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 alms. 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.
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.
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.