Thursday, 26 November 2009

Random Creepy Karloff Moment

The Mummy
Dir. Karl Freund

Egypt, 1921. A team of British archaeologists led by Sir Joseph Whemple uncover the mummified remains of Imhotep, an ancient high priest. When one young archaeologist reads from a sacred scroll, the Mummy comes to life – and the young man becomes delirious, eventually going insane. 10 years later Sir Joseph returns to Egypt with his son Frank. Unknown to them, the Mummy has revived itself and now exists as Ardath Bay, a mysterious man who helps the expedition uncover the tomb of his ancient love. Ardath Bay/Imhotep wants to be reunited with his love, but in order to that, the woman she has been reincarnated as, Helen Grosvenor, must die…

The opening scene of this classic horror tale contains one of the most chilling moments in early horror cinema. After having inadvertently resurrected the Mummy, which we see slowly opening its eyes as the scroll’s contents is recited, Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), a young archaeologist, sets about studying the scrolls he’s just read from. The camera lingers on him as he reads – everything is quiet. Too quiet. Suddenly, almost leisurely, matter of factly, a mummified arm reaches slowly into the shot to pick up the scrolls from the table in front of him. We see Norton react to the 'thing' standing before him - his look of surprise turning to incomprehension then turning to raw terror. Becoming delirious, all he can do is laugh hysterically as the Mummy, which remains largely unseen, shuffles off again - all we see are the trailing bandages behind it as it makes a 'stealthy' retreat. His crazed laughter echoes throughout the night as he loses his mind forever, mindlessly mumbling ‘He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!’

This moment is so chillingly effective because it is so down-played and subtle.

Brought to you in association with The Boris Karloff Blogathon

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Candid Karloff

Some photographs of Boris Karloff behind the scenes and between takes. Check out more Karloff related goodness at Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog.

Having a break whilst filming Frankenstein
Enjoying a joke with friend and producer Val Lewton during filming of Bedlam
Having a quick cuppa and a smoke with Colin Clive
Clowning around with Bela Lugosi Jnr
Sharing cake with Basil Rathbone
On the set of The Tower of London
Boris with Basil Rathbone and Donnie Dunagan on Son of Frankenstein
Relaxing between takes
More behind the scenes shenanigans
In the make-up chair
Yet more tea with Colin Clive
Brought to you in association with The Boris Karloff blogathon.

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part III: Bedlam

As part of this week's ongoing Boris Karloff blogathon, we take a look at the Uncanny One's final collaboration with distinguished producer Val Lewton – the 1946 Period-Horror-‘Message’-movie hybrid, Bedlam. Be sure to check out a list of links to other Karloff related goodness over at Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog.

After the success of The Body Snatcher and with Isle of the Dead finally wrapped and ready to be released, RKO decided to ‘reward’ Lewton by upping his budget for what would transpire to be his last B Horror movie for them. As well as receiving $350,000 Lewton was also given a staggering 8 months for post-production – unheard of for a B movie at the time.

Following on from Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher, Bedlam was another ‘period’ film with astounding attention to detail lavished upon it, and like Isle of the Dead was also inspired by a painting – William Hogarth’s Bedlam Plate 8: The Rake’s Progress. The script was written by director Mark Robson and Val Lewton, under his pseudonym Carlos Keith, and was apparently also inspired by the ponderous writings of Casanova and English poet Nicholas Breton. Whilst the dialogue is immensely decorative and accomplished, it was initially criticized for being to ‘high-brow’, although now it is considered amongst Lewton’s best work. Lewton also gathered together a few familiar and trusted colleagues, including composer Roy Webb, who provides a fittingly baroque score, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who had previously lensed Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, The Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim. The cast also compromised of a few familiar faces too, such as Jason Robards, Elizabeth Russell and Skelton Knaggs. The producer also insisted that Anna Lee portray the headstrong Nell Bowen, as he had wanted to work with her since I Walked with a Zombie, a film she narrowly missed out starring in.

Unfortunately, the extra eight months Lewton was given to put the film together in post-production would conspire to rob the film of its already dwindling potential audience. Post War audiences wanted realism – they wanted to be cheered up and reminded that they were alive and that being alive was a good thing and blah, blah, blah. In other words, no one wanted to watch horror films and be reminded that the world could be a dangerous and scary place. Bad news for Bedlam, which was heavily marketed as a horror picture – its lurid posters visually squealing about the promise of seeing ‘Beauty at the Mercy of Madmen!’ and ‘The shocking truth about 18th Century London’s ill-famed House of Horrors, where only death could free its hopeless inmates from the foul and fancy tortures of a master in monstrousness!’. Yes, they put ALL that on a poster.

