Shutter Island’s Ancestors

In the flurry of interviews Martin Scorsese granted running up to the release of Shutter Island, he rattled off a long list of movies he screened for his cast, including Laura, Out of the Past, Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. The first two were studied by DiCaprio and Ruffalo to look good in a rumpled suit (thanks to Dana Andrews and Robert Mitchum), while the last three, of course, were churned out by Val Lewton’s miraculous horror unit at RKO, a remarkable run of terror keyed off of the suggestion of violence rather than the blood and guts themselves. But the main wellspring of Scorsese’s recent box-office champ are two later Lewtons, which he also mentions: Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) [Spoilers abound below].

The screengrab above is from an early shot of Isle of the Dead, a dead-ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio’s opening journey towards a ghostly island of his own in Shutter Island (the model for both of which is Arnold Böcklin’s series of “Isle of the Dead” paintings, the 1886 version is seen to the left). Greek General Pherides (Boris Karloff) and reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) row over to a cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of Pherides’ wife. They discover an empty coffin, and stumble upon the bizarre household presided over by Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), an archaeologist who ordered peasants to go grave robbing. Now repentant, he lives on the island and offers shelter for any lonely wanderers. Then one of the guests dies of the plague, and Pherides and Davis are stuck quarantined inside, along with superstitious maid Kyra (Helen Thimig), consumptive wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her young nurse Thea (Ellen Drew) and stuffy husband Aubyn (Alan Napier).

Karloff’s Pherides is a clear influence on DiCaprio’s Det. Teddy Daniels. Both are violent men of authority who are driven to paranoia and madness, linked to romances past. As the days of confinement continue, Pherides falls under the spell of Madame Kyra, who accuses Thea of being a “vorvolaka”, an evil spirit who sucks the life out of her victims. Her evidence is Thea’s employer Mary, who has been slowly dying for years. Karloff’s eyes begin to bug out as Pherides clings to this fantasy as the true solution to their predicament – kill Thea and the “plague” will dissipate. Daniels is also imprisoned, but in an insane asylum, as he attempts to solve the mystery of a missing inmate during a biblical thunderstorm. DiCaprio plays it queasy and sweaty, while Karloff goes for a more operatic insanity, but they are both dangerous obsessives driven to insanity by the horror in their own souls.

Why I think Isle of the Dead is a scarier film, if not necessarily a more coherent one, is a result of Lewton’s visual understatement, with the aid of director Mark Robson and DP Jack MacKenzie. The film contains ultra low-key lighting, and when the supposed “vorvolaka” does appear, in a harrowing sequence of live burial, fleeting tulle garments, and tridents shoved into chests – it’s conveyed through terrifying glimpses.

It’s miraculous the film has the power it does, considering the difficulties during production. Karloff required spinal surgery after eight days of shooting, shutting down the production for months. In the interim, Lewton knocked off the delightful Body Snatcher, and when the shoot picked up again, the script was scrapped and re-made somewhat on the fly. No one on the production was happy with the finished product (future Lewton-ites aside), until perhaps the notices came rolling in, when James Agee called it “one of the best horror movies ever made.” It also affected a young Scorsese, who in an oft-recalled anecdote, remembers running out of the theater as a kid in sheer terror before the end, too scared to continue.

In any case Karloff and Lewton were a good match, as Karloff’s intro to the short story collection Tales of Terror attests:

The mightiest weapon of the terror tale is the power of suggestion – the skill to take the reader by means of that power into an atmosphere where even the incredible seems credible.

