by A.J. Hakari
1946’s Bedlam ended a brief but fruitful period in the history of horror. It was the last in a series of stylish genre pictures from RKO, who gave producer Val Lewton small budgets but carte blanche to shepherd whatever creepfests he wished from the titles given to him. Each of the nine films that came of this collaboration were unique in content and presentation, and Bedlam was no exception. But rather than concentrate on the supernatural, this Mark Robson-directed work found inspiration with man’s own capacity for cruelty, focusing specifically on those with arcane attitudes towards treating the mentally unsound. This story sidesteps using the world of the mad as fodder for cheap thrills (for the most part), instead using its time to criticize figures who turn a blind eye to the less fortunate — as well as over-zealous do-gooders who don’t really know what they’re getting into. All of this helps Bedlam play out as a film of uncommon complexity, as rich in observational wit as with instances of stark terror.
London, 1761. Though this period was referred to as the “Age of Reason” by some, there’s little of it to be found within the walls of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum — otherwise known as Bedlam. A squalid institution whose inmates are treated as subhuman and left to wallow in their own filth, Bedlam is overseen by Master Sims (Boris Karloff), a most cruel man without a shred of compassion for the mad. He’s even taken to trotting out his charges at parties for the amusement of the upper class, and it’s at once such soiree that feisty young Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) decides that enough is enough. Having tired of spending her days keeping dimwitted nobleman Lord Mortimer (Billy House) company, Nell takes pity upon the asylum’s residents and sets out to improve their conditions. But when it appears that doing so means tarnishing Mortimer’s image, Sims takes it upon himself to silence the girl by committing her to Bedlam. As she gains a better understanding of the poor souls she seeks to help out, she also finds guidance in the form of a Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser), who urges her to call upon the Almighty to preserve her sanity throughout this awful ordeal.
For a story that would be touted as an Oscar contender were it made today, it’s funny that Bedlam was still seen as a B-horror picture way back when. While it’s not wholly sensitive to the plight of the mentally ill (moments of voices cackling from the shadows and arms clawing at characters between iron bars are used for quick jolts a few times), the film’s overall tone is sympathetic. In the end, the lunatics aren’t who we’re meant to fear most but rather Sims, whom Karloff perfectly portrays as every bit the devil he is. Sims is a master of persuasion who speaks eloquently, rarely loses his temper, and uses his way with words to bend numerous people to his will. He’s calculating but never cartoonish, allowing Karloff to instill more dread into one’s heart with a condescending smile than with one of his patented thousand-yard glares. Sims also contributes to Bedlam‘s well-roundedness, as he provokes Nell by bringing up the selfish roots of her good intentions. He’s only speaking the truth when he mentions how clean beds alone won’t clear her conscience and that no matter how committed to reform she remains, she’ll always be prejudiced towards certain inmates. Where lesser movies would view a tale like this in black and white, this one thrives in the grey, creating a consistently tense psychological clash where the most harrowing torture comes not from physical forces but from our own personal demons.
That said, Bedlam still runs into the occasional spot of trouble navigating the tricky narrative waters into which it steered itself. As Nell, Lee brings a great deal of the fire and stubborn obstinance one needs when butting heads with a snake like Sims, but the character’s awakening to the horrors she’d only barely understood before isn’t executed in the smoothest of fashions. Although there’s nothing wrong with starting her off as a mildly-patronizing member of the upper crust and following her transformation to compassionate caregiver, Nell is depicted as either a full-on snob or veritable Mother Teresa. There’s a lot of middle ground here that’s left off the screen, as even after her big moment of accepting even the most supposedly dangerous inmates with open arms, she’s still playing the aloof card with Fraser’s pious handyman. Nevertheless, Lee comes through with an emotional performance, and her battle with Sims is resolved in a satisfyingly macabre fashion (owing much to the work of a particular Mr. Poe). As far as the other cast members go, Karloff again puts on a wily show, House does convincing work as the easily-swayed Mortimer, and while the Quaker isn’t the most riveting character, Fraser displays enough conviction to help his platitudes take off.
As it’s part period costume drama, Bedlam appears to be the odd man out when compared to Val Lewton’s other tales of terror. But it’s just as indicative of the style he cultivated as The Body Snatcher or Cat People, speaking to the human condition and using how we treat our fellow man to frighten us, rather than depend on just another movie monster. While its pace might be a little too methodical for modern tastes, just stick with Bedlam, and you’ll find it to be equal parts unsettling, darkly amusing, and wickedly smart.