From 1942 to 1946, when rust was appearing on the Frankenstein monster’s neck bolts, Dracula was grower longer in the tooth, and swaddled swollen mummies were limping along (both figuratively and literally), a savior appeared on the horror horizon who would provide counterprogramming to the usual parade of fur, fangs and putty. That man was Val Lewton, and his arrival at RKO would herald a new style of horror where less was infinitely more, where shadows grew ripe with menace lurking just beyond the edge of the screen. In 1945, he brought Boris Karloff (who had already been a horror legend for nearly 15 years) aboard for a trio of unforgettable chillers that should be required viewing for any card-carrying horror fan.
Body Snatcher, The (1945)
Arguably Karloff’s finest onscreen performance, this is another great-looking piece of atmospheric horror from producer Lewton. Karloff’s Cabman Gray, oozing ill-intentions and menace while remaining innately likeable, emerges as one of the most intriguing characters in film, regardless of genre. Gray has been employed as a grave robber to provide cadavers for Henry Daniell’s professor to use at his medical institute. When there are too few corpses to satisfy demands, Gray goes about supplying them through “other means.” Philip MacDonald and Lewton (as Carlos Keith) do a terrific job adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s story (inspired by the real-life exploits of body snatchers Burke and Hare). Robert Wise directs with a sure hand, leaving much of the violence offscreen and allowing our imagination to fill in the ghoulish blanks. The street singer sequence, in particular, is a wonder. Daniell proves a worthy foil to Karloff, and the mounting power struggle between them is electrifying to watch. Bela Lugosi appears in a small role (despite his billing) as Daniell’s servant, and his brief scene with Karloff is startling yet strangely moving. The film marked the final time that the two icons of horror would appear onscreen together.
Isle of the Dead (1945)
It’s Karloff’s show all the way in this odd little Lewton production set in Greece during the 1912 war. Playing the ruthless General Pherides, who respects only the letter of the law, he quarantines a group of civilians on an island when an outbreak of plague strikes. However, as the tiny community dies one by one, he begins to believe an old crone’s accusations—that beautiful young servant woman Ellen Drew is really a “vorvolaka,” a wolf-spirit with vampiric tendencies. The unusually curly-headed Karloff is a wonder to watch as he creates another memorable character, and Katharine Emery’s dying woman terrified of being buried alive leaves a strong impression. However, the love story angle between Drew and American reporter Marc Cramer is devoid of chemistry, further slowing the already lethargic pacing by director Mark Robson (who would fare much better the following year with Bedlam.) Still, the quality Lewton production values are in place, with a chilling sequence in the island crypt that will cause nightmares for many.
This third collaboration of Karloff and Lewton is not a straightforward horror tale, yet contains some chilling moments nonetheless. Karloff is absolutely captivating as Master Sims, the sadistic yet utterly charming chief warden of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, known as Bedlam. When flinty heroine Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) interferes with Sims’ plans to ingratiate himself to Lord Mortimer (a delightful performance by Billy House), he has her incarcerated as a madwoman under his charge. Within this realm, where Sims has reigned unchallenged for years, their battle of wills escalates as the sharp-witted and steel-spined Nell forms alliances with her fellow lunatics, some of whom are not as they seem. While Karloff is ostensibly the villain of the piece, his presence is so magnetic and fascinating the audience may find it difficult to root for his downfall. Lewton (under pseudonym Carlos Keith) is responsible for the suspenseful and witty screenplay, which contains numerous nightmarish images, including an inmate suffocating from being dipped in gold paint (a precursor to James Bond’s Goldfinger) and a ghoulish “trial” of Sims by his tormented patients. Director Mark Robson, who served as editor and/or writer on numerous earlier Lewton productions, skillfully evokes a shadowy atmosphere of gloom. This marked the final Lewton/RKO teaming, concluding a remarkable string of high quality/low-budget fright flicks.