What many didn’t realise, much to the chagrin of its star Karloff, was that Bedlam was really a delicately crafted, if a quite often creepy and sadistic, message movie about the ill-treatment of the mentally ill. In this respect, Bedlam was very ahead of its time – tackling issues (albeit within the guise of a ‘chiller’) that most other films of this time would only shirk from. According to an interview with star Anna Lee in a 1991 edition of ‘Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes’: ‘Boris used to get quite annoyed when people referred to it as a horror picture. He said ‘It’s not a horror picture, it’s a historical picture’, and he was right, absolutely dead right.’

Dir. Mark Robson

Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), the spirited protégé of the very rich and very pompous Lord Mortimer, is quietly horrified by the conditions of the infamous St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum – Bedlam - when she visits it for a ‘jest’. Encouraged by her friend, Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser), she attempts to reform Bedlam, but the cruel apothecary general, Master Sims (Boris Karloff), resents her interference and has her committed there. Winning over the inmates with her kindness and self-sacrificing nature, Nell soon has it in her power to turn the tables on the sadistic Sims once and for all.

Whilst Lewton’s most identifiable trait throughout his film work must surely be his use of ambiguity and suggestiveness – Bedlam is quite different from his other productions, with its no-holds barred depiction of the horrors and atrocities of humanity. The cruelty and lack of compassion people often express towards one another, particularly those who are considered ‘different’ by society, is the dark core of this film. Of course, this being a Lewton production, it is still handled tastefully and is grounded firmly in the world of literature and art.

The scenes within Bedlam are suitably atmospheric and creepy, as bodies lay strewn about the place amongst filthy straw beds, chains and unidentifiable debris. A truly effective shot of hands reaching out through the bars of dark cells along a corridor reveals the plight of many inmates. Director of photography Musuraca drenches his carefully composed filmic canvas in dramatic lighting and a rich visual texture. The interior of Bedlam is a mass of expressionistically angled shafts of light and shadow, highlighting its uneven kilter as a house of the damned and anguished. When Nell has her first glimpse inside the asylum, we are treated to a wonderful shot of her startled face before the camera pulls back, and keeps pulling back, to gradually reveal the degradation she sees spread out before her. As mentioned, Bedlam was inspired by Hogarth’s painting sequence The Rake’s Progress, notably its final panel showing the eponymous rake in an insane asylum. The film begins with a montage of excerpts from Hogarth’s paintings, and at various times throughout the film, other excerpts appear briefly onscreen. As Nell moves around the asylum, various little segments from Hogarth’s paintings are recreated in the onscreen action.

A particularly disturbing moment that also forms one of the film’s most notorious scenes occurs as affluent and exquisitely attired guests assemble for the banquet Sims has thrown. The sumptuousness and opulence of the guests and their lavishly laid out dinning table contrasts quite powerfully with the suffering and eventual death of the feeble boy standing before them covered in gold gilt. They laugh and chatter and fan themselves as he is made to recite a poem as he suffocates within his own skin. When he drops dead they react as though his suffering were a mere trifle, and carry on with the festivities as before. This is the moment that reaffirms Nell’s realisation that the ‘loonies’ aren’t quite as funny as she initially thought they’d be, and it is quite haunting in its simplicity and cruelty.

Anna Lee breathes life into Nell, enlivening proceedings whenever she is onscreen. She is headstrong, good natured and sharp-witted – typical of Lewton’s leading ladies and it is easy to like her – if only because Sims is such a conniving nemesis. The rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue between her and, well, anyone else in the film, are definite highlights. Her transformation into a saintly, Florence Nightingale-type is believable, if a little hasty. Lee also conveys Nell’s vulnerability quite well, as demonstrated in the rather taut trial scene in which she is committed to Bedlam. The scene is edited in such a way as to highlight her mounting frustration with the increasing number of absurd questions fired at her by a room full of judges. Elsewhere, Richard Fraser as the kindly Quaker comes across as stiff, handsome and quite bland – typical of leading men in 1930s/40s horror films. Elizabeth Russell is a hoot as Sim’s boozy floozy and it’s nice to see her in a slightly comic role for once, as she usually portrayed tragic, doomed women in Lewton’s films.

Karloff provides another richly textured performance that, while not quite as nuanced as his portrayal of Gray in The Body Snatcher, still ensures that the otherwise unsavoury and malignantly cunning Sims manages to invite our sympathy at various times. Cordial, droll and immensely sadistic, the apothecary general is still open to ridicule from time to time – especially from takes-no-bullshit-Nell. Whereas she is strong and principled, he is corrupt, cruel and obsequious enough to worm his way into the ranks of society he fancies he belongs to. And yet when we first see him, it is as he sits anxiously outside Lord Mortimer’s chamber waiting to be quizzed about the death of an inmate Mortimer was acquainted with. The complexity in his character is also evident when he is being judged by his own inmates in a tense kangaroo court. As he defends himself, it would be easy to dismiss his pleas as those of a man who would say anything to save his snake-like skin – however, because of Karloff’s conviction, we aren’t too sure about Sims – maybe he is telling the truth.

