Val Lewton ran the horror film unit at RKO Picture from 1942 to 1946. The massive success of Cat People, raking in four millions dollars on a $134,000 budget, meant that for that time the studio was relatively hands off as long as Lewton’s film weren’t too long and didn’t cost too much. It was a rare position for a producer to be in at that time in Hollywood. As long as the movies were suspenseful, they didn’t have to adhere to any set formula. Val Lewton was a man of education and taste, so he brought a breadth of subject matters and themes to his horror films.
One of the thematic subjects of several of his stories was authority, and its abuse. Isle of the Dead, and the two films on the Blu-ray reviewed here, The Ghost Ship and Bedlam, are centered around isolated places where a central figure holds sway over the lives of others, and how they come to abuse their power.
The Ghost Ship (1943) is about a new officer of a merchant ship who comes to believe the captain is going insane. Officer Tom Merriam almost from the start is inducted into Captain Stone’s theories on authority. Every life on that ship belongs to him. Merriam assumes he means they the captain has the responsibility for the men’s safety. He doesn’t realize the captain also means the men’s lives are there to spend as he sees fit. Merriam is eager to learn, but soon finds the captain overly capricious. He refuses to secure a boat hook because it has been freshly painted, and it destroys a life boat and nearly kills some of the crew when the winds take it. Later, a crew member who complains to the captain ends up stuck in a chain locker when the huge anchor chain is being sent down into it, and is crushed to death.
When they come to port, Merriam voices his complaints to the company, only to have no backup from the crew. He resigns the ship, but under a fluke after a brawl is brought back onboard, and essentially at the captain’s mercy. Despised by the crew, Merriam’s paranoia grows as it becomes increasingly clear the captain has no intention of letting him survive to the next port.
Clocking in at a brisk 69 minutes, The Ghost Ship is a fine example of the suggestive suspense that Val Lewton favored in the horror movies he produced. The ship is dripping with atmosphere, and though there is nearly no overt violence, a sense of impending doom saturates every scene in Merriam’s journey home.
It’s a different kind of atmosphere that suffuses Bedlam. At 80 minutes the longest of the Val Lewton-produced horror movies at RKO, it is also arguably not really a horror film, but more of a costume drama. It has the atmosphere of debauched indifference, instead of deliberately induced malignancy in The Ghost Ship.
Bedlam stars Boris Karloff in the last of the three films he did with Val Lewton, whom he credited with rescuing his career from simply retreading Frankenstein again and again. In this film, he’s Master George Sims, the chief apothecary of Bedlam asylum. He’s taken to task by his sponsor, Lord Mortimer, when an acquaintance of the Lord is mistakenly imprisoned in the asylum, and subsequently dies in an escape attempt. In order to appease the Lord, Sims holds a play where his inmates are the players. They’re really intended to be held up for ridicule, and Lord Mortimer finds it all amusing, even when one of the players suffocates in his gold painted skin and dies on stage.
Amusement as the highest order is the central theme of Bedlam. And the main character is Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), Mortimer’s female companion who is the height of amusement… until she objects to the death of the boy on stage. Then Sims contrives some of her “amusing” antics to be evidence of her insanity, and gets her confined to the sanitarium herself.
Neither of these films conform to the normal rhythms or tropes of the average horror film. Both have more in common with the conventional drama, though each have flourishes of creativity that exist outside the confines of genre. The Ghost Ship has the rather unusual convention of a narration by one of the members of the crew, a mute man who has regular voiceovers about his disconnection from conventional life.
Bedlam contrasts the intentionally insane but cutthroat London society with the diagnosed, yet rather more compassionate world of the mad inside the insane asylum. These people are sick, but do not seek to harm each other, while the sane world is a scene of intrigue, competition and dishonesty.
Both films are directed by Mark Robson, and both have cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, who was important in developing the film noir aesthetic. They are visually atmospheric, making the most of meager sets and budgets to create the sense of dread and darkness that is producer Val Lewton’s signature.
I wouldn’t place either of these films in the upper echelon of the Val Lewton RKO horror output, but they have significant merits. The performances of both the lead villains, Richard Dix in The Ghost Ship and especially Boris Karloff in Bedlam are fantastic, as each balances an apparently natural sense of authority with a personality that is unhinged. Neither are particularly scary, as horror films. The hint of the supernatural never arises in either film. But they are both surprisingly intelligent examinations of unfettered authority in the hands of the unworthy. And as presentation of the Val Lewton horror films, these transfers (newly restored from the original nitrate negatives, according to the back of the box) are unrivaled, and all of the Val Lewton-produced films are essential to a collector.
The Ghost Ship and Bedlam have been released by the Warner Archive. Both films are together on one Blu-ray disc. Extras for the films include a commentary on Bedlam by Tom Weaver, and theatrical trailers for each film.