That could have been the Lewton team’s motto, and the two were to work again for the last time on Bedlam one year later. This film has an even closer relationship with Shutter Island, as it focuses on torturous treatment in an insane asylum, and the lead character’s incarceration. Lewton modeled the film off of plate 8 of William Hogarth’s series of paintings and engravings, “The Rake’s Progress”, which depicted subject Tom Rakewell’s final degradation at Bethlehem Hospital (aka Bedlam). Almost too slavish to Hogarth’s engraving, Lewton and director Mark Robson dissolve in and out of stills of the artwork before each new sequence, adding a static element to Lewton’s usually sinuous works. It’s a weird film in any context, though, with lead Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) a whitewashed reference to the Restoration England actress (and probable prostitute) Nell Gwyn. In this film, Nell is merely a kind of jester for the rich Lord Mortimer (Billy House), and tags along at the “loony” show George Sims (Karloff) mounts for the Lord’s pleasure. Sims runs the “Bedlam” insane asylum, allowing the inmates to rot in a barnyard atmosphere of scattered hay and the constant threat of death. Nell’s conscience is pricked by the earnest young Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser), who sees a spark of pity in her.

The closest analogue to Karloff’s sadistic Sims in Shutter Island is probably Max Von Sydow’s malevlolent-seeming Dr. Naehring, who is intimated to have a Nazi past and moves with the same stiff bearing as Karloff’s schemer. The inmate population is the same however, a menagerie of terrifying grotesques, erudite madmen, and flailing arms in dimly lit, humid hallways. While Bedlam’s tone varies rather wildly from Restoration comedy to moralist grandstanding to atmospheric horror, it is never safe – and there are some agelessly wonderful bits, including the loony lawyer inmate who dreams of projecting his flip book onto a screen, only “It’s because of these pictures that I’m here.” That is, the cinema made him to madness. A truth Mr. Scorsese, Val Lewton and myself can certainly relate to.

22 Responses Shutter Island’s Ancestors
Posted By moirafinnie : March 9, 2010 5:02 pm

I love your post, especially the parts about Isle of the Dead, one of Val Lewton’s most haunting films. No wonder Boris looked so pained throughout this movie–but what a trouper!

I always thought that, for all its real poignancy, there was a Hogarthian comic streak running through Bedlam that was grotesquely funny. I also found it disturbing and interesting that Lewton and Karloff refused to allow the viewer to see the asylum director George Sims as simply a villain. He was clearly very much a victim of his own class pretensions, artistic frustrations and fear of losing his niche–even if it was one of the lower rungs of a bizarre world.

I’d read pretty mixed reviews of Shutter Island. Your well done post makes me want to see this one.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 9, 2010 5:02 pm

I love your post, especially the parts about Isle of the Dead, one of Val Lewton’s most haunting films. No wonder Boris looked so pained throughout this movie–but what a trouper!

I always thought that, for all its real poignancy, there was a Hogarthian comic streak running through Bedlam that was grotesquely funny. I also found it disturbing and interesting that Lewton and Karloff refused to allow the viewer to see the asylum director George Sims as simply a villain. He was clearly very much a victim of his own class pretensions, artistic frustrations and fear of losing his niche–even if it was one of the lower rungs of a bizarre world.

I’d read pretty mixed reviews of Shutter Island. Your well done post makes me want to see this one.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : March 9, 2010 5:24 pm

Moira-

I found SHUTTER ISLAND to be an effective grand guignol-style thriller, no more, no less. I thought it was structured quite nicely, with the hallucinations slowly leaking into his waking moments, and the performances are enjoyably over-the-top (especially the all-too-brief turn by Max Von Sydow). Its grander ambitions, as a nightmare vision of bearing witness to 20th century atrocities, was not as effective for me. But it certainly has ambitions. In any case, I still think it’s a must see.

Your thoughts on Bedlam are well taken. It does have a “grotesque” humor to it, embodied in Karloff’s pathetic George Sims, who as you say is more complicated than a mere sadist, which I failed to mention in my piece. The film is strangely disjointed though, don’t you think? Its shifts from that grostesque humor to social drama to classic Lewton horror was truly bizarre. Not a judgment, just an observation. It’s a worthy curiosity, for sure.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : March 9, 2010 5:24 pm

Moira-

I found SHUTTER ISLAND to be an effective grand guignol-style thriller, no more, no less. I thought it was structured quite nicely, with the hallucinations slowly leaking into his waking moments, and the performances are enjoyably over-the-top (especially the all-too-brief turn by Max Von Sydow). Its grander ambitions, as a nightmare vision of bearing witness to 20th century atrocities, was not as effective for me. But it certainly has ambitions. In any case, I still think it’s a must see.

