Boris Karloff at RKO: Body Snatcher, Isle of The Dead, Bedlam

In our current climate, it almost seems like an oxymoron to have a shoestring budget period piece, but many of Val Lewton’s best movies were founded on this formula.

His three-film partnership was beneficial for all parties involved and we would like to consider how he was able to fashion Karloff into a new kind of monster.

In honor of the spooky season, let’s talk about Karloff at RKO:

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Robert Louis Stevenson is an auspicious literary figure for anyone raised up on fiction like Dr. Jeykll, Treasure Island, or Kidnapped. Much of this might have come from any of their many adaptations. Thus, it seems fitting to know his work also received the Val Lewton treatment in the form of his short story, “The Body Snatcher.”

The year is 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland, a place I reminisce about fondly. This is not a world of invading pod people; it’s actually a much more arcane movie with a gothic mood and style of the Victorian Age.

There’s a practicality to its premise and the origin of the horror. Not unlike Doctor Frankenstein, these doctors need cadavers — specimens on which to learn their trade. They have a bit of a silent agreement with a local coachman named Gray (his eminence, Boris Karloff), who is also a “Resurrection Man” by night. In other words, he digs up dead bodies.

The Doctor Macfarlane (Henry Daniell) has an empty callousness in his face and voice, like a shell of a former man who probably had ideals in his youth. Now he’s shackled by something, either vocational obsessions or something far more sinister.

The character dynamics are mostly intriguing as it’s hinted that “Toddy” and Gray shared a slightly sordid past together long before their current business arrangement. The Doctor’s housekeeper is also closer than she appears, chiding him to let the past go and with it the callow boy he’s brought on as his assistant.

Russell Wade is perfect as the naive Fettes, who only sees the altruistic good in their profession and his mentor. The young student vows to a pretty young mother that her invalid daughter might walk again if only the doctor might operate on her. Macfarlane’s less inclined to make such a rash promise.

Because of these clouded histories, much of the movie is about the specters of the past with Gray constantly at the ready to hound the man of reputation. He aims to keep their lucrative partnership going by any means necessary.

One of the film’s most visually arresting scenes is in the dead of night. There’s a haunting street singer done up in a shawl with a small bowl for arms. Her gorgeous brogue pierces through the evening lamplight and the all but silent cobblestone streets as she sings “When Ye Gang Awa Jamie.” Soon even she goes quiet…

Another definitive moment comes later upon entering the cabby’s quarters with the camera turning right into his horse resulting in a genuine jump scare. Bela Lugosi feels almost unrecognizable to me and by that I mean he hardly speaks, mostly slinking about in the periphery of the story. When he finally does speak that’s the giveaway.

Joseph pays a visit to gray with a mind to blackmail, but he’s not half as cunning. They share a drink in the firelight. Karloff’s propped on the table grinning lasciviously as he leans over the oblivious man. Who’s in control of the situation is plainly apparent, and it’s such a stunning composition honoring two of the greatest horror showcases Universal ever had.

Now they are with RKO, certainly older, but Val Lewton pays them his utmost respects. Although Karloff’s the biggest name, this is a new generation of films removed from his earlier persona. Lewton effectively allows him to rebrand himself as a new kind of villain, a new kind of monster to be feared. The extraordinary thing is how it’s hardly makeup or special effects-driven but performative in nature. It’s also chilling.

There’s a jolt of ambiguity into the ending of the movie as the Doctor is haunted by his sins, but Karloff’s just as agonizing. Maybe it’s because he seems to represent past sins reincarnated. I’m curious if contemporary critics hailed it as a return to form for Karloff. Even with the passage of time, it seems to show a startling range I’ve appreciated more with time. He gets to show another side of himself.

4/5 Stars

Isle of The Dead (1945)

Isle of The Dead begins with an unbelievable scenario with no forewarning as Karloff’s General intimates for a disgraced officer to commit suicide in order to maintain the company’s reputation. Minutes later he takes a journalist (Marc Kramer) for an amble through no man’s land in the First Balkans War as if nothing has happened.

There’s something uncanny and manufactured about how this General brings this other man along with him as he goes to visit his wife’s crypt on a nearby deserted island. Just saying it now sounds outlandish. But this is what happens. I’m not saying it’s naturalistic, but that’s hardly the reason for watching this movie. It’s as if we have entered this transitory world that operates outside of our accepted logic.