We never find out though, as events climax in a shuddersome Poe-inspired finale.
Bedlam may at times appear to be unsure of what kind of film it wants to be – a horror film? A period thriller? A ‘message’ movie? A restoration satire? In fairness, it is all of these things. It is also a finely crafted and moving film with credentials that completely belie its B grade status.

Bedlam marked the final collaboration between Karloff and Lewton – a fitting end to a most fruitful partnership. Karloff received rave reviews for his performance, and perhaps due to his successful work with Lewton, won three major roles the following year in three big budget mainstream movies: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Lured and Unconquered. His second ‘terror’ omnibus, entitled And the Darkness Falls, was released to coincide with Bedlam, and was also received favourably.

Follow the links to read more about Karloff's collaborations with Lewton.

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part I: Isle of the Dead

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part II: The Body Snatcher

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part II: The Body Snatcher

As part of this week's Boris Karloff blogathon, we continue to take a look at the Uncanny One's work with distinguished producer Val Lewton.

With work on Isle of the Dead coming to halt only days into the shoot due to Karloff needing to have a spinal operation, Lewton began working on his next film – The Body Snatcher. In early 1944, the ‘period thriller’ began to gain popularity again. Titles such as Gaslight and The Lodger had proved immensely popular with wartime audiences who relished the opportunity to step back in time to find their chills and thrills. After the 1930s cycle of horror films, Lewton had ‘Americanised’ and modernised horror with the contemporary Cat People, and many other filmmakers had followed suit; however it soon came to pass that period films were hot again, and Lewton, not content to just remix past glories, was eager to try and make his own mark on the period horror film.

Lewton thought it appropriate to return to the world of literature again for his next cinematic outing. He chose to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatcher. Stevenson’s grisly tale caused quite the stir when published in 1884, with its seamless meshing of fact and fiction. The story portrays fictional circumstances and characters in the employment of Robert Knox at the time of the notorious Burke and Hare murders. This dastardly duo provided corpses to Dr Knox, who was experimenting and researching for the sake of scientific and medical advancement. The cadavers eventually became ‘fresher’, until Burke and Hare took to murdering people for their mortal vessels. When the law caught up to them, Burke was hung, Hare was lynched by an angry mob and Knox fled to London to salvage his reputation.

Lewton loosely adapted the tale under his most famous pseudonym, Carlos Keith, and co-wrote it with Philip McDonald – who had previously written a short story that Karloff included in an anthology he’d compiled! After indulging in some characteristically extensive research, Lewton switched the setting to Edinburgh and was able to use the old sets left over from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) – ensuring The Body Snatcher was one of the most startlingly realised period horrors ever produced.

As Karloff recuperated, Lewton assembled together his usual crew and some of the stock RKO cast he’d previously collaborated with, including Russell Wade who had starred in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship. Studio heads also wanted to cast ailing actor Bela Lugosi, to capitalise on his and Karloff’s combined pulling power. For the benefit of wary executives, who were beginning to doubt Lewton’s ability to garner another hit as big as Cat People, Lewton set about justifying why The Body Snatcher would be such an appropriate project. Compiling a list which he sent to the heads of the studio, Lewton noted why this film should go ahead:

1. The title seems good to us.
2. There is exploitation value in the use of a famous Robert Louis Stevenson classic
3. There is a ninety percent chance that this (title) is in the public domain. The legal department is now searching the title.
4. The characters are colourful. The background of London medical life in the 1830s is extremely interesting. The sets are limited in number but effective in type. The costumes are readily procurable and no great difficulties of any sort so far as production is concerned are evident.
5. There is also an excellent part for Bela Lugosi as a resurrection man.

Satisfied with his reasons to press ahead with The Body Snatcher, studio execs gave Lewton the thumbs up – the resulting film proved his biggest commercial – and critical – success since Cat People, three years prior. Not that Lewton could rest on his laurels and soak up the praise that would be lavished upon him – he was given two weeks to finish shooting Isle of the Dead before it was released shortly after the success of The Body Snatcher.

The Body Snatcher
Dir. Robert Wise

Edinburgh, 1831. Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniel), an esteemed surgeon hires Cabman Gray (Boris Karloff) to rob graves to provide him with fresh corpses for dissection and academic demonstration purposes. With cemeteries being increasingly guarded, Gray turns to murder to provide MacFarlane with fresh bodies.
Realizing that he will never be rid of Gray, who constantly taunts him with his knowledge of MacFarlane's past indiscretions, the tormented surgeon plans to do away with the grave robber once and for all.
But like the bodies he so unceremoniously dug up, Gray’s own corpse refuses to stay still for long…

The Body Snatcher marked Wise’s second directorial outing under the guiding hand of Lewton – he had previously stepped in to helm Curse of the Cat People when Gunther von Fritsch bowed out.

