Madmen And Monsters: The Films Of Val Lewton And Boris Karloff

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Looking back at the films made with Borid Karloff by the reluctant horror film producer Val Lewton.

Whenever I’ve wanted to rile up the horror traditionalists (admittedly, not the most difficult of tasks), I’ve argued that Val Lewton’s much-acclaimed horror films from the 1940s are mostly undeserving of the praise heaped on them; that they are, in fact, horror films loved by critics who don’t like horror films, and who were sympathetic to the producer’s own apparent disdain for the genre. Lewton, so the story goes, despaired of being landed with catchpenny titles like I Walked with a Zombie or The Cat People, advertised with the sort of lurid posters that film distributors like RKO assumed would appeal to the horror audience. Lewton wanted to make more sophisticated fare than his rivals at Universal or Monogram or Republic – not for him the cheap thrill. And so he took the titles that he was lumbered with and subverted expectations with subtle dramas – I walked with a Zombie was a Caribbean Jane Eyre; The Cat People a study of sexual psychosis; Curse of the Cat People neither a sequel nor a horror film, but instead a childhood fantasy. Well done Mr Lewton, shouted the critics (including those writing books about horror films who claimed some affinity for the genre), for subverting the crass appeal of the horror film and making something that sophisticated people like us can enjoy, and who cares about the poor bastards who are paying to see the films in the face?. Essentially, Lewton was making ‘elevated horror’ before it was a thing, and like the films that ‘enjoy’ that status today, his work was determinedly appreciated by horror fans who felt a bit embarrassed by their own taste in cinema and were desperate to let people know that they were sophisticated and educated types.

I’m not, of course,  dismissing the films that Lewton produced – nine horror films in a brief four year period. The three films mentioned above are visually gorgeous, well-crafted and subtle, and there’s certainly room for the ambiguous and the understated in horror, just as there is room for the wildly excessive. I’d say that I Walked with a Zombie and The Cat People are actually magnificent movies – the former a fantastic melodrama, the latter a genuinely creepy psychosexual study. But there is still something a bit off in the way Lewton’s alleged contempt for horror movies and their audiences is so celebrated by people who claim to be horror fans. It’s like thanking someone for slapping you in the face. And frankly, given Lewton’s other, non-horror work – a forgettable collection of generic dramas and westerns – the idea that horror films were somehow beneath him is rather laughable. Without these films, he’d be entirely forgotten.

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Boris Karloff and Val Lewton

If this discussion of the pros and cons of Lewton’s work has not already wound up classic horror fans, then I’ll be more awkward and contrarian by saying that his final three horror films, all starring Boris Karloff, were his best. This is not a popular viewpoint. The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam are not seen as being anywhere near as sophisticated as the works from just a couple of years earlier – they are less subtle, less stylish, more overt in their horrors. We might wonder how such a change came about so quickly – perhaps, God forbid, the sophistication of the earlier films had more to do with their writers and directors than the workmanlike producer? Or perhaps because these three films eschewed the supernatural trappings of the earlier films, Lewton felt less of a need to fully subvert the genre – these were more thrillers and dramas than horror movies in the traditional sense, even if they had the era’s biggest horror star – or stars, in one case – heading their casts. It’s claimed that Lewton initially disapproved of Boris Karloff as a star because of his past work, but came around when he discovered that Karloff apparently hated his horror movies too (a questionable claim, but not entirely beyond the realms of possibility given the endless variations of mad doctor movies that he was making at the time).

Isle of the Dead, in fact, toys with the fear of the supernatural while presenting a (relatively) plausible story. In 1912, American reporter Oliver (Marc Cramer) joins a patriotic but ruthless Greek General (Karloff) on a trip away from the battlefield to an island that houses the tomb of the General’s late wife. On arrival, they discover that the tomb has been ransacked years earlier by locals, and meet a disparate group of people sheltering from the nearby war. However, their sanctuary soon becomes a prison, as a guest dies of the plague and the General insists that everyone stays put until the crisis is over, to avoid infecting the mainland. But slowly, as his grip on sanity starts to slide, he becomes convinced that the deaths are in fact due to Thea (Ellen Drew), a servant girl who he believes is a vampire-like creature.

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There’s the potential here for a story of increasing paranoia and mistrust among the island’s residents, but other than a superstitious old woman and Karloff, no-one believes Thea to be a monster, and neither does the audience – there are no ambiguities here, no suggestions that she really might be evil. And as Karloff’s character has been a rational – if somewhat cold-hearted – man through most of the film, his sudden belief in the supernatural over the more obvious reality is a little jarring. Things get gothic at the end with a well-telegraphed premature burial and subsequent demented revival, though this too is somewhat unconvincing as a plot twist.

