Plague Diary 17: A Film About the Plague

There Is Only One Film I Know About Quarantining from the Plague

In the early 1940s, a Hollywood movie producer named Val Lewton (his real name was Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon) was responsible for a handful of great horror films in which the effects were more psychological than crude, which placed him pretty much in a one-man category.

Today, I saw (for the nth time) his film Isle of the Dead (1945), set on a strange Greek island during the First Balkan War (1912-13). Boris Karloff plays the Greek General Nikolas Pherides who, together with an American journalist, rows to an offshore island to visit the grave of his wife. He finds that her grave had been broken into and her body stolen. Worse yet, he lands on the island only to find that one of the guests in the house where he is staying has died of the plague.

Karloff and the other people on the island must quarantine until the wind changes. Once the hot, dry sirocco wind begins to blow, that particular strain of the plague dies off.

Boris Karloff as General Pherides, “The Watchdog”

The psychological element introduced by Lewton is a superstition of a vampire-like creature called a vorvolaka which is promulgated by a Greek peasant woman named Kyra serving in the house. Karloff, who prides himself by his nickname of “The Watchdog,” buys into the possibility of the truth of this superstition, blaming a young serving woman who is enjoying rubicund good health for being a vorvolaka.

The film is a scant 72 minutes long and would be an excellent choice for a Quarantining-at-Home Film Festival, even if it is one lone title. There is also an Elia Kazan film called Panic in the Streets (1950) which involves the plague but has no claustrophobic quarantining.



A Halloween Present for You

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s The Cat People

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s The Cat People

There are horror films, and there are horror films. They can scare you out of your wits, like Curse of the Demon (1957) and Poltergeist (1982), or they can make you understand that the world is both light and dark in equal measure, like Val Lewton’s great films of the 1940s, such as The Cat People (1942).

Val Lewton, born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia, was interested in making low budget films to compete with Universal Pictures’ highly successful Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Wolf Man franchises. The title for The Cat People was assigned to Lewton by RKO, and Lewton went to work on a psychological thriller in which there is no overt violence. Perhaps the greatest scene takes place in a swimming pool in which a young woman is swimming all by herself at night. In the shadows, we imagine there is a black panther, but neither the swimmer nor we the viewers are absolutely sure.

Even though Halloween is just about over, I highly recommend all the following Lewton films:

  • The Cat People (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • The Leopard Man (1943)
  • The Seventh Victim (1943)
  • The Ghost Ship (1943)
  • The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • The Body Snatcher (1945)
  • Isle of the Dead (1945)
  • Bedlam (1946)


All are great films worthy of being seen multiple times. They are short, thoughtful, extremely moody, and highly successful. Also available is a Turner Classics biopic about Lewton’s career called Shadows in the Dark narrated by Martin Scorsese. Martine and I watched it last night and recommend you see it.

In all of Hollywood’s history, Lewton was probably the only film producer who controlled his products as if he were the director. Even though Lewton directorial protegés Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson went on to have brilliant careers, when one is watching a Lewton film, one recognizes it as a Lewton film.



Back to Bedlam

Title Shot of Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946)

Title Shot of Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946)

Originally, it was called Bethlem Royal Hospital or St. Mary Bethlehem. Over the years, the British mental hospital has moved from Bishopsgate to Moorfields to Southwark, where it is now, a reputable institution associated with Kings College London. From its period of notoriety in the 18th century, where the glitterati paid admission to see loonies chained to the wall, it was better known as Bedlam.

There is a wonderful Val Lewton film of the same name, starring Boris Karloff, that was released by RKO in 1946 (see above). In it, a sane young woman is forcibly admitted to the insane asylum when she refuses to odious attentions of a powerful rake. Like almost of all of the Lewton films I have seen, it is a delight. It includes a rebellion of the inmates against the infamous Boris Karloff, who plays the head physician at Bedlam.

Poster for Val Lewton’s Bedlam

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s Bedlam

The reason that Bedlam the movie comes to mind is my realization that we have little progressed from those bad old eighteenth century days when the mentally ill were mistreated for the amusement of visitors. Now, things are almost worse. Ever since the 1980s, the mentally ill have been on their own.When they receive any attention at all, it is usually by the police and prison guards. Instead of getting the medication that helps keep them on an even keel, the mentally ill are mistreated by guards who punish them for their non-normative behavior.

Recently, several Orange County, California police beat up and killed a mental patient named Kelly Thomas who was living on the street. In their various police academies, the police are trained to deal with malefactors, and not with persons who have a tenuous grip on reality. The police were tried and acquitted by an Orange County jury.

The outlook for the mentally ill who are loose on the streets is not a good one. Perhaps even the old Bedlam would have been an improvement.

The Curse of the Cat People

Simone Simon and Anne Carter in Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Simone Simon and Ann Carter in The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

All the ingredients for horror are there: Tarrytown, New York, with its legend of the headless horseman; a seemingly haunted house; a woman come back from the dead; and a lonely little girl who will do anything for a friend. Except that this is a Val Lewton film. The horrors are all there in the background, waiting to pounce. That they never do makes the film more profound in a way, as if all the darkness we imagine in life were really just the result of looking at things the wrong way.

The headless horseman never shows up, although at one point we think we will. The haunted house isn’t really haunted: It’s inhabited by an unhappy mother who doesn’t acknowledge the daughter who loves her. The woman come back from the dead (above) is a loving and friendly ghost who wants nothing but good for Amy, the lonely little girl who keeps getting in trouble for being lost in her dreams.

Lobby Card for Curse of the Cat People

Lobby Card for Curse of the Cat People

Oh, and by the way, there is no menacing black cat as shown on the lobby card above. There is a black cat who appears on a tree branch briefly at the beginning, but jumps away to avoid a mischievous boy.

There is one beautiful little French Christmas carol sung by the ghost Irena, played by Simone Simon, that runs through the film—a song without menace of any kind. Here is a link to the carol—“Il Est Né le Divin Enfant”—as sung by Edith Piaf:

So, The Curse of the Cat People is either a total failure, or it’s not quite what it’s advertised to be. My vote is for the latter.

That is so typical of Val Lewton, who produced a series of films in the 1940s that are still being seen and loved. Thousands have been seduced by the prospect of horror that never quite emerges. It is suggested, but is rarely what it seems. There is a death in The Leopard Man, but it happens off screen. There is plague on The Isle of the Dead; grave-robbing in The Body Snatcher; devil worship in The 7th Victim; a real zombie (though not the brain-eating variety) in I Walked with a Zombie; and a menacing panther at a swimming pool in The Cat People. We are brought close to the edge of our seats, but in the end are protected from any direct contact with anything vile: Instead what at first promised to have a terrifying dimension winds up with more of a psychological dimension.

One interesting fact about Lewton is that he never directed any of these films: He produced them. Yet his stamp on these pictures—which are directed by excellent directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise—is as decisive as the stamp of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford.

I had purchased a collection of Val Lewton films on DVD from Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It arrived yesterday, so I decided to watch The Curse of the Cat People this afternoon. I look forward to re-acquainting myself with the other eight titles in the series as well.