Boris Karloff is one of the all-time great horror actors, so who better to celebrate as a Legend of the Silver Screen during the 31 Days of Horror-Ween? Today, we’ll be looking at his three collaborations with the great horror producer Val Lewton. First up is…
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) ****
Doctor Henry Daniell and his young and naïve assistant are trying to perfect an operation to allow a little crippled girl to walk again. Boris Karloff stars as a grave robbing “Resurrection Man” who provides corpses to Daniell for his illicit experiments. Bela Lugosi is Daniell’s sneaky butler who tries to blackmail Karloff and winds up on the good doctor’s slab. Naturally, tensions between Daniell and Karloff become strained and the doctor decides to terminate their partnership… PERMANENTLY! But will Karloff get the last laugh?
Based on story by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Body Snatcher is an unheralded classic from director Robert (The Day the Earth Stood Still) Wise. Not only is it a quality horror flick, it’s a complicated moral melodrama where none of the main characters are cut and dry “good” or “bad” guys. Each of them has varying shades of gray in their moral compass; which makes them all fascinating characters with their own motivations. For my money, this is producer Val Lewton’s best movie.
Karloff is simply amazing in this film. He does some pretty horrible things but he’s so charming that you can’t help but like him. Daniell on the other hand gives a sinister performance. The thing that makes their performances work so well is that they are basically yin and yang. Karloff is a basically evil man who has the capacity for doing good deeds (he is particularly kind to children) while Daniell is more or less a decent man resorting to despicable acts to save a girl’s life.
Lugosi on the other hand is given very little to do (which is kind of odd considering he has higher billing than Daniell). He doesn’t give a bad performance or anything; you just wish he had more of an impact on the plot. On top of that, he only has two scenes with Boris, but they are both worthwhile. This was to be their eighth and final onscreen pairing.
Wise balances the melodrama and the horror elements perfectly. Because it’s a Lewton film, you know the flick is going to be saturated in atmosphere. Daniell’s final coach ride through a raging storm is pretty creepy and Wise gives us one of the eeriest murder scenes in screen history (which is saying a lot; especially considering it happens off screen).
Compare the way this movie does the whole body snatching thing to last week’s Legends post, Corridors of Blood in which Karloff was the doctor and Christopher Lee was the grave robber. Here, the moral dilemmas of murdering people so others may live are more refined and engrossing. (Admittedly, the fact that a little girl’s life hangs in the balance in this one considerably ups the ante.)
If this one has somehow slipped under your radar, check it out this Halloween. You won’t be disappointed. Especially if you’re a Karloff fan.
The Body Snatcher is on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 1945 at the Number 2 spot, which places it just below Detour and right above The Naughty Nineties.
Our next Karloff flick is…
ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) ***
Boris Karloff stars as a Greek general who goes to an island cemetery to visit his wife’s grave. Once there, he learns her tomb has been desecrated by vandals. That night, he stays at an inn where everyone in the place starts dropping like flies from the plague. Karloff soon becomes convinced that a young nursemaid is the living incarnate of an old Greek spirit and is the one responsible for the deaths.
Isle of the Dead is a solidly entertaining Val Lewton horror flick. It’s more about the marinade than the meat as the atmosphere tends to overshadow the thin plot. There are a few lulls in between the people dying off from the plague but more often than not, the flick keeps you entertained.
The movie is pretty low on chills until the final reel when the Poe-esque subplot about a woman being buried alive kicks in. Then Isle of the Dead sort of resembles a prototype of an 80’s slasher movie. Up until then, the film is mostly about the distrust that breeds between a group of strangers when they are confronted with a fatal menace in an isolated place. (In that respect, the flick would probably make a good double feature with John Carpenter’s The Thing.)
Karloff is excellent here. Rocking a Greek ‘fro and an army uniform, Boris is a rather intimidating presence. The rest of the cast can’t compete with him as he more or less blows them all off the screen. Then again, what do you expect from a Legend of the Silver Screen?
Isle of the Dead is Number 10 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 1945; right below Here Come the Co-Eds.
And the final film in our Boris Bonanza is…
BEDLAM (1946) ** ½
Boris Karloff reunited with Isle of the Dead producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson for another period horror film. In 18th century England, a female crusader wants to change conditions in St. Bethlehem’s mental hospital, nicknamed “Bedlam”. Karloff is the head doctor who doesn’t like some snooptress futzing with the way he does business, so he has her declared insane and committed to his asylum. Karloff runs the place with an iron fist and tries to get Crusading Lady to understand the method to his madness, but with a little love and kindness, she manages to get through to the inmates.
You can probably guess what all of this is leading up to: The main broad is going to escape and the lunatics are gonna take over the asylum. These scenes are easily the highlight of the film. My favorite part came when the inmates put Karloff on “trial” and this one guy in the background kept shouting “Split him in two!”
Bedlam is definitely the weakest of the Karloff-Lewton collaborations. It suffers from the same problem many Lewton films do; namely it often resembles a costume drama rather than a balls-out horror film. Things pick up considerably once Outspoken Gal gets admitted to the lunatic house. Here, Robson gives us a couple of good shock moments when inmates’ hands reach out from behind their bars to clasp down on people’s shoulder.
Karloff is great. He particularly shines when he’s being cruel to the inmates and makes them perform plays and shit. There’s also a great scene where our heroine goes before the “Commission of Lunacy” (which would make a great band name) and he casually implies she’s nuts. However, he can’t singlehandedly save the sluggish and melodramatic first half of the film.
Boris is going to show up again next time on Legends of the Silver Screen when we feature three horror films starring the one and only Jack Nicholson.