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The seam of hokeyness that runs at various gauges right through pretty much every film in Val Lewton’s storied corpus widens considerably in this florid costume-expose, based on the firm foundation of a true story, of corruption and cruelty in an 18th century British insane-asylum known as Bedlam.

Presided over by the film’s principle saving grace — a conniving social-climber and gifted practitioner of bribery and graft played by the typically impeccable Boris Karloff — Bedlam is a nightmare, both for its confused, uncared-for, terrorized inmates and for Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), a local aristocrat’s seemingly frivolous companion who finds herself moved to improve their sorry lot. When Nell’s reformist ardor — stoked by a dreamy, moralizing Quaker hunk (meddlesome stonemason Richard Fraser) — backfires, landing her in Bedlam as Karloff’s special guest, a scheme to spring her is hatched by right-thinking Enlightenment types, for whom her fate is a symbol of the success or failure of rational humanism in the so-called Age of Reason.

Heavy-handed, stiff-frocked and fustian-tongued, BEDLAM nevertheless boasts some beautifully chilling scenes insides the madhouse, and a memorably twisted depiction of evil beget by baleful social pressures in the person of Boris Karloff’s warden.

3/30 – 7:30PM
79 minutes

Harvard Film Archive
24 Quincy St.
Cambridge, MA

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