name Rakewell, who inherits a fortune when his miserly father dies. He moves to London and quickly burns through his inheritance, not only by living beyond his means, but through more wanton activities — gambling and visiting houses of prostitution. He falls into debt and is nearly arrested for it, but is saved by the faithful Sarah, a maid from his father’s house whom he’d gotten pregnant and abandoned. Desperate to continue his ruinous lifestyle he marries a homely spinster for her money, but quickly loses this fortune as well. He’s sent to Fleet, the debtor’s prison, where he goes mad. The final painting shows him as one of the lunatics of London’s infamous Bethlehem Hospital — nicknamed Bedlam — where Sarah weeps beside him.

hogarth_bedlam

While this film doesn’t follow the plot of A Rake’s Progress, it is informed by Hogarth’s deeply moralistic tone. There is no character like Rakewell to be found, but the movie takes sides against the wealthy pleasure seekers who, like Lord Mortimer and the guests at his parties, exist only to be coddled and amused.  We see several such characters in the painting: the hapless Rakewell himself, whose dissolute lifestyle has cast him into penury and madness, and the wealthy women who have come to gawk at the antics of the asylum’s inmates. Bedlam really did open its doors for the amusement of such curiosity-seekers — for a price. The vulgarity and casual cruelty of the rich in the face of the inmate’s misfortune is the pivot on which the movie Bedlam turns.

The haughty Nell at first shows little sympathy for anyone, especially the “loonies” at the asylum, but after seeing the inmates abused for other people’s entertainment she slowly begins to change. She is changed too by the entreaties of the Quaker stonemason, whom she first treats with contempt, but she comes to rely on his sensible advice and stout heart.

This was the final collaboration between Val Lewton and Boris Karloff, and while all of their films were interesting, many consider this one to be their best. I have never been a fan of costume dramas myself, and the lives of the 18th-century plutocrats has never held much interest for me. Nevertheless this is both a lively morality play and a great thriller, and it is splendidly cast, with Karloff a particular standout as the oily Master Sims. Anna Lee gives an assured performance as Nell, Billy House is appropriately odious as the clueless Lord Mortimer, and Lewton regular Skelton Knaggs appears as Nell’s loyal dogsbody and occasional comic relief. Less supernatural than many of Lewton’s thrillers, Bedlam is a satisfying thriller and a great example of Lewton’s heart and humanity.

Return of the Vampire

Synopsis: October 1918 — a werewolf named Andreas skulks through a British cemetery at dusk.  He enters a crypt, where he awakens vampire Armand Tesla. Andreas tells Tesla that his latest victim is “still alive”, and that despite the attentions of Dr. Jane Ainsley and an Oxford professor named Saunders, no progress is being made toward curing her.  Andreas laughs at the notion that the scientists will find anything wrong with the girl that can be explained by science.

Meanwhile, Lady Jane Ainsley is working in the private sanatorium that adjoins her family estate.  She has been examining a blood sample from the very same woman Andreas spoke of, a woman who was brought in suffering from shock.  Ainsley notes that the woman’s blood isn’t anemic, as she had expected; it is in fact quite normal.  Rather, it appears that the woman’s blood had been drained from her body, which seems impossible.  Aside from two tiny pinpricks on her throat, she has no wounds of any kind.  Both she and Professor Saunders are baffled.

The patient becomes agitated, shouting fearfully to an unseen person in the room that she is loyal and hasn’t told anyone about what happened.  Moments later, she dies.




That night, Professor Saunders begins reading a strange treatise on vampirism, written a century ago by Dr. Armand Tesla.  By morning, Saunders is convinced that their unfortunate patient’s blood had been drained by a vampire.  Dr. Ainsley is reluctant to believe such a wild theory, but when Saunders’ granddaughter Nicki is revealed to have been bitten as well, Ainsley is convinced.