The richly textured script by McDonald and Lewton pays as much attention to period detail as the carefully rendered sets. The film provides a tantalizing peek at the sordid art of ‘resurrecting’ corpses in the 19th Century. Whilst the original film posters promised all manner of vile and depraved sights – ‘The Screen’s Last Word in Shock Sensation! Graves Robbed! Corpses Carved! The Dead Despoiled! The Hero of Horror, Boris Karloff, joins forces with The Master of Menace, Bela Lugosi, in the Unholiest Partnership This Side of the Grave!! – the film itself is an expertly crafted, if unrelentingly dark, exploration of the human soul and its ability to do despicable things. The film points out that within each and every one of us is the ability to do both right and wrong – and it is this very duality that makes us what we are.

The characters that exist in this morose tale are all fully fleshed individuals – from the rather naïve and doomed to be corrupted doctor’s assistant Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), to the doctor himself, a distinguished man who has done deplorable things in the name of medicine and scientific advancement – and of course ghastly Cabman Gray, who as the film’s main villain, does a good job of disturbing us with his fiendish actions – and perhaps even more troubling – his unabashed delivery of blunt and carefully observed home truths.

Boris Karloff’s performance in The Body Snatcher is undoubtedly the actor’s finest. At the age of 57 Karloff was still keen to prove his worth. His role as Cabman Gray would give him the opportunity to exhibit his range and show he was not just a ‘monster for hire.’ Gray comes across as a morally complex rogue thanks to Karloff. While his actions are frequently ghastly (grave robbing, body snatching and murder – oh my!) he is also seen to be warm, friendly and generous (his kindly manner towards the little girl in a wheelchair). His ‘duality’ is lent further complexity because his personality never changes, no matter he is doing. Indeed, the many scenes where Karloff’s Gray and Daniell’s Dr MacFarlane interact are amongst the films many highlights, as two men whose hatred for each other is matched only by their dependence on each other. It’s a joy to see Karloff and Daniell verbally sparring with each other.

Author of ‘Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career’, Edmund G. Bansak interviewed Robert Wise – director of The Body Snatcher – in 1991. Wise had this to say about Karloff:

‘Boris was very keen to do this film because he felt it gave him an opportunity to show that he could act, as well as play the monster. He was fascinated by the duel between him and Henry Daniell, one of the great character actors of the time. This pleased Boris very much and he worked hard on his performance. He was not feeling well during the shooting; he had back problems, but he never let that interfere a bit and was determined to show that he could hold his own with Henry Daniell… We had very good meetings with Boris before we started to shoot. Boris, as you probably know, was the opposite of what he appeared on the screen. He was very urbane, very well read, very well educated, soft-spoken, a real English gentleman. His role in The Body Snatcher meant a lot to him.’

Elsewhere, the rest of the cast equip themselves commendably. Even Lugosi, lost soul that he was in his later years, provides an understated and sturdy performance – despite the fact he was addicted to morphine and rarely left his dressing room. The disturbing and strangely poignant scene he shares with Karloff, when his character attempts to blackmail Gray, mirrors how the careers of the two men – often presented as bitter rivals - would subsequently play out after The Body Snatcher. As Gray, Karloff quickly overpowers the weaker Joseph (Lugosi) and suffocates the man. Karloff’s career would go from strength to strength, whereas Lugosi would finish his career languishing in bit parts on Poverty Row. Until Ed Wood infamy beckoned.

One of the standout scenes comes shortly after Fettes has requested more corpses from Gray. Upon leaving Gray’s house, Fettes passes a street singer – who Gray also notices – much to her later ‘misfortune’. The singer walks down an alleyway and is swallowed up by darkness as the camera remains fixed on the dark mouth of the tunnel she enters. All we hear are the fading strains of her voice. And then the clip clop of horses’ hooves as Gray’s carriage enters the shot and follows the young woman into the dark tunnel. The camera still remains fixed on the darkness until the singing abruptly stops and all we are left with is silence and bloody implication.

As events move towards the climax and the situation between Gray and MacFarlane escalates, the tension continues to mount until the thunderous climax onboard a carriage hurtling through the night. After murdering Gray, MacFarlane is convinced the body in the carriage is Gray’s and has come back to seek revenge. The sight of the ‘nudging corpse’ wrapped in white sheets, bouncing about frantically whilst lighting flashes and rain belts down into the speeding carriage is unforgettably hair-raising, whilst Karloff’s unmistakable voice echoes over the soundtrack – ‘Toddy. Toddy. Toddy. Never get rid of me. Never get rid of me. Never, never, never get rid of me.