Your thoughts on Bedlam are well taken. It does have a “grotesque” humor to it, embodied in Karloff’s pathetic George Sims, who as you say is more complicated than a mere sadist, which I failed to mention in my piece. The film is strangely disjointed though, don’t you think? Its shifts from that grostesque humor to social drama to classic Lewton horror was truly bizarre. Not a judgment, just an observation. It’s a worthy curiosity, for sure.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 9, 2010 7:27 pm

Rob,
Yes, I see what you mean about the bizarre qualities in this Val Lewton movie. I think Bedlam has a dream-like logic with many changes in tone and perspectives without resolution or an overriding unifying idea, but I suppose that reflects the disjointed perception of those confined there (and Lewton’s bedeviled state of mind at RKO when he made this movie). Despite this, the movie has some images I can’t forget, such as the man trying to escape from the asylum from the attic window, with the star-filled sky above, and falling to his death, the gold-painted living statue at the decadent aristocrat’s party, the casual nature of his death, and Anna Lee’s expression as she gradually begins to question her own sanity as she becomes more immersed in the world of the asylum.

Max Von Sydow‘s presence in the cast of Shutter Island just might make it worth seeing. That, and the fact that I have a pretty good idea what spooky island near Boston that Dennis Lehane was writing about in his novel that inspired this movie. It really is a bit unnerving to visit.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 9, 2010 7:27 pm

Rob,
Yes, I see what you mean about the bizarre qualities in this Val Lewton movie. I think Bedlam has a dream-like logic with many changes in tone and perspectives without resolution or an overriding unifying idea, but I suppose that reflects the disjointed perception of those confined there (and Lewton’s bedeviled state of mind at RKO when he made this movie). Despite this, the movie has some images I can’t forget, such as the man trying to escape from the asylum from the attic window, with the star-filled sky above, and falling to his death, the gold-painted living statue at the decadent aristocrat’s party, the casual nature of his death, and Anna Lee’s expression as she gradually begins to question her own sanity as she becomes more immersed in the world of the asylum.

Max Von Sydow‘s presence in the cast of Shutter Island just might make it worth seeing. That, and the fact that I have a pretty good idea what spooky island near Boston that Dennis Lehane was writing about in his novel that inspired this movie. It really is a bit unnerving to visit.

Posted By Suzi Doll : March 9, 2010 11:51 pm

I thought SHUTTER ISLAND was terrific. Scorsese’s command of the visual language of cinema is like a painter’s command of his brush. The outcome of the narrative is telegraphed by the visuals not for the purposes of “spoiling” the ending but to suggest a deeper and darker subtext. Few reviewers today have the ability to recognize and interpret visual strategies of storytelling, so small wonder that the reviews are mixed. I found this film’s real antecedent to be THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, both in terms of content and visual design. The high-strung performances also fit into the Expressionist style, and I would not call them over the top. No one underplays in SHUTTER ISLAND, but that doesn’t make the acting over the top. Broader styles of acting (as in melodrama, horror, or other unsubtle genres) are not in vogue now, and there is a tendency to criticize any acting style that is not underplaying. I thought the performances serviced the material as did the visual techniques. The conclusion, which differs slightly from the book, recalls Scorsese’s career-long interest in the nature of the heroic protagonist, so he makes the material his own while remaining relatively faithful to the book.

Posted By Suzi Doll : March 9, 2010 11:51 pm

I thought SHUTTER ISLAND was terrific. Scorsese’s command of the visual language of cinema is like a painter’s command of his brush. The outcome of the narrative is telegraphed by the visuals not for the purposes of “spoiling” the ending but to suggest a deeper and darker subtext. Few reviewers today have the ability to recognize and interpret visual strategies of storytelling, so small wonder that the reviews are mixed. I found this film’s real antecedent to be THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, both in terms of content and visual design. The high-strung performances also fit into the Expressionist style, and I would not call them over the top. No one underplays in SHUTTER ISLAND, but that doesn’t make the acting over the top. Broader styles of acting (as in melodrama, horror, or other unsubtle genres) are not in vogue now, and there is a tendency to criticize any acting style that is not underplaying. I thought the performances serviced the material as did the visual techniques. The conclusion, which differs slightly from the book, recalls Scorsese’s career-long interest in the nature of the heroic protagonist, so he makes the material his own while remaining relatively faithful to the book.