It is a bit of a surprise because Lewton normally worked very hard to create the baseline world and the logic of his stories, so we might be fully committed as an audience. Although this might be partially lacking in Isle of The Dead, what’s not absent is his signature sense of foreboding atmosphere adding a shroud of horror-worthy darkness to all his pictures. Their eeriness cannot be shaken off easily.

Then, again perhaps I spoke too soon. The story still works in ample amounts of mythology including Vrykolakas: undead, vampire-like creatures that haunt the living. Some believe they have been sent as punishment by the gods, there are pagan rituals to Hermes, prayers are sent up regularly, and belief is a powerful force.

Although the opening premise is suspect, it’s this added context creating the foundation for the rest of the movie as it sends Karloff deeper into this Grecian abyss of darkness and shadow. In no moment is this more clear than the glorious sequence when Ellen Drew walks the hallways at night, candle in hand. It encapsulates the entire movie in a few successive shots of stylized pitch-blackness.

Our protagonist says, “I put my faith in what I can feel and know and see,” and yet his rationality must do war with the steady barrage of wind and shadow. Many of the island’s inhabitants are stricken with the plague. It seems like a silent killer born out of voices calling out from the night and a fleeting apparition in white.

Lewton hasn’t lost his touch in conjuring up such mysterious environs to assault our senses. It’s never about out and out shock value, but this pervasive sense of the inevitable. This must all come to some end. We all die be it from war, plague, or something equally as sinister.

3.5/5 Stars

Bedlam (1946)

It’s curious and rather extraordinary that two of Karloff’s films with RKO were inspired by paintings. Bedlam came out of William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress. It occupies itself with Bethlehem Asylum in 18th century London. Although this is the so-called “Age of Reason,” treatment of the mentally ill is hardly benevolent.

All the “loonies” are kept in their cages like sideshow attractions for the public to gawk at for a tuppence fare. We’re privy to one of its present tragedies: a man falling to his death from the asylum rooftops with a little assistance. If we want to get to the bottom of the callous hell hole, we must look no further than Master George Sims.

There he is: Boris Karloff done up in a wig and the attire of the age. Here’s another joyous occasion to see him take on yet another century of English history through the period lens of Hollywood. It’s a deliciously unctuous performance, and he proves himself just as skeevy as he’s ever been.

He’s called in for a stern talking to — the corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) and his lady protege (Anna Lee) have some words for him. He’s taken mild dissatisfaction on losing some of their entertainment.

Always quick to ingratiate himself and despite having sent Mortimer’s poet to his demise, he vows to put on a frivolous performance to tickle the patron’s fancy. It’s so easy for him to use and degrade his tenants for monetary gain because what worth are they to the world outside?

The moment Anna Lee enters the inner sanctum of the asylum and sees the tenants in their own world she’s momentarily surprised even moved by their fate. Though she tries to mask it on the outside with words and a riding crop, she does harbor pity for them.

It is a perceptive quaker (Richard Fraser) who notices her reaction and rouses her to some form of Christian action. She is more sympathetic than the rest of the idle masses because she is self-made. Without the luxury of personal wealth or power, she knows intuitively how hard it is to find self-preservation in an often heartless world.

In some way, it feels like a call for tolerance and sympathy by reaching into the past to inform the present. Because although it is a story in the guise of 18th-century horror — Karloff’s presence makes sure of that — there is something more to the picture.

Like all Lewton’s work, there’s a deceptive depth and substance to Bedlam that is at one time both intriguing and generally commendable. Because he doesn’t just make entertainment. It entertains, yes, but you can watch the RKO films and there are supplementary thematic interests to them.

Karloff is the standout in all three pictures — no one else comes close — though I am fond of Lee here because she actually has spirit and stands for something. She’s willing to do battle with him. It’s a collision of dueling philosophies.

He snarls that men are not brothers — they are not good and kind — but savages that must be ruled by force and his worldview plays out in how he governs Bedlam. With the saintly quaker speaking into her life, she looks to reform the asylum as she is trapped on the inside vowing not to give in and cave to Sims’s merciless conception of the world.

Karloff obviously relishes his subtle insinuations and well-placed comments to stir pots and get what he wants while pushing back against those who wronged him. Namely, gaining the good graces of Lord Mortimer and spurning the impudent, proud lady.

