Two lesser known but utterly beguiling thrillers from producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson come to Blu-ray on a single disc from Warner Archive. The Ghost Ship, which charts the deadly voyage of a boat helmed by a psychologically disturbed captain, and Bedlam, an indictment of the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill during England's Georgian Era, both brim with style and atmosphere, produce palpable chills, and - thanks to new transfers struck from 4K scans of the original nitrate elements - look and sound great. Fans of Golden Age horror will get a big kick out of this creepy double feature that ratchets up tensions on land and sea. Recommended.
Val Lewton produced only 14 movies - almost all of them low-budget horror flicks - over the course of a brief career that was tragically cut short by his 1951 death at age 46, but he remains a notable and enduring Hollywood figure. The original Cat People stands as his most famous film, but following that auspicious debut, Lewton mounted such popular chillers as I Walked With a Zombie, The Seventh Victim, and Isle of the Dead.
Bedlam, the last of his three collaborations with Boris Karloff, and The Ghost Ship, an effective thriller starring Richard Dix, are two of Lewton's lesser known features, but Warner Archive has given both films stunning makeovers and packaged them together as a double feature. A young Mark Robson, whom Lewton promoted to director after Robson's impressive editing work on four previous Lewton productions including Cat People, helms both movies and infuses them with a creepy macabre tone. The Ghost Ship and Bedlam, along with The Seventh Victim and Isle of the Dead, would help put Robson on the cinematic map and spawn a multi-decade career that would include such famous - and infamous - blockbusters as Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, and Earthquake.
The Ghost Ship (1943)
"There's nothing but bad luck and bad blows at sea," a blind dockside beggar tells Tom Merriam (Russell Wade), the new 3rd officer on the Caribbean-bound Altair, in The Ghost Ship's opening scene. The naive, starry-eyed Merriam laughs off the ominous statement, but once the Altair leaves port, his initial admiration for the paternal Captain Will Stone (Richard Dix) turns first to disillusionment, then outrage over his authoritarian practices. Stone prides himself on running a tight ship, but when any crew members speak out against his tactics, they soon (not-so) coincidentally die, and as the casualties and Stone's disturbing and irrational behavior mount, the honorable Merriam feels duty-bound to take action.
Taut, atmospheric, and occasionally unnerving, The Ghost Ship succeeds in supplying the requisite tension and thrills. Robson nicely builds suspense aboard the claustrophobic, isolated Altair and constructs a trio of harrowing scenes, the most ambitious of which focuses on an out-of-control, massive, swinging iron hook that threatens the crew. Ominous lighting and innovative camera work heighten the uneasy mood, and Dix's measured portrayal of the sadistic Stone, who evokes other unbalanced captains like Bligh and Queeg, supplies an additional eerie element. Stone is a tricky part, because the character recognizes his own mental deterioration, but Dix, who earned a Best Actor Oscar nod a dozen years earlier for the original version of Cimarron, deftly underplays for maximum impact.
Wade embodies the earnest Merriam, Edith Barrett (the film's only female cast member) makes the most of her limited screen time as Stone's estranged girlfriend, and Lawrence Tierney, in only his third film, grabs attention in a brief unbilled role as one of Stone's unfortunate victims. Robson masterfully depicts Tierney's grisly demise in one of the movie's other memorable set pieces.
If you're unfamiliar with The Ghost Ship, there's a good reason why. Shortly after its release, the movie became embroiled in a plagiarism lawsuit brought by two writers who claimed Lewton stole the plot of their play written a year earlier. The plaintiffs won their case (and a judge upheld the verdict on appeal), which resulted in not only financial damages and Lewton's personal devastation but also the provision that the film could no longer be distributed or exhibited. RKO abruptly pulled The Ghost Ship from theaters and it remained locked away for 50 years until its copyright expired and it fell into the public domain in 1993. Though available on DVD since 2005, its restoration and Blu-ray release gives this excellent thriller the wide exposure it has always deserved. Rating: 4 stars
Bedlam, which would turn out to be Lewton's last thriller, flaunts a far more refined tone than The Ghost Ship and reflects Lewton's desire to break free from the restrictive B picture mold. Inspired by "The Rake's Progress," a famous series of satiric paintings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth, the film examines the horrific conditions at a London asylum run by the corrupt and sadistic Master George Sims (Boris Karloff), who's beholden to the pompous Lord Mortimer (Billy House). The story - written by Robson and Lewton (who used the pseudonym Carlos Keith) - transpires during the Age of Reason in 1761, but there's nothing reasonable about the dastardly Sims or his cruel mistreatment of his mentally disturbed charges. "They have their world and we have ours," Sims dryly states, but when Mortimer's curious protégée Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) asks to visit St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum on a whim so she can take a gander at the loony patients in their element, the two worlds collide.
A woman ahead of her time with a spunky attitude and plenty of spitfire, Nell is shocked by what she sees and demands reforms, but her meddling only provokes the ire of Mortimer and especially Sims, who hopes to shut Nell up - and hang onto his powerful position - by having her committed to Bedlam. Of course, any woman who dares to speak her mind in 1761 surely must be insane, so Sims' nefarious plot works, but the boss of Bedlam doesn't count on Nell's eagerness to help her fellow inmates or the devotion of her Quaker friend Hannay (Richard Fraser), who helped open Nell's eyes to the enormity of human suffering and champions her newfound convictions.