A genuinely macabre, yet undeniably sophisticated film that despite its lack of budget, has managed to retain its effectiveness and ability to chill throughout the years – and one that features a career best performance from Mr Karloff.

Follow the links to read more about Karloff's collaborations with Lewton.

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part I: Isle of the Dead

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part III: Bedlam

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part I: Isle of the Dead

As part of this week's Boris Karloff Blogathon, I've decided to have a look at the three atmospheric chillers Karloff made with producer Val Lewton in the mid-forties. Given a collection of lurid titles by RKO, Lewton was instructed to craft low budget horror films to compete with Universal's slew of Monster Movies at the time. Lewton created subtle, provocative and tasteful films that became highly influential in the horror genre. When Karloff came on board for three of these films (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam) the two men found kindred spirits in one another and this dark union produced three highly effective pictures that proved to be the best amongst both men's work.

When Val Lewton was told that Boris Karloff had signed a 3 picture contract with RKO and he had to use the actor, Lewton was initially not best pleased. Karloff had been signed by Jack Gross, who like Karloff, was coming to the studio from Universal. According to director Mark Robson – who would direct Karloff in two films – Gross and Universal’s idea of horror was ‘A werewolf chasing a girl in a nightgown up a tree.’

Lewton feared that the heads at RKO would force him into producing films of a similar ilk, as he assumed Karloff would share their outlook on horror films, and not allow him the freedom he had had with his prior productions – a number of elegant, subtle and beautifully atmospheric pictures including Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Despite the tacky titles, these films are amongst the most effective and poetic in the genre – Lewton and his filmmakers preferred to suggest the terror, rather than show it outright. This was not only due to budgetary restraints, but also because of Lewton’s literate and intellectual approach to his subject matter – nothing could be scarier than the dark images conjured by the human imagination – his films act as triggers for the imagination and are therefore genuinely unsettling experiences. Lewton laid out all the necessary steps and allowed the minds of his audiences to do the work.

Boris Karloff and Val Lewton
Karloff had just finished a long stint on Broadway performing in Arsenic and Old Lace. He had grown weary of the shoddy, monotonous scripts and parts he was being offered. He wanted something to sink his teeth into – something substantial. Once he finished his run with Arsenic and Old lace he signed up with Universal again, only to realise they were doing the same old thing within the genre – something he grew to despise.

Finishing his 13 week contract, he was persuaded by Jack Gross to sign up with RKO. Gross realised that the studio would benefit from Karloff’s star power. On May 18, 1944, Karloff signed the deal and was immediately introduced to Val Lewton. Despite Lewton’s initial trepidation, the two men hit it off immediately. Both were literate, well read and deep thinking gentlemen who discovered they both shared similar ideas about Horror – Karloff actually referred to his films as ‘Terror’ pictures, reaffirming his belief that scary films should provoke feelings of intense fear or anxiety – and not repulsion – as the word ‘horror’ would imply. The two men instinctively knew they would work well together. Confident that Karloff shared his vision, Lewton set about crafting the first film they would collaborate on: Isle of the Dead.

Isle of the Dead
Dir. Mark Robson

Set during the Balkan War, 1912-1913, the story revolves around army General Nikolas Pherides (Karloff) as he invites budding journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to visit his wife’s grave on the titular island. Once there they realise that a deadly plague currently sweeping the land has claimed a number of victims. Pherides imposes quarantine on the island and the small group of people staying there must remain. People begin dying one by one and Madame Kyra, a fork-tongued housemaid, instigates panic when she blames the deaths on a vampiric creature called a vorvolaka. She accuses Thea (Ellen Drew) - nursemaid to the fragile Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery) - of being an evil spirit, sucking the life out of her victims as they sleep. Eventually Pherides, a man of logic and reason, begins to believe the old woman, with her stories of ancient spirits and demons. Oliver attempts to protect Thea, but with more people dying, no way off the island and Pherides becoming increasingly deranged, time is running out for the unfortunate souls marooned on the island.

Typical of Lewton’s influences, Isle of the Dead was inspired by a painting – Boecklin’s work depicting a sinister island in a dark sea - and Poe’s The Premature Burial. Indeed, aside from perhaps The Seventh Victim, no other Lewton film exudes as much of an atmosphere of gloom and preoccupation with death as Isle of the Dead.

