Bedlam is a 1946 movie produced by Val Lewton, who was a one-man horror movie factory. He dominated the horror scene for awhile, kind of like those pricks behind the Saw movies have done for the last decade or so. His output was much more interesting though, and none of those Saw movies was ever based on a famous painting or included a quote from Shakespeare – at least not to knowledge. I only saw the second Saw, which was a horrible experience because during the closing credits someone nabbed my car keys. They fell from my pocket during the movie and I was in no rush to find them. Unfortunately the guys behind me got to them just a little bit faster than I did and went hunting for my car in the parking lot. The only reason my car wasn’t stolen was because my roommate drove that night. What I’m trying to say is that God sends us messages sometimes. It was the first and last Saw movie I ever…saw. And nothing like that happened when I watched Bedlam. I feel confident that I can watch more of Lewton’s movies.
Bedlam was based on a painting (see below) and starred Boris Karloff. This time he played a monster of a different variety – Master George Sims, the “Apothecary General” at a mental asylum where all the patients are kept in one large room as depicted in the painting. They suffer degrees of various mental problems; some are a bit more together than others but everyone is there for a reason. Or so we think — once Sims gets the idea of institutionalizing a woman who is of sound mind, Nell Bowan, the movie really gets going.
It takes place in 18th century England and is based on a real place. To quote some random dude from imdb (I trust him):
Built as a priory in 1247 for the order of the Star of Bethlehem, the structure was first used as a hospital in 1330. Mental patients began arriving by 1403 and Henry VIII made it exclusively a lunatic asylum in 1547. At the time portrayed in the film, the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem had been moved from Bishopsgate to Moorfields and the name had generally been corrupted to ‘Bedlam.’ Great abuses did take place there during the 18th Century and members of refined society were allowed for a fee to view the inmates. Now located in Shirley, near Beckenham, it is known as the Bethlehem Royal Hospital and is England’s leading facility for the treatment of the mentally ill.
I believe this story takes place during the institution’s more dysfunctional years, based on what happens in the movie. The story starts off with one of the patients making an escape and falling to his death after one of the guards catches him on the roof. We don’t know why he wanted to run, but once we meet Master Sims we begin to understand better. At first his cruelty and disregard for humanity are hidden by his smile. But you can tell he’s kind of messed up by the gaunt way he walks, the cane he always carries and his encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare (back then it was probably more common). He’s evil and intelligent: a wicked mix. But he doesn’t like the idea of improving the asylum’s conditions, which is what Nell Bowan believes is best after paying the place a visit. She takes Sims for granted and he uses his cunning to land her at Bedlam as an inmate. The rest of the movie is her attempt at co-habitation with the other inmates and to a greater degree at the end, escape. She transitions from being scared for her life to developing relationships with them and creating cots for them to sleep in. If she can’t improve their conditions from the outside, she does what she can on the inside.
It isn’t as sensational as the quote on the poster would lead us to believe. But that’s where Lewton’s genius marketing came into play. That said it isn’t a hollow movie without its thrills and chills. There are creepy elements to the story, starting with the performance by Karloff. Certain scenes still resonate after you watch it. In one, Nell’s Quaker friend visits the catacomb below where some of the more violent patients are held behind bars like criminals. They reach out for him in the darkness. When he finds Nell and calls her name the other patients echo it since they’re known to repeat what they hear from the outside. As a result she has trouble finding where his voice comes from. It’s a very creepy and inspired scene. I would say films like Silence of the Lambs and the more recent Shutter Island borrow their scares from this movie. In fact Denis Lehane, who wrote Shutter Island, said he was cognizant of Bedlam when he wrote it and began collaborating with Scorsese on the adaptation.
Lewton collaborated with Karloff on two other films. The one I’ll look at next is Isle of the Dead which was made a year earlier.