Mental health attitudes are, thankfully, in the process of changing; it’s something of a shock to see the attitudes of the past portrayed in Val Lewton’s 1946 shocker. The inmates of the Bedlam asylum in London circa 1761 have a hard deal; firmly locked up, they’re gawked at by visitors who pay for the privilege of viewing their discomfort, a freak show to placate the curious. This was the origin of the term ‘bedlam’ that we use to describe any street-argument or sports finale. The word has come to mean any kind of upset or brouhaha, but the reality of Bedlam is the concern of this staid, sincere film.
Boris Karloff plays George Sims, who rules over the institution inhabited by those he calls ‘loonies’; he even uses their abject performances to provide a show to grease the wheels that keep him in power. Sims does so to appease Lord Mortimer (Billy House), but his protégée Nell (Anna Lee) doesn’t like Sims’ methods, so the wily old coot arranges for her to be committed to his own asylum to shut her up. Nell looks down on the unfortunate too, but her period in Bedlam awakens a protective instinct in her, and she comes to see the ‘loonies’ as people too. Nell starts to plot her escape, and that desire puts her on collision course with Sims, with the future happiness of the inmates at stake.
There’s something decidedly otherworldly about the best of Lewton’s work, but there’s not much of that savoured poetry here; Bedlam the movie is plot heavy, dialogue heavy, and decidedly bleak in outlook. But the Gothic atmosphere is pervasive, tension is maintained, and Mark Robson’s film finally rolls over to reveal a modern heart in the right place. Via her testimony at the Commission of Lunacy, another for the growing file of great potential names for any indie band, Nell’s conversion from cynic to carer is well-imagined, and the drama clearly reveals the neglect and cruelty of the institutional heads.
Perhaps reflecting on the horrors of Bedlam show how far we’ve come, but as society seems to fragment in 2020, it’s also a salutatory lesson in the importance of judging society by how it treats the less fortunate. We may no longer organise guides tours of those we deem ‘mad’, but ask yourself what our adherence to reality tv or social media does to our psyche. This is the horror film where the terror comes not from others, but from ourselves, and makes good on its promise to uncover the dark excesses of man’s inhumanity to man and woman alike.