Release Date(s)1943/1946 (October 12, 2021)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B
- Overall Grade: A
When RKO Pictures assigned producer Val Lewton to their horror unit in 1942, no one could have possibly predicted the astounding legacy that he would leave behind. From 1942 to 1946, Lewton gifted RKO with nine idiosyncratic and poetic films, all of them based on the principle of leaving most of the horror to the imaginations of viewers. RKO would give Lewton a lurid title to work with, but as long as he stayed within a limited budget, they also gave him relative freedom to create whatever he wished. It wasn’t complete independence, as the studio did occasionally interfere, but for the most part he was able to achieve his vision for each film. The results speak for themselves, and while they weren’t all financially successful, every one of Lewton’s horror films has something unique to offer.
The Ghost Ship was the fifth film in the series, one which took advantage of a standing ship set on the RKO lot. The story was attributed to Leo Mittler with a screenplay by Donald Henderson Clarke, but as with most of Lewton’s productions, he had a heavy hand in developing the story and in writing the final shooting script. Tom Mirriam (Russell Wade) is the new third officer on the Altair under Captain Stone (Richard Dix), and while the two are initially impressed with each other, Mirriam gradually realizes that there’s true madness in the captain’s methods. None of the rest of his shipmates believe him, and the two end up playing a dangerous game which puts Mirriam’s life in jeopardy. The Ghost Ship also stars Edith Barrett, Ben Bard, and Lewton regular Sir Lancelot.
Despite the title, there’s not even a hint of the supernatural in The Ghost Ship, with all of the horror being of the purely psychological variety. It’s a fascinating examination of one man’s deteriorating mental state, seen through the eyes of the only person who recognizes what’s happening. It’s also something of a paranoia thriller, with Mirriam vainly trying to convince the others that he isn’t simply imagining everything. Director Mark Robson may not have had the visual flair that Jacques Tourneur brought to Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man, but he was still in perfect sync with Lewton’s interest in exploring the interior mindsets of the characters. The Ghost Ship’s only real misstep in that regard is the voiceover narration from Finn, the mute character played by Skelton Knaggs. It doesn’t relay any necessary information, and it also diminishes his enigmatic nature. But that’s a minor misstep in an otherwise laudable effort, one which even Lewton’s fans tend to undervalue.
Unfortunately, The Ghost Ship fell into legal trouble when RKO and Lewton were sued by two playwrights who had dropped off an unsolicited manuscript at Lewton’s office, which they claimed he plagiarized for the film. In Joel Siegel’s classic monograph Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, he claimed that Lewton’s secretary Verna De Mots had returned the manuscript unread, but that appears to be inaccurate. Lewton had indeed read it and even had at least one communication with the authors. Regardless, the only real common element between the two stories was the ship itself, so while RKO wanted to settle, Lewton refused, demanding to clear his name in court. That failed, and in addition to paying damages, RKO had to withdraw The Ghost Ship from circulation. For decades, it was something of a lost film, until it finally saw the light of day again as a part of Image Entertainment’s Val Lewton Collection LaserDisc boxed set in 1995, and it’s been widely available ever since.
Bedlam was Lewton’s ninth and final film at RKO. It was also his third to feature Boris Karloff, who RKO had signed to a three-picture deal. Lewton initially objected to being saddled with Karloff, as he thought the actor would be incompatible with his more subtle and naturalistic approach to horror, but the two ended up being in perfect sync with each other. Karloff had left Universal because he was tired of the simplistic roles that the studio wanted him to play, and Lewton gave him more substantial characters to work with—the three films that he made under the producer contain some of the finest performances in his lengthy career.
As with Isle of the Dead, Lewton drew inspiration from a painting, in this case the eighth plate from William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (which was titled The Madhouse). Lewton wrote the screenplay under his pseudonym Carlos Keith, along with director Mark Robson. The story pits Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) against Master Sims (Karloff), the tyrannical and exploitative master of the Bedlam mental asylum. When she becomes an advocate for reforming the system, Sims conspires with her former benefactor Lord Mortimer (Billy House) to have her committed to the asylum. While her Quaker friend Hannay (Richard Fraser) searches for her from the outside, she finds that her real path to freedom may rely on her compassion for the other inmates at Bedlam.
