We sort of just discovered that Val Lewton produced 3 movies with Boris Karloff, so we queued up Val Lewton: Isle of the Dead/Bedlam (1945/1946). We watched The Seventh Victim, again for me, first time for Ms. Spenser, and she wanted to see the included video essay on Lewton - that clued us in to the Karloffs.
Both movies were based on artworks. Isle of the Dead was based on the Boecklin painting of the same name, showing an island at dusk with a white robed figure approaching on a boat. It is set during the Balkan Wars, when Greece was fighting for its independence. Karloff is a Greek general, who has just won a battle. An American reporter, Marc Cramer, convinces Karloff to take him to a nearby cemetery island to visit Karloff's wife's tomb - while his men struggle to clear the corpses from the battlefield, to avoid plague.
On the island, they find a few people living with an archaeologist, including a sickly woman, her husband (Alan Napier, a Lewton favorite, but we love him as Alfred, TV's Batman's Butler), and her companion, Ellen Drew. The housekeeper, Helene Thimig, hints darkly that the companion is so full of blood and life, and her mistress so pale and sickly, perhaps someone is a vorvolaka, a vampire like monster of the region. Not sure how it compares to the Wurdulak. That's not bad enough, but soon someone dies of the plague, and the general declares a strict quarantine. He is sure that science and medicine will save them. But when it doesn't, he too begins to look for evil influences.
Bedlam is based on a different artwork, the last painting in Hogarth's Rake's Progress, when the rake has wound up in the fearsome London institute, St. Mary of Bethlehem, or Bedlam. Here, Karloff runs Bedlam but wants to be a writer. He is looking for the patronage of Lord Mortimer (Billy House), and may have killed Mortimer's last pet writer. Mortimer has another protege, a witty young woman, Anna Lee. Although she is a sophisticated cynic, she doesn't approve of the modern practice of treating the asylum inmates as a source of entertainment. She lets Karloff know, and he takes a disliking to her.
When the head of a lunatic asylum doesn't like you, they can do some nasty things. In fact, by treating some of her jokes as serious, he has her committed. Will the stonemason Quaker she met help get her out?
Both of these movies show Lewton's literary side and the subtlety of his horror. Karloff is a presence that can go from foolish, kindly, or genial to terrifying with no disconnect. The art-inflected cinematography is great, although you sometimes can see the lack of money on the screen. We also watched the commentary on Bedlam - it was fun and informative but mostly an info-dump that rarely connected to what you saw on the screen.