Nevertheless, Isle of the Dead is a well-paced effort, handled in a straight-faced manner by director Mark Robson, who had previously directed the best of the ‘early’ Lewton productions, The Seventh Victim. Karloff excels in a rather more multi-faceted role than he often had to deal with, and while the combination of the gothic and the realist doesn’t always blend as well as it should, there is a lot to admire here, and the film is at its best when working as a study of how war can drive a person to madness rather than playing with Poe-inspired fantasy.

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Similarly, The Body Snatcher – based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story – disregards supernatural suggestion for more down to Earth and upfront horrors. When Stevenson wrote his story in 1884, the story of murderous grave robbers Burke and Hare was still a relatively fresh memory, and this tale follows a similar path, setting Henry Daniell up as Dr MacFarlane, a surgeon and medical teacher who needs a regular supply of corpses for his anatomy lessons and is supplied by resurrection man Gray (Karloff). But as graves become harder to rob, the sinister Gray turns to murder, and MacFarlane seems under his control, with suggestions of a shady past where the two of them were connected. Student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is soon caught up in the nefarious activities, as Gray puts the squeeze on MacFarlane – who on the one hand wants to escape his influence, but on the other is willing to pretend he doesn’t know how his ‘friend’ is obtaining the fresh corpses.

This film marks the final time that Karloff appeared with Bela Lugosi, and it’s sad to see the difference in these horror icons – Karloff gives a wonderful, creepy, slimy performance as the lead villain, but Lugosi, looking old and tired, has nothing more than a supporting role, rapidly dispatched and hopelessly, effortlessly outshone by his great rival. Karloff still had several strong roles ahead of him, but it was all downhill for Lugosi after this.

Robert Wise directs with a real sense of style – the film has a magnificent, nourish look – all shadows and light and with some wonderful gothic touches. It has to be said that the Edinburgh of 1831 shown in this film is a remarkably multi-cultural place, with American, English and Hungarian accents (one or two people manage a Scottish accent, but native Scots were clearly thin on the ground in Hollywood), and a subplot involving a crippled child is somewhat mawkish. But these are minor complaints about what is otherwise a very effective chiller – and one that, while portraying Karloff’s character as a fiend, at least accepts that the doctors seeking out bodies were generally decent types doing what they had to.

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Lewton’s dalliance with horror ended in 1946, with the notorious Bedlam. When I was a kid, Bedlam was one of those infamous titles that genre critics like Alan Frank and Dennis Gifford informed us was so shocking that it had been banned by the British censors, alongside the likes of Freaks, Island of Lost Souls and…erm… Dr Zanikoff’s Experiences in Grafting. Of course, a few years later I began to discover that the BBFC had banned hundreds of films, rarely with good reason. Inevitably, viewers expecting sensationalist horrors from this film will, for the most part, be disappointed.

Set in 1761, the film follows the head of the Bethlehem (or Bedlam) asylum, George Sims (Karloff) who runs the institution as a combination of prison and freak show, charging people to come and look at the ‘loonies’ and sometimes renting them out as party performers to wealthy wasters like Lord Mortimer (Billy House), who chortle as the poor wretches are painted gold and made to perform soliloquies until they die. Mortimer’s companion Nell (Anna Lee) is less amused by this and – with the encouragement of a local Quaker (William Hannay), she tries to convince her benefactor to reform the place. However, Sims convinces him that such reforms would be expensive, and when he backs out, Nell leaves him and then exposes him to public ridicule. Before long, she has been hauled in front of the Insanity Board and finds herself locked up in Bedlam, where she discovers that not all the inmates are as mad as they seem.

The first in a long line of films that see sane people locked up in hellhole asylums (cf: Shock Corridor, Behind Locked Doors, The Snake Pit), Bedlam is suitably indignant, handsomely mounted and has a masterful villain in the form of Karloff, rarely as slimy and cruel as he is here. Admittedly, at times the film feels like a slightly more expensive Todd Slaughter effort, with lashings of melodrama and theatrical excess, but on the whole, this is a serious-minded work. While Karloff is as effectively nasty a villain as you might hope for, he is also, perhaps, the film’s fly in the ointment – by most standards, this is not a horror film at all (and doesn’t have a sensationalist title to suggest otherwise) but has often been treated as one thanks to the presence of the star – and, ironically, the producer. Had this not been a Lewton film, I suspect it would have a very different reputation.

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Lewton died in 1951, his move from horror films into ‘A’ pictures that no one cares about having proved difficult, with his failing health proving an issue – at the age of 46, he died of a heart attack. His non-horror films have little to commend them – and were less challenging and intelligent by far. His reputation as a filmmaker is now entirely based on the horror films that he had such contempt for. I somehow doubt he’d be very happy about that.

DAVID FLINT

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2 comments

  1. You might want to read the original script for ISLE OF THE DEAD, which was changed at the 11th hour. The original script is a beautifully constructed affair, and had it been shot, the film would actually have made sense. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, and one pivotal character, Cathy, doesn’t even appear in the film.

    Read the script here:
    https://sfy.ru/?script=isle_of_the_dead_1945

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