Bedlam would be the last horror film that Val Lewton would produce for RKO and while it was not the best of the eight pictures that were made, it does lend a certain charm, especially due to the very fine acting of Boris Karloff. While it is a horror film, or at least categorized as such by many, it features a different kind of horror, one that is not so much as visceral as it is a comment upon society as a whole during those early days of caring for the mentally ill. The film sees Karloff as Master Sims, the head of Bethlem which is an asylum for those whose minds are a little more muddled than the average person. After having his patients put on a show for Lord Mortimer, a woman who was in his employ named Nell Bowen decides that she is going to clean the place up, not liking the conditions the patients are forced to live in or endure. Of course, Master Sims will do all in his power to see that nothing threatens what he deems is his.
Karloff is exceptional in the role, much as he was in anything he did and while he is no mad scientist or creature, he is a madman all the same, perhaps more so than any of the men and women that he watches over. Karloff’s Master Sims is a power-hungry man, a character looking to better himself in life no matter what he must do to achieve it. Whether it is making his patients live in the most squalid of conditions, starving or torturing them or giving tours to the public and putting them on display, Sims feels no empathy nor shows any humanity towards those that are considered the dregs of society. Karloff was always able to immerse himself in the characters he portrayed and as you watch this film, you cannot help but hate the man. He is an evil soul and though he disgusts you on every level by his actions and total lack of caring, a part of you cannot help but pity him as he simply does not know any better. There is a scene towards the end of the picture where the inmates turn the tide on their oppressor, putting him through a mock trial to judge whether he should live or die and even though his end might be near, Sims does not beg for his life, he merely states that he treated them such out of fear. Perhaps it was so, but he could have risked that which he was afraid to lose and bettered those around him instead of mistreating them.
Playing the woman who would turn things around in the asylum was Anna Lee. As Nell, she would find herself exiled to Bethlem through sheer corruption, proving that no matter how sane you might be, unqualified men do not a doctor make. Though she has a sarcastic wit, Nell is a gentle soul and where many see danger and fright, she simply sees human beings in need of some help. The horror of this picture is visible through her eyes as she tends to those around her in the asylum and it proves once again that the scariest things on the planet are not ghosts or goblins or witchery, but man itself and its unending ability to be cruel to each other. So while you may not crawl under the blanket in fear while watching this movie, you will at least see it as it once used to be in the institutions masquerading as hospitals all those many years ago.
There are times where the picture tended to drag on a bit, but as far as faults go, it could have been much worse. Though it may not have been the most exciting of films, nor the scariest that Lewton would produce, it was still a very solid drama featuring one of horror’s greatest icons.
3.5 out of 5