Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Movies: Island getaway of the damned!

In a previous post I reviewed the excellent two-films-in-one-disc I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher package that was part of the Turner Entertainment 5 disc/10 movie Val Lewton retrospective. Those flicks were absolutely fabu, so I've been digging up the other discs in the series.

Next up, a Karloff double header that stars with Isle of the Dead and ends with Bedlam.

To recap, Val Lewton was head of RKO's horror unit for about a decade in the late 1940s. While there, Letwon connected talented directors with smart, dramatic scripts to create a signature style of horror: a moody, melodramatic, classy approach to a genre often too comfortable with mediocrity. The flicks on this disc showcase that approach, though I think it is debatable just how much of a horror film Bedlam is.

Let's start with Isle of the Dead. Set in 1912, during the opening year of the Balkan Wars and an outbreak of the plague brought on by the conditions of war, the film opens with Karloff, a brutal Greek general known as "the Watchdog," ordering one of his officers to commit suicide for the offense of failing to get his troops to the front fast enough. And this even thought the battle was won! Apparently, the Greek military operates on the same management principles as the Empire from the Star Wars flicks.

After establishing that Karloff's character is a thoroughly unpleasant jerk, we follow the general and an American reporter embedded, as it were, with the general's forces to a small island where the general's wife is buried. There the general finds his family tomb has been ransacked and his wife's body is missing. Searching for the looters leads the two to a small house were a group of random folks have hid themselves away from the conflict and the disease. We learn that one of them, a scholar of ancient Greece, has been collecting artifacts and, in hopes of making some money, his presence has spurred the locals to acts of plunder. This sort of explains the missing corpse of a wife (though who thought they could fob off the body of a twentieth century Greek woman as an ancient relic is beyond) and that subplot is rapidly dropped.

The movie begins in earnest when one of the members of the household, a traveling salesman, drops dead of the plague. A doctor from the general's camp comes and quarantines the house and all its inhabitants. The plague begins claiming the members of the household one by one. Cabin fever and the strain of not knowing who is next starts to fray the nerves of the trapped characters. Eventually, an old crone of a maid convinces the general that the ravages of the plague are not an accident of nature, but the act of an evil spirit from Greek mythology who has possessed the hottie of the group, a feisty young woman who is making goo-goo eyes with our reporter.

Isle of the Dead is a solid example of Lewton's gothic, dramatic brand of horror, though it doesn't measure up to I Walked with a Zombie. This is partly due to the fact that Mark Robson, who directed the film, is simply not as strong a director as Tourneur. His work is fine, but never great. The story is excellent and the cast, apart from Karloff, who takes his role and runs with it, works well enough to keep the viewer watching.

The second film on the disc, Bedlam, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Though it does star Boris Karloff and begins with a premise that might have tipped into horror, it ultimately becomes a kind of period piece message picture. The story involves a decadent minor aristocrat who, after being turned on by his mistress (though the character swears she is not his mistress, the relationship they are supposed to have in the flick makes no sense and I assume this was just a way for the filmmakers to get around the issue of having to discuss the fact that she's basically a kept whore), gets Karloff, head of therapeutic services at Bedlam asylum, to lock her up with the crazies. Once she's locked up, she goes through a conversion and begins to work to make the lives of the lunatics better. Meanwhile, a she and a friend attempt to win her freedom.

Bedlam is a fine bit of melodrama. It is competently directed, again by Robson, and features some real standout scenes. In particular, there's a wonderful scene where lunatics are forced to perform a series of dramatic presentations for the amusement of the aristocratic elite. Still, I don't think it was intended to be a horror flick and its inclusion here is a bit curious.

Using my controversial Topics Covered in VH1's "I Love the 80s – 1986 in 3D" Movie Rating System, I'm giving Isle of the Dead an enjoyable Not Necessarily the News rating. Good stuff, especially if you're a Karloff fans or have a particular interest in pop culture representations of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 (and who doesn't?). I'm not going to rate Bedlam. Not because it is a crap film, which it isn't, but because I don't think it is a horror flick and horror is how we roll here at Screamin'.

FUN SCREAMIN' TRIVIA: The number of flicks inspired by books and plays is enormous. You get fewer flicks from poems. Even fewer, I'd wager, are inspired by pieces of visual art: paintings, etchings, sculpture, and so on. In fact, I can only think of two that I've seen. Bedlam is one. It is supposed inspired by one of the etchings in Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. The second is The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover. Director Peter Greenaway has occasionally claimed that the inspiration for that flick came from the group portrait "The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem" by Frans Hals.


Anonymous said...

Trapped in the house with the plague.. I couldn't find this on IMDB plot search or google.. But I remember watching a movie in the 80's that was similar to the new 'Thing' movie -- folks in a room (box car on a train, I think) that were exposed to some alien plague, can't go to sleep as that activates the plague. Quite a bizarre movie, as one guy gets out and starts running and gets shot down by the army guys guarding it, etc.

Does that ring any bells, oh wizened one of horror ?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

You stumped me. I have no idea what movie you saw. Do you remember anybody from the cast?

Anonymous said...

Alas, no idea who was in it. Dang. Movie freaked me out as a kid. I recall one of the folks "breaking" into the lab car on the train, and a petri dish of stuff they dropped, exposing them all, etc. That's about it.