With a small cast – including a big name star in Karloff - limited location and deeply morbid story, Lewton believed he was on to a winner with Isle of the Dead. Unfortunately the production would be plagued with re-writes and scheduling problems – not helped by the fact that Karloff had to leave the set after only 8 days of shooting to have a spinal operation. Before he began making a living from his acting, Karloff had taken many jobs as a manual labourer and had damaged his back, resulting in problems dogging him throughout his career. Realising he couldn’t do much without his star player, Lewton called a hold to shooting and began pre-production work on his next project – The Body Snatcher.

After several weeks of rest, Karloff was able to return to recommence filming what Lewton often denounced as ‘a terrible mess of a film.’ While nowhere near as effective as his earlier output such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Curse of the Cat People, Isle of the Dead is still a thoroughly moody film with an undeniably creepy atmosphere and a pace so languid it resembles a floating wraith.
The mood of death and despair is eminent from the outset – the opening scenes depict a dank battlefield where the moans of the dying rise out from under a weightily grim atmosphere. We first encounter Pherides as he is left no choice but to force one of his men to shoot himself for failing to carry out a mission successfully. He explains to war correspondent Oliver that he had no choice – he was merely following the laws and regulations of such matters. From the beginning, Pherides is presented as a logical man who keeps his emotions separate from his obligations to follow the law. During one of his many confrontations with Thea, the feisty maid declares ‘Laws can be wrong and laws can be cruel, and that people who only live by the law are both wrong and cruel.’

The look of Isle of the Dead is slightly akin to I Walked with a Zombie – particularly the interior scenes with cinematographer Jack MacKenzie’s subtle use of a chiaroscuro lighting effect; the bars of moonlight on the walls of the bedrooms are especially remarkable.

With the central theme of death and a character who believes she is a monster, parallels can arguably be drawn between Isle of the Dead, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim. Attempts at a certain degree of ambiguity stalk the film – is it really a plague offing all the characters – or something more sinister? Debates about reason and logic, folklore and superstition pepper the already wordy script. Pherides, Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) and Mr Albrecht (Jason Robards) discuss medicine versus religion and faith, with Pherides and Dr. Drossos eventually succumbing to Albrecht’s notion that superstition is no less believable than the doctor’s belief in ‘good winds and bad winds’ – he had previously believed that if the winds were of the right kind, the air carrying the pestilence couldn’t reach the island.

More people die and we eventually come to the film’s central set piece – the premature burial. Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn confided in the doctor that she suffered from extreme catalepsy and feared being buried alive. Sure enough, something triggers a particularly bad attack and she falls into a deep swoon – believed dead by the doctor. She is buried in the tomb as the eerily gliding camera roams through the set like the last breath expelled by the dying. What happens next unfolds as such a memorable scene it should be considered among the best in Lewton’s films – it’s up there with the pool scene in Cat People and the ‘blood under the door’ scene in The Leopard Man. Coming to rest on the recently sealed coffin, the camera pauses long enough for us to hear scratching from inside it… The unfortunate woman eventually breaks out of the coffin, driven mad by her experience she stalks the island in a series of beautifully haunting shots – wafting through the trees in her flowing burial robes, accompanied only by the howling wind of the soundtrack – she eventually ends her life over the side of a cliff: but not before paying a visit to the wretched general first.

Karloff provides a fine performance as the tortured general, caught between the worlds of logic and superstition; he torments himself trying to work out what the best course of action to take is. In the end, he is driven insane – but his intentions did not go unnoticed, as Oliver states: ‘In the back of his madness was something simple, something good. He wanted to protect us all.’ Though he does become a madman, thanks to Karloff’s masterful performance, Pherides’ transistion is a starkly tragic one, and he is as much a victim of the island’s gloomy death-obsession as anyone else. It would be with his next role for Lewton however, that Karloff would deliver what many people (including myself) believe to be his best performance - that of Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher...

Follow the links to read more about Karloff's collaborations with Lewton.
Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part II: The Body Snatcher

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part III: Bedlam

Monday, 23 November 2009

Brides and Broads: Karloff’s Leading Ladies

Throughout his career, Karloff shared the spotlight with many a silver-screened siren – usually with them recoiling in terror from him. Karloff never really got to play the ‘romantic lead’ but there is no denying the chemistry he shared with some of the actresses he worked with – be they shrieking in terror at his approach, or strangely drawn to his undoubted yet dark charisma. Whilst most actresses in horror films during the 30s and 40s were reduced to screaming and fainting - some equiped themselves well and managed to rise above questionable material to create feisty heroines who could more than hold their own against the villain/monster. And of course, some just screamed and fainted a lot - but they did it so well they get a mention too.

Here are some of the actresses who shared more memorable moments with Karloff ‘The Uncanny.’ Don't forget to check out Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog for more Karloff related wonderment...