With its sumptuous period sets and ornate costumes, Bedlam adopts an elegant look during its aristocratic scenes, but Robson strikingly contrasts all the finery with the stark, dank, gloomy asylum interiors. A fair amount of de rigueur creepiness and one notable jolt help the film stay true to its thriller roots, but Lewton's intention to produce a more refined, A-level movie comes through loud and clear. Consequently, Bedlam lacks the urgency and relentless narrative drive of Lewton's previous B pictures, but it's still an entertaining diversion distinguished by a memorable climax, a surprisingly literate script that captures the distinctive speech and timbre of the times, and excellent performances from Karloff, Lee, and the rest of the cast.
Karloff had been languishing in pedestrian horror fare before he teamed up with Lewton and Robson, and Bedlam offered him the chance to really break free from the constricting chains of typecasting. His understated portrayal oozes venom and he seems quite at home in the period setting. Lee, who usually blends into the woodwork, vies for the spotlight here with a sassy and colorful turn that ranks among her best portrayals. Far from a shrinking violet, the beautiful yet bold Nell bravely takes on all the film's powerful men without batting an eye, and Lee seems to relish every confrontation and fiery remark. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
The Ghost Ship and Bedlam may not rank as lofty cinematic achievements, but they possess plenty of technical flair and reflect Lewton's unique vision and commitment to craftsmanship. They also stand as fine examples of Robson's burgeoning talent. If you're a Lewton fan, these films are a must, and if you're not, The Ghost Ship and Bedlam will make you one guaranteed.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Ghost Ship and Bedlam arrive on Blu-ray packaged on a single disc inside a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
New 2021 HD masters struck from 4K scans of the original nitrate negatives distinguish the stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers of these two classic thrillers, both of which were shot by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Bedlam looks especially vibrant and crisp, which is great news considering all the ornate period costumes and lavish 18th-century décor on display. Fabric textures, sparkling jewelry, and background bric-a-brac burst with fine detail, while razor-sharp close-ups showcase Karloff's leathery face and Lee's peaches-and-cream complexion. Deep blacks, bright yet stable whites, and all the various shades of gray in between produce a beautifully balanced picture that features just enough grain to maintain a lovely film-like feel. Excellent shadow delineation during both nocturnal scenes and the gloomy asylum sequences enhance the uneasy atmosphere, and nary a nick, mark, or errant scratch dot the pristine source material.
The Ghost Ship appropriately adopts a starker, grittier appearance. Grain is slightly more prevalent, but tricky elements like fog and faint mist are nicely rendered. Much of the movie transpires in murky settings, but strong detail levels, terrific shadow delineation, lush blacks, and a wide grayscale ensure a quality image. Crystal-clear close-ups highlight glistening sweat and fine facial features, and any age-related picture defects have been meticulously erased.
Maybe too meticulously. There's been a fair amount of online chatter about a missing moth near a lightbulb at around the 4:40 mark that may have been a casualty of overzealous remastering. There's conjecture the insect in question might have been mistaken for a bit of print damage and thus deleted manually or by an automated computer program that might not be able to distinguish between such tiny elements and specks of dirt. When Russell Wade reaches up toward a lightbulb with cupped hands, Richard Dix stops him with the line, "You've no right to kill that moth," but the lack of any moth in the frame makes the comment somewhat cryptic. Below is a still shot of that moment...
The good news is, according to a comment made by restoration expert Robert Harris in a discussion thread on the Home Theater Forum, Warner Archive is aware of the issue and will be addressing it after the first of the year. Personally, I feel it's a minor error that should be regarded as a footnote rather than a headline. The missing moth certainly doesn't detract from the transfer's overall beauty and shouldn't deter anyone from purchasing this otherwise high-quality disc.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks for both films supply clear, well-modulated sound. Prolific RKO composer Roy Webb supplies the scores for both The Ghost Ship and Bedlam and a wide dynamic scale allows the music plenty of room to breathe. Sonic accents like footsteps, wind, the ship's eerie creaks, and especially the rattling of a massive chain in The Ghost Ship are crisp and distinct, while the creepy sounds of the Bedlam asylum and clickety-clack of horse hooves on the streets of 18th-century England help immerse us in the period. All the dialogue in both films is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, distortion is absent, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle mar the purity of these spruced-up Golden Age tracks.
The only disc extra is a lively and informative 2006 audio commentary for Bedlam by film historian Tom Weaver. (Though the packaging advertises theatrical trailers for both films, previews for neither are included.) Weaver provides background information on many members of the cast and crew (as well as artist William Hogarth), chronicles both the film's production and grisly history of the real Bedlam in 18th century England, and even quotes from his own interviews with members of the cast, including Anna Lee. He also explains how faithful the film often is to Hogarth's paintings, notes Lee wears the exact dress Scarlett O'Hara fashioned from the green velvet drapes of Tara in Gone with the Wind (which looks pretty darn drab in black-and-white), recounts some deleted scenes, script changes, and censorship issues, relates a frightening incident involving gold gilt that afflicted one of the bit players, and shares some colorful anecdotes. Weaver cracks some jokes during his discussion, but for the most part he's all business and crams loads of facts into this very good commentary that's well worth a listen.
The Ghost Ship and Bedlam may not rise to the level of some better-known horror classics, but the two atmospheric thrillers stand as stellar genre entries from producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson. Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Richard Dix, and a host of fine character actors distinguish these eerie tales that delve into the disturbed minds of two powerful men who wield their unchecked authority with relish. New 4K scans of the original nitrate elements yield a pair of stunning transfers that make these Golden Age classics look almost brand new. If you love the original Cat People, this creepy double feature will be right up your (dark) alley. Recommended.