Ainsley and Saunders deduce that a vampire operating in the vicinity must have its coffin nearby, somewhere where it can be easily concealed.  Searching the crypt at a nearby cemetery, they discover the vampire sleeping.  They drive a railroad spike through its heart, killing it.  At that moment, Andreas enters the crypt, and he falls to the ground, transforming from a werewolf to a man — Tesla’s power over him has been broken.  They bury Tesla’s body in an unmarked grave.


Twenty-three years later, we find Andreas working as a trusted assistant to Dr. Ainsley, and Nicki has grown up to become a beautiful young woman, engaged to Dr. Ainsley’s son John.  But Britain is again at war, and one night a stray German bomb falls inside the cemetery.  Surveying the damage, a pair of workers find a man’s body with a railroad spike driven through it.  They remove the spike and re-inter the body.

Later, Dr. Ainsley sends Andreas on an important errand: a scientist named Dr. Hugo Bruckner has been spirited out of Nazi Germany and is arriving at the British coast.  Andreas is to meet him and escort him to a temporary residence.  But on the way, Andreas meets Armand Tesla.  Tesla once again gains control of Andreas, and forces him to kill Bruckner.  Taking the place of Dr. Bruckner, Tesla begins to plan his revenge on Dr. Ainsley and her family…..

Comments: So great was Universal’s influence on the horror genre in the 1930s and 40s that even today, if you were to ask someone on the street to imagine Dracula or Frankenstein or a werewolf, it will be Universal’s archetypes will come to mind, despite endless cinematic reboots and reimaginings. And tonight we see that influence extending even to Universal’s rival studios. Return of the Vampire works so hard to emulate the tropes of classic Universal horror that an undiscriminating viewer couldn’t be blamed for failing to see the difference. The presence of Bela Lugosi is the first, but by no means the only, reason for this; an enormous amount of vampire lore is lifted from the Universal playbook, including the stake-the-vampire / unstake-the-vampire business from House of Frankenstein, as well as the revenge subplot from any number of other films.

Return of the Vampire invents bits of vampire lore of its own, making the werewolf simply a loathsome servant of the vampire’s, created with dark magic, and positing that Armand Tesla became a vampire himself only after becoming keenly interested in it, and even writing a book on the subject. However, it’s never explained why Tesla, not being of noble blood himself, insists on wearing the white tie, tailcoat and cape associated with Count Dracula. We do know that Columbia had originally hoped to get permission to make a Dracula picture of its own; in any case it seems that this tasteful evening ensemble is simply de rigueur for any self-respecting vampire. Again, a case where the Universal archetypes were so powerful any other choice wouldn’t have seemed right.

Lugosi, of course, is in fine form, clearly thrilled to be (more or less) playing the Count again. Frieda Inescourt specialized in aristocratic roles and she is quite convincing as the regal and determined Lady Jane Ainsley; I loved every scene she was in. I liked Nina Foch somewhat more in this film than I did in its followup Cry of the Werewolf, as she was simply better cast here (though not terribly memorable) in a more conventional love-interest / woman-in-danger role. Interestingly, Foch was best-remembered not as an actress but as an acting coach, for many years teaching an extremely popular and well-regarded course in screen acting at USC.

Another strong performance comes from Matt Willis, a limited character actor who really manages to add some passion to his scenes; I loved the moment when Andreas is confronted by a reanimated Armand Tesla. Terrified at first, his courage builds as he realizes that Tesla no longer has any power over him. He’s wrong about that, but he makes a good show of defiance while it lasts.

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2 comments

  1. BEDLAM features a number of familiar faces well cast, I recall Ian Wolfe’s early role in THE RAVEN opposite Karloff, nice to see them together here too. Matt Willis gave up Hollywood by the early 50s, returning to his native North Carolina to form his own theatre group, remaining there until his death in 1989. I was stunned to find his name as co-author of a Monkees song issued in 1969, “Pillow Time,” which Micky Dolenz first heard as a lullaby by his mother, Janelle Johnston Dolenz. Both she and husband George would have met Matt Willis at Universal (George appeared with Boris in THE CLIMAX, Janelle was strangled by Rondo Hatton’s Creeper in THE BRUTE MAN).

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