"She's alive! Alive!"
Elsa Lanchester. An English character actress with a lengthy career in theatre and TV, Lanchester really made a name for herself as the bride in Bride of Frankenstein – the role for which she will no doubt be best remembered. Which I’m sure you’ll agree, is no bad thing at all. Surviving events in the first film, Henry Frankenstein returns and teams up with raging queen Dr Septimus Pretorius to create a mate for his Monster. The unforgettable sight of Lanchester as the shock-haired Bride has become one of the most iconic images in horror cinema. Despite the fact that she was created to be a mate for the Monster, Bride has no such intentions and rejects him outright, hissing and screaming at him. The Monster, more than a little upset over this hostility, sheds a tear and pulls a lever that ultimately destroys the laboratory, himself and his aloof Bride... Well, at least until the sequel, Son of Frankenstein. Which is markedly Brideless.

Karloff and Johann in The Mummy
Zita Johann. A Broadway actress, Romanian born Zita Johann made her first film appearance in D.W. Griffith’s 1931 film The Struggle. Zita was much more comfortable on stage than on screen, and after a paltry seven films, she quit cinema. Johann effortlessly commanded attention in her duel role as Helen Grosvenor / Princess Anck-es-en-Amon in Karl Freund’s The Mummy. Her exotic and alluring beauty was the perfect foil for Karloff’s morose and heavy-hearted Imhotep / Ardath Bey. When an archaeologist inadvertently resurrects Ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep, the bandaged one shuffles off in search of his ancient lover Princess Anck-es-en-Amon – who has been reincarnated as the delectable Helen Grosvenor. Karloff and Johann portray the doomed lovers earnestly, ensuring The Mummy is one of the most tragic, if insidiously creepy love stories to grace the silver screen. 

Anna Lee stars with Karloff in Bedlam
Anna Lee. Squaring up to Karloff in no less than two films, English actress Anna Lee appeared with the Uncanny One in Bedlam and The Man Who Changed his Mind, as well as a host of other films including The Sound of Music, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and John Ford’s Fort Apache. It was as Nell Bowen in Mark Robson directed/Val Lewton produced Bedlam that Lee really shone though. A radiant, fiercely intelligent and witty character, Nell Bowen was one of Lewton’s typically strong, self-assured female characters. No one else in the film stands up to Karloff’s sadistic apothecary general Master George Sims – head of Bedlam asylum – as much as Bowen. And what does she get for her trouble? A stint in Bedlam as one of Sims’s guests. Winning over the other inmates with her compassion and self-sacrificing nature, Bowen soon has it in her power to stand up to Sims one last time… 

Gloria Stuart fends off a ghoulish Karloff in The Old Dark House...
 Gloria Stuart. One of the very few still-living actresses from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Era’, Gloria Stuart still works, albeit much more leisurely, in film today – and even garnered an Oscar nomination at the age of 87 for her part in James Cameron’s Titanic. Stuart appeared alongside Karloff in James Whale’s morbidly humorous thriller The Old Dark House. A horrid storm forces several travellers in deepest, darkest Wales to seek shelter at a too-gloomy mansion belonging to the rather ‘strange’ Femm family. A series of bizarre incidents throughout the night place the lives of all staying in the house at risk. As Morgan, an alcoholic mute butler, Karloff is sufficiently leery and menacing – running amok and threatening poor Gloria Stuart. And with her being a typical early 1930’s horror ‘heroine’, all she does is scream and faint. But she does it so well!

Karloff's Monster advances upon Mae Clarke in Frankenstein...
 Mae Clarke. Beginning her career as a dancer, Mae Clarke would eventually go on to star in films such as Waterloo Bridge – a pre-code film in which she played a woman forced by circumstances into a life of prostitution – and The Public Enemy with James Cagney. This film boasts the famous and often parodied scene, in which Cagney takes a slice of grapefruit and smooches it into poor Clarke’s face before going out and picking up Jean Harlow. The lug! It was as Elizabeth facing off the Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein that Clarke landed her most famous role. The sight of Karloff bearing down on her on her wedding night is still quite chilling to this day. And as a Scream Queen in 1930s horror cinema, what does Clarke do? Scream and faint! Like Gloria Stuart though, she does it so well.

Marian Marsh marries into deadly secrets in The Black Room
Marian Marsh. After signing with Warner Bros and changing her name to Marian Marsh, Violet Ethelred Krauth landed her most revered role in Archie Mayo’s Svengali – opposite John Barrymore. After this film’s success Marsh was reteamed with Barrymore for The Mad Genius, before travelling to Europe to continue her acting work. Returning to the States and signing with Columbia, Marsh starred opposite Karloff in the 1935 mystery-horror film The Black Room. Karloff delivers one of his most subtle yet complex performances in a duel role as doomed twins Anton and Gregor Bergmann – victims of a dark prophecy spelling out their self-inflicted demises. Marsh is the love interest of the ‘good twin’ Anton, and her scenes with Karloff become interesting as she suspects Anton has been murdered and is being impersonated by his evil twin Gregor.

