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Warner Home Video presents
Isle of the Dead / Bedlam (1945-1946)

"The doctor will tell you what to do and I will see that you do it. We will fight the plague."
- General Nikolai Pherides (Boris Karloff)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 14, 2005

Stars: Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Anna Lee, Billy House
Other Stars: Marc Cramer, Jason Robards Sr., Richard Fraser, Glenn Vernon, Ian Wolfe, Leland Hodgson, Joan Newton, Elizabeth Russell
Director: Mark Robson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, thematic material)
Run Time: 02h:30m:55s
Release Date: October 04, 2005
UPC: 053939727029
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+BB- B+

DVD Review

Isle of the Dead and Bedlam, the last two horrors of Val Lewton for RKO have a number of interesting similarities beyond the fact they are both period pieces starring Boris Karloff and directed by Mark Robson. Each film was inspired by a work of visual art, rather than a literary source: the painting Isle of the Dead and Hogarth's The Rake's Progress, respectively. Both deal with themes of imprisonment and entrapment, religion and myth, and have as a central element disease, physical and mental. But they're also very different films, indicating the creativity in the Lewton stable.

The first film is set in 1912 Greece, during a civil war. General Nikolai Pherides (Karloff) is a harsh commander, and his evil reputation precedes him; among his acts were collecting taxes by the use of artillery, killing indiscriminately. But he has a soft spot, his dead wife, buried on a nearby cemetery island. Taking a war correspondent, Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), with him, the general heads to the island to pay his respects. But he finds the grave has been disturbed, and upon reaching a nearby cottage full of people he learns that grave robbers have broken into all the tombs, looking for antiquities. But that issue soon goes by the wayside, for one of the occupants of the house has the plague, and the general enforces a quarantine lest his army be decimated by the disease. However, some of the inhabitants of the cottage believe that the plague is the work of an evil spirit, the vorvolaka, a kind of psychic vampire that drains the life force rather than blood.

As the tempers flare in a small, enclosed surrounding, the similarities to Hitchcock's Lifeboat, released the year before, are obvious. The entrapment allows the suspense factor to be ratcheted up to the maximum, as the characters suspect that the vorvolaka may be one of them, and they turn on each other. There's also an element of working against the clock, since they need to survive until the wind shifts, bringing a dry sirocco that will kill the plague-carrying fleas. It, like its followup, tends to get a bit talky in places, but the setting is so moody and foreboding that it's hard to dislike the film. Ellen Drew as the mysterious Thea, the General's nominee for being the vampiric monster, cuts a memorable figure. Among the other notable supporting cast we find Alan Napier (Alfred from Batman) and Jason Robards Sr., and Karloff really digs into a most unusual role for him. His Nikolai is fierce, intense and has capabilities of cruelty, but deep down he's really just trying to do his duty as best he knows.

The final Lewton horror, Bedlam (1946) is really a political drama more than anything. Set in 1761 England, Karloff plays George Sims, the apothecary general of the Bethlehem Hospital, better known as Bedlam, the principal madhouse of England. Cruel and sadistic to his charges, he works in combination with bloated Lord Mortimer (Billy House) to keep his position secure. But Quaker Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is determined to bring reform to the hospital, and better treatment for the inmates. Since she threatens to upset the apple cart of position that Sims and Mortimer hold, they scheme together to get her committed to the asylum herself, aided by her broadly expressed feminist sentiments.

For being low budget, the film is nicely realized, with luxuriant costuming and sets, though the latter are somewhat limited in number. The Hogarth influence crops up over and over during the picture, with scenes from a number of his works being enacted on the screen as throwaway intellectual gags. Karloff really tears into the meaty lead role, dripping insincerity and venom throughout the picture. Lee in particular is terrific, infusing what could have been a dull character with plenty of spunk and Christian charity that has a vital sincerity born of works rather than faith. Some of the liberal hopefulness is larded on a bit thick, with the mad responding to her kindnesses without exception; it would have been more credible for her efforts to have produced mixed results. When she is sentenced to the asylum, her reactions are highly moving, especially in contrast to her carefree defiance of just a few moments before. But the terrors of the madhouse, all real-life, are devastatingly presented, compounded by Sims' political agenda to be truly horrific. That would be the swan song for Lewton in the field, making a few dramas and a western before his untimely death in 1951.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame source materials have dings, dirt and scratches throughout, but at least they're early generation materials with good detail and texture. Contrasts are fine, and both films offer a nice range of greyscale. Considering these were low-budget films now 60 years old, the condition is certainly acceptable under the circumstances; just don't expect full restorations appearing like a glossy new film. I didn't notice much significant artifacting or edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Both films offer only a 1.0 English mono track. The mixes are acceptable though nothing special. Minor hiss and noise, as one would anticipate, are present, but nothing terrible afflicts the audio.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 44 cues and remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Tom Weaver
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The sole extra on the disc is a commentary on Bedlam from esteemed writer Tom Weaver. He not only provides a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Lewton horrors, but he also touches on Isle of the Dead, making up for the omission of a commentary on that film. There's an enormous amount of information, with few empty segments. He not only covers the cinematic background but indulges in a brief history of the treatment of the mentally ill, which in the period were little more than zoos. Weaver seems to be reading, so the style is a little forced and unnatural, but that's a minor consideration compared to the content.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Boris Karloff is in fine form in the last two horror films produced by Val Lewton, with real life providing most of the fear rather than the supernatural.


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