Is he evil? Not exactly — at least not at first — but he has a steady mean streak which proves to be utterly Machiavellian and maniacal. It’s villainy at its finest because it slinks so easily under the radar of societal convention. He’s despicable and still oddly droll making for a fine antagonist.

4/5 Stars

Targets (1968): Orlok Makes You Scream

targets karloff bogdanovich

The story goes Peter Bogdanovich met Roger Corman sitting in a screening of Bay of Angels (1963). What came out of that was an apprenticeship of sorts on Wild Angels (1966) in the Corman Film School where Bogdanovich did everything you could possibly imagine from script doctoring to location scouting etc. What he got for his troubles was hands-on experience but also the chance to direct his first feature…with a couple stipulations.

Corman gave him full control of his own movie as long as he reused some footage from an earlier Boris Karloff picture, The Terror, as well as utilizing the veteran actor’s two days of service he still owed Corman. There you have the birth of Targets, which manages to amount to far more than these contrived beginnings might suggest.

Because Bogdanovich found a way to make these haphazard pieces work — where it feels more like a meditation than a constraint — and the movie uses this to its advantage. It’s like a ’60s rendition of the poverty row pictures of the ’40s where necessity is truly the mother of invention. Sometimes you get a diamond in the rough.

The irony is while the big pictures were giving us entertainment that would become emblematic of the times like The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a movie like Targets placing us in the times themselves. In this way, it functions more like contemporary television.

What we are provided is a very concrete sense of Reseda in 67-68. There’s the “Real” Don Steele on the radio waves. Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is a modern classic featured as the Saturday night movie on channel 7. A family sits down in the evening together to take in Joey Bishop and sidekick Regis Philbin. And, of course, there are drive-ins.

If this sets the stage and places Bobby Thompson (No, not the ballplayer) in a vaguely familiar landscape, the movie itself comes flowing out of the persona Boris Karloff provides free of charge.

Looking at them without context, there are so many elements of Targets that might leave one mystified. For instance, this white-haired gent with the booming voice. If you put the movie in a time capsule, those who find it probably wouldn’t know this is Boris Karloff. His Byron Orlok isn’t an anagram, but it feels like one.

Although he’s an acclaimed name, he’s resigned himself to a sorry fate. In his own words, “I’m an antique, out of date — an anachronism. The world belongs to the young. Make way for them, let them have it.” He might have seen Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate too.

Still, he’s continually in dialogue with his own personal legacy and very aware of it. Just as he watches a version of himself on TV. His character recalls a tagline from his heyday, “The Marx Brothers make you laugh. Garbo makes you swoon. Orlok makes you scream.” It’s all part of this persona closely mirroring Karloff’s past.

Likewise, Sammy — that guy’s not much of an actor — although it changes instantly if we know this is Bogdanovich himself. The young screenwriter walks in, sees the TV, and right on the nose says, “It’s Criminal Code. I saw this at the Museum of Modern Art. Howard Hawks directed this. He really knows how to tell a story.”

They become these dueling pawns, partly fiction, partly reality, as Orlok bemoans the fact he has become high camp; he can hardly play it straight anymore, and Sammy coaxes him that the role is something he can do (Targets?). Otherwise, he’ll offer it to Vincent Price.

It’s as if the director beat Orson Welles to the punch with this kind of intratextual dialogue between the medium and its real-life players. Surely history helped out because Targets was just his beginning followed by a whole slew of classics, albeit disrupted and undermined by his own turbulence and troubles replicating his most supernal successes. All these things and more are what make Targets so riveting when it has little right to be.

Targets Boris Karloff and Nancy Hseuh

Orlok’s secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh in a charming role) is romantically attached to Sammy, but also has a staunch devotion to Orlok. She doesn’t want the old man to just give up and she feels slighted when he lashes out at her — one of the few people who genuinely cares for his well-being.

He’s ready to turn his back on it all only to reluctantly agree to make a public appearance. He’s fallen to the low of the Drive-in Theater circuit, living off the residual celebrity of his waning fame.

Meanwhile, Bobby has gone through his daily paces. He seems like an All-American boy. He’s married but lives with his parents. He likes guns, and he’s been taught a healthy (or unhealthy) sense of competition. There’s an underlying angst supplied by this deceptively pristine life.

He stakes out on top of an oil well, brown bag and a soda pop in hand, as he sets up overlooking the freeway, prepared to pick some people off. Bogdanovich captures the evolving sequence with a Sam Fuller sense of grab-and-go photography, on the side of the freeway, with a brazen even outlandish sense of drama.