Nell Bowen is one of the most interesting of the strong female characters that Lewton created for his films, and Anna Lee does a superb job of capturing all of her nuances. Nell wants to be a member of high society, and while she puts on a calloused veneer in order to fit in, it’s clearly an act. Her native compassion for others keeps bubbling through that surface, no matter how hard she tries to repress it. In her interactions with Hannay, she tries her best to show him that she doesn’t care about anyone or anything other than herself, though he sees right through her. But it’s her interactions with Sims that force her to accept who she really is—her instincts for self-preservation are constantly waylaid by her dismay at the way Sims treats the other inmates.
Bedlam has a fairly straightforward story compared to the others that Lewton produced, with none of the moral ambiguity of films such as The Seventh Victim. But like Nell Bowen, it displays real compassion for the plight of the mentally ill, barely hidden under its own veneer as a thriller. That surface is particularly impressive in Bedlam, as RKO gave Lewton a higher budget than normal, though it was still made on a relative shoestring. Lewton was able to accomplish miracles with his limited resources in period films like Bedlam and The Body Snatcher, and this one looks fantastic, making clever use of standing sets and existing costumes (at one point, Nell wears Scarlet O’Hara’s infamous dress from Gone with the Wind). While its lack of traditional horror trappings may disappoint some people, Bedlam is still a worthy swan song for Lewton’s RKO run.
Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca served as cinematographer for both The Ghost Ship and Bedlam. They were shot on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, and framed at 1.37:1 for their theatrical releases. For this Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray, the original nitrate negatives were scanned at 4K resolution before restoration work was performed. With one very minor caveat, the results are fantastic for both films. While any dupe footage from optical work such as dissolves is naturally a bit softer than the surrounding material, everything else is sharp and detailed, with natural looking grain. There’s an optical zoom in the opening scene of Bedlam which gets particularly soft, but it’s inherent to the material. Grayscale is perfect, with excellent contrast and black levels, but plenty of detail in the shadows. The Ghost Ship features scenes set in the fog which naturally have less contrast, but again, that’s the way they were shot. There’s little in the way of visible damage, though the cleanup process did result in one error on The Ghost Ship. When Mirriam first visits Captain Stone in his cabin, they look up at a light fixture and have a conversation about a moth which is flitting around it. The moth was added in post-production via animation, but it’s been digitally erased from the scene in this version. This isn’t a case where the unretouched negative was scanned for that shot, because all of the dupe footage with optical work would have been cut into the original negative, and the negative trims would have been discarded. It’s clearly dupe footage, as it’s softer than the shots surrounding it. The moth has simply been erased, possibly by someone who thought that it was a blemish. (Given how the fine detail and grain are otherwise untouched, it doesn’t seem likely that it happened with automated tools.) It’s an unfortunate mistake, but one that shouldn’t stop anyone from acquiring this disc, as both films look excellent overall—in fact, they’ve never looked better.
Audio for The Ghost Ship and Bedlam is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. There’s just a bit of background noise, and obviously the fidelity is somewhat limited, but everything sounds as clean as possible, with clear dialogue. It’s easy to get sidetracked by the striking visuals in Lewton’s productions and forget that the sound plays a crucial role as well. Roy Webb contributed the fine scores for both films, and his work sounds as good here as it can.
THE GHOST SHIP (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/A-/B
BEDLAM (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/A/B
There’s a single extra on the disc:
- Audio Commentary on Bedlam by Tom Weaver
Film Historian Tom Weaver’s commentary was originally recorded for the DVD release The Val Lewton Collection in 2005. Weaver had just 79 minutes to work with, and he doesn’t waste a moment, breathlessly moving from one detail to the next. He provides an overview of Lewton’s career at RKO, as well as a look at Karloff’s time at the studio. He gives biographical information for all of the major actors, and a history of the production of Bedlam. He also provides historical information regarding the real asylum, and the Hogarth paintings which inspired Lewton. He notes various technical details along the way, such as the fact that the scream from the falling patient at the beginning of the film was actually one of the sailor’s screams from RKO’s King Kong. He also discusses Bedlam’s censorship problems with Joseph Breen at the Production Code Administration. He even fits in some thoughts about the tragic trajectory of Lewton’s career after RKO. It’s a very thorough commentary track, and a great way to spend 79 minutes.
The Ghost Ship and Bedlam aren’t necessarily the most popular of Lewton’s nine horror films, but that’s simply a reflection of the potent work that he did. As great as films like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim may be, they shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the rest. The Ghost Ship and Bedlam are both worthy additions to his canon, and Warner Archive’s Blu-ray is an essential disc for fans of the producer, the genre, and even for fans of film history itself.
- Stephen Bjork
(You can follow Stephen on Facebook at this link)