Frances Drake
Frances Drake. No, not the famous English Sea Captain and second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada, but the demure and pretty actress famous for portraying Eponine in Les Misérables (1935). Drake appeared in the classic Mad Love – with Peter Lorre – before taking a role in The Invisible Ray – with Karloff and Bela Lugosi – in which she portrays the wife of kerr-azy scientist Karloff. As Dr Judh, Karloff finds a meteor but is poisoned by the radiation and begins to lose his mind whilst glowing prettily in the dark. The Uncanny One gives an uncharacteristically over-the-top performance as the ill-fated scientist, which somehow manages to enhance his character's increasingly off-balanced state of mind. Drake equips herself well as Judh’s blousy wife – who unlike most other 1930’s ‘Scream Queens’ doesn’t take to screaming and fainting every five minutes.

Ellen Drew in the shadowy confines of Isle of the Dead
Ellen Drew. Former Beauty Queen, Ellen Drew began acting for Paramount in 1938. In 1944 she moved to RKO, and amongst other titles, starred in the Val Lewton produced/Mark Robson directed Isle of the Dead. Set on an isolated island during the Balkan War of 1912-1913, the film focuses on the plight of a group of people – including Karloff as the tortured army General Nikolas Pherides - who are quarantined on the island when a plague breaks out. As they die one by one, a young woman is accused of being a vorvolaka - a sort of vampire - who the other characters become increasingly wary of. As the accused, Thea must put up with superstitious accusations from local peasant women and death threats from the increasingly deranged Pherides. Karloff gives another subtle and assured performance to rival that of (in this writer’s humble opinion) his best performance in The Body Snatcher. Drew is another of Lewton’s positive female characters who eventually proves her innocence – but not until she and Karloff have confronted each other several times, in a film seeped with quiet menace and doomful foreboding.

Marjorie Reynolds
Marjorie Reynolds. Reynold’s was a child actress in silent films. Her first ‘talkie’ was Murder in Greenwich Village (1937). She appeared onscreen several times with Karloff in the William Nigh directed ‘Mr Wong’ films in which Karloff played the titular Wong, a San Francisco based detective. Reynold’s portrayed perky and determined reporter Roberta 'Bobbie' Logan – who hires Karloff to track down a ruthless killer and help her get the scoop. Luckily Karloff’s finely tuned performance and subtle nuances ensure he doesn’t come across as offensive – what with him being a white actor playing an Asian character and all. Reynold’s starred in three of the six Wong films, and her hardboiled, screwball-esque sparring with Grant Withers, who plays Captain Street, provided much appreciated relief from all the trench-coated, sleeve-gunned, poison-gassed shenanigans.

Irene Ware recoils in horror in The Raven
Irene Ware. As Jean Thatcher in the 1935 The Raven, Irene Ware starred alongside not just Boris Karloff, but also Bela Lugosi. In the same film! Lugosi plays Dr Vollin, a Poe obsessed surgeon who professes his love to Ware, only to be turned down, even after he performs an operation that saves her life after a horrid car crash. Vollin encounters Bateman (Karloff) who is on the run from the police and wants a new face. Vollin deliberately botches the operation, leaving Bateman with a hideously disfigured face. He agrees to re-do the surgery if Bateman will help him get revenge on the Thatcher’s for preventing him from being with Jean. Whilst Karloff and Lugosi were often portrayed as ‘bitter rivals’, during the filming of The Raven they actively united to recruit for the newly founded Screen Actors Guild in which Karloff played a significant role. The film itself didn’t do very well, as 1935 audiences had problems with the films themes of torture, disfigurement and sadism. Oh my! However, Lugosi’s performance has been praised and often regarded as one of his best. Ware does her best with the material, however in the presence of Karloff and Lugosi, no one really has a chance in this flick… She flirts, screams and faints. And then participates in some interpretive dancing later on in skimpy clothes – very risqué for the time you know.

Its Alive! Happy Birthday Boris Karloff

Born November 23, 1887, William Henry Pratt soon went on to become one of the most enduring horror icons of all time.

As Boris Karloff, he would make his mark in cinema history with his sensitive portrayal of the Man-Made Monster in James Whale's adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein...

To celebrate Karloff's birthday and his vast range of film work, this week will be given over to a Boris Karloff Blogathon, with all posts dedicated to looking at some well-loved, and perhaps some overlooked, Karloff 'The Uncanny' classics.

Today is also Sara Karloff's birthday and she sent a message to Pierre Fournier over at Frankensteinia to say she is looking forward to reading all the blogs about her father and his work this week. Head over to Frankensteinia to read her message.

Karloff, Gooooood!