Bedlam – USA, 1946 – overview and reviews

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Bedlam is a 1946 American horror feature film starring Boris Karloff and Anna Lee. It was the last in a series of stylish horror B films produced by Val Lewton (who also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Carlos Keith) for RKO Radio Pictures.

Bedlam was inspired by William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, and Hogarth was given a writing credit. It was a box office failure.



1761, London, England: Events occur at St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, a fictionalised version of Bethlem Royal Hospital, also known as “Bedlam.”

After an acquaintance of aristocrat Lord Mortimer dies in an attempt to escape from the asylum, apothecary general Master George Sims (played by Karloff, a fictionalised version of an infamous head physician at Bethlem, John Monro) appeases Mortimer by having his “loonies” put on a show for him.

Mortified by the treatment of the patients, Mortimer’s protégé Nell Bowen (Lee) seeks the help of Whig politician John Wilkes to reform the asylum. Mortimer and Sims conspire to commit Nell to the asylum, where her initial fears of the fellow inmates do not sway her sympathetic commitment to improving their conditions…



The first in a long line of films that see sane people locked up in hellhole asylums (cf: Shock CorridorBehind Locked DoorsThe Snake Pit), Bedlam is suitably indignant, handsomely mounted and has a masterful villain in the form of Karloff, rarely as slimy and cruel as he is here.

Admittedly, at times the film feels like a slightly more expensive Tod Slaughter effort, with lashings of melodrama and theatrical excess, but on the whole, the film is suitably restrained – perhaps not as much as the average Val Lewton production (this was his last horror film), yet more so than most horror films of the period.

David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:

“Though it has its moments of genuine terror, Bedlam is as historically accurate as possible, right down to the archaic dialogue passages. For the most part, the film is an indictment against political corruption, with Karloff (in a terrific, multi-faceted performance) alternately bullying and wheedling to save his own behind.” Movie Review Query Engine

“Even Val Lewton’s staunchest fans don’t claim Bedlam as one of his most successful productions, but its tale of the celebrated 18th-century madhouse is both intelligently written and admirably acted. Its major pretension is also its greatest weakness: the design is scrupulously modelled on Hogarth prints, and the aestheticism finally swamps most of the gusto in the plot.” Time Out

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