This is real traffic and real places and the director plucks out his shots from these pregnant moments of simulated reality. Between the crosshairs, gunshots, swerving vehicles, and flailing bodies. The scene evokes the Texas tower shooting of 1966 where killing becomes this indiscriminate force of violence.

The Sniper (1952), from over a decade prior, was a picture that, no matter its effectiveness, was meant to elicit a social response. Stanley Kramer’s movies can be strongly identified by this sense of responsibility toward the viewer. Targets hardly feels like a political statement of any kind, but its themes are no less intriguing — probably because it never feels like it’s preaching something. Instead, it allows us to consider its various digressions and still be gripped.

The drive-in finale actually does a solid job of reconciling the two disparate story strands. Bogdanovich had watched enough Hitchcock, heck, he’d interviewed the Master of Suspense, and put in this position calling for such a setpiece, he seems to know intuitively what he has to do.

What’s more, it signaled the young director’s ascension as a New Hollywood darling. What’s so striking is how it marries Classic Hollywood with the contemporary climate and does it with a startling sense of command. If you needed a picture to try and sum up Bogdanovich himself, then there is no better lodestone.

He wants to revel in the days of Karloff and Hawks of old — when violence meant monsters and gangsters — and yet he brings it into the 60s. Because violence still existed but in a different form. In the age of social tumult and assassinations, the landscape of the 1960s feels a lot more futile and incomprehensible.

And the images make you shutter as we are implicated in this alongside a killer even as we sympathize with Orlok trying to bow out gracefully. I’m not sure which aspect is more telling. The power is that we need not pick between them. We are presented horror in its various forms, old versus new, and the person who unifies them so evocatively for us is Peter Bogdanovich. It’s quite a stunning feat of ingenuity.

4/5 Stars

Lured (1947)

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Herein is a slightly off-kilter serial killer, mystery-thriller and early American film in the career of German emigre Douglas Sirk. Of course, the action is actually set in England. It’s a film that builds a paranoid framework like The Lodger (1944), I Wake Up Screaming (1941) or other like-minded films. However, it goes through the normal paces only to lurch forward in the most curious directions.

The parties involved include a Scotland Yard guided by that industrious Brit for a day Charles Coburn. Other people of interest include a street-smart nightclub dancer (Lucille Ball) who saw one of her co-workers go missing after a rendezvous with a mystery man. In fact, a rash of disappearances of young attractive women has overtaken the city.

Thus, upon finding Ms. Carpenter to be a plucky and intelligent young woman the inspector calls upon her services to force their elusive perpetrator out in the open acting as the tantalizing bait. She begins to respond to advertisements in the paper — his calling card — to lure victims into his clutches.

The only problem is figuring out who the man might be because numerous candidates roam the streets and many people circa 1947 placed postings in the paper. It’s common practice. Among people she gets caught up with are a delusional fashion designer who became unstable after years of criticism. The one and only Charles van Druten is played by none other than Boris Karloff in one of the film’s many digressions.

Likewise, Ms. Carpenter answers a call for a position as a maid, though the prospective employer’s intentions prove to be far more insidious involving some dealings in South America and too-good-to-be-true promises of advancement. Once more Scotland Yard puts an end to the criminal activities but is no closer to their murderer.

One of the more prominent people of interest is Robert Fleming (George Sanders) a man of vast influence and a stage producer who finds classical music tepid and most of the upper echelons of the society’s elite even worse. He goes about it all with the playful disdain that can only be attributed to George Sanders at his best.

In fact, his manner is off-putting to Sandra as well but their prickly beginnings cannot completely derail romantic feelings. In those respects, both Ball and Sanders prove to be adequate romantic leads propelled by their wry comedic proclivities. That’s far more rewarding than any romance. The only problem is that he might not be who he claims to be and at any rate, a great deal of circumstantial evidence is piled up against him. A final push for justice must be made.

Lured isn’t an instant classic as the tension while there is never altogether sweltering. But simultaneously the screen is crammed with quality performers and just enough idiosyncratic moments and bits of humor to keep the film from being absolutely conventional. George Zucco is by far the most amusing of the many supporting characters as the crossword puzzle-loving officer H.R. Bartlett who acts as Sandra’s guardian angel while simultaneously coming upon many of his solutions through simple eavesdropping.

This is also a telling film that should make us uncomfortable and it’s not so much that things feel overwhelmingly misogynistic and objectifying of women, it’s the even more sobering fact that things have not changed as much as we would like to believe.

What is the root of most serial killing? Surely we can see familial issues or mental instabilities but oftentimes it’s tied in with a distorted sense of love wrapped up in perverse fantasies hidden from view.

Our killer is obsessed with the poetry of Baudelaire and uses it to realize the fantasies that he never seems able to act out on. The man’s interest is in destroying beauty instead of making love to paraphrase Coburn’s character. When he finally is revealed I’m not sure it’s a surprise but then need we be surprised? Many “normal” men are capable of great evil. They’re simply good at covering it up.

3.5/5 Stars

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

Ga220px-Scar2ngsters, prohibition, Al Capone, the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre. It all sounds like some distant piece of folklore that by now is far removed from our modern day sensibilities. But when films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and of course Scarface came out, these things were at the forefront of the national conscience. In fact, it seems like these films have seeped into our culture, making it hard to pull the legends and cinematic stereotypes away from the cold hard facts that have now dissipated with time.

Like the other gangster dramas, Howard Hawks‘ effort makes it blatantly obvious with its introductory title card that it is a story condemning the rise and fall of the gangsters. Much like many modern films, there is a great deal of screen time given to corrupt characters, but in this case, there is meant to be less ambiguity. The audience is directed to the fact that this is not a glorification, but an indictment. That didn’t mean controversy was not stirred up since Scarface’s immense amount of violence got it held up by the censors. But it did finally make it past in 1932.

What follows is what we would expect: The rise and fall of one ambitious mobster Tony “Scarface” Carmona. He starts out as an enforcer and tough guy who is ready to make his way up the ranks and he’s not going to allow any Tom, Dick, or Giuseppe get in his way. He often incurs the displeasure of his worried mother, and he is often distraught with his baby sister (Ann Dvorak) since she will not keep away from the boys.

Pretty soon Tony is made second in command, and his boss is looking into taking over the South Side after the previous big shot was knocked off. The little men cannot do much about Johnny and his crew moving in on the territory, but of course Tony’s not satisfied. Along with making a pass at the bosses girl, he starts taking it to rival mobsters on the North Side even when Johnny told him to lay off.

Retaliation follows with a vengeance and the cops are also taking an increasing interest in nailing Tony since he’s such a smug hotshot. But Scarface’s new best friend is the Tommy Gun. Tony only increases his ambitions by countering the rival mobsters, ambushing and gunning them down all across town. There’s no mercy and he even annihilates the rival boss Gaffney (Boris Karloff) at a bowling alley. Tony even manages to escape a hit put on him by Johnny and pretty soon old Scarface is running the show like he always wanted.

Every rise is always followed by a crushing fall, and Tony is no different. He is enraged to find his buddy and perpetual coin flipper Little Boy (George Raft) calling on his sister. Tony literally loses his mind gunning his friend down in cold blood and thus unwittingly setting himself up for an undisputed murder wrap. He deliriously holds himself up in his barricaded flat, but the hourglass is slowly running out. The game is up as quickly as it began.

Paul Muni is a fairly captivating lead who pulls off the gruff Italian tough guy pretty well. His supporting cast including the glowering George Raft and his hapless “secretary” (Vince Barnett). Although Ann Dvorak felt like a girl miscast. Otherwise, this pre-code film has its fair share of bullets flying and sirens blaring. It’s a film full of grit and shadowy avenues that are sometimes swimming with beer and sometimes blood. It is extraordinary to think of where Hawks went from this film, one of his earlier works because he really was one of the most adaptable and successful directors I can think of. His films do not always reflect his own personal style per se, but they are more often than not engaging, self-assured, and dynamic. Scarface is little different. An early classic from one of the great American visionaries of film.

4.5/5 Stars

Frankenstein (1931)

e7a7f-frankenstein13Starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, this archetypal horror film is loosely based on the novel written by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein is a man intent on creating life. However, his creation is made out of corpses and then comes the fateful day that he brings his Creature to life. Once it is alive his own life will never be the same. Soon it begins to cause havoc by killing a little girl and scaring others. It even attacks Frankenstein and his wife on their wedding day. In the end the Creature meets his demise in a burning barn and Frankenstein seemingly escapes utter disaster. This became the perfect set up for the Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
4/5 Stars