Posted By Mitch Farish : March 10, 2010 9:51 am

So one of the film school boys (God forbid they should ever crack a book) has ripped off some truly great films whose inspiration came not from other films but from literature and art. I have an idea; why not watch “Isle of the Dead,” “Bedlam,” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and save your money, unless having everything slicked up with CGI means that much to you. Once again we are reminded of just how remarkable the Lewtons, Hitchcocks, Fords, and Langs really were, and how ordinary the Scorseses, Camerons, and Burons are.

Posted By Mitch Farish : March 10, 2010 9:51 am

So one of the film school boys (God forbid they should ever crack a book) has ripped off some truly great films whose inspiration came not from other films but from literature and art. I have an idea; why not watch “Isle of the Dead,” “Bedlam,” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and save your money, unless having everything slicked up with CGI means that much to you. Once again we are reminded of just how remarkable the Lewtons, Hitchcocks, Fords, and Langs really were, and how ordinary the Scorseses, Camerons, and Burons are.

Posted By courey : March 10, 2010 11:06 am

i really enjoyed this article. i went to see Shutter Island the other day and i hated it up until the very end. i think it was roughly the last 15- 20 minutes of this movie that turned the whole thing around for me. usually movies like this do not bother me at all, i was surprise at how disturbing some of the images were through out the film. in the end i thought the twist was great and i would definitely see it again.
i am very interested to see Isle of the Dead. if anyone else is interested it looks like most of it, if not all, is posted on youtube.

Posted By courey : March 10, 2010 11:06 am

i really enjoyed this article. i went to see Shutter Island the other day and i hated it up until the very end. i think it was roughly the last 15- 20 minutes of this movie that turned the whole thing around for me. usually movies like this do not bother me at all, i was surprise at how disturbing some of the images were through out the film. in the end i thought the twist was great and i would definitely see it again.
i am very interested to see Isle of the Dead. if anyone else is interested it looks like most of it, if not all, is posted on youtube.

Posted By vixstar1314 : March 10, 2010 5:09 pm

Cool post!
First time I saw the trailer for Shuttle Island I knew I had to watch it. My views have not changed. And I’m def going to watch it once it’s out in the UK!
Interesting details about the other films :D

Posted By vixstar1314 : March 10, 2010 5:09 pm

Cool post!
First time I saw the trailer for Shuttle Island I knew I had to watch it. My views have not changed. And I’m def going to watch it once it’s out in the UK!
Interesting details about the other films :D

Posted By kingrat : March 10, 2010 5:17 pm

Speaking of Bocklin’s paintings called “The Isle of the Dead,” they also inspired Rachmaninoff’s symphonic tone poem of the same name. One of his finest works.

Posted By kingrat : March 10, 2010 5:17 pm

Speaking of Bocklin’s paintings called “The Isle of the Dead,” they also inspired Rachmaninoff’s symphonic tone poem of the same name. One of his finest works.

Posted By sitting pugs : March 10, 2010 7:39 pm

Fantastic post! I haven’t seen Shutter Island, but I’ve listened to the unabridged audio book. The ending kept me wide-eyed… Not sure I’ll watch the film.

Posted By sitting pugs : March 10, 2010 7:39 pm

Fantastic post! I haven’t seen Shutter Island, but I’ve listened to the unabridged audio book. The ending kept me wide-eyed… Not sure I’ll watch the film.

Posted By M. A. Hauck : March 10, 2010 9:23 pm

@Mitch Farish

At one time, Scorsese wanted to be John Cassavetes. Somehow, he morphed into David Lean instead over the last decade, with the exception of Bringing Out the Dead, which I think is a masterpiece (thanks in part to Paul Schrader’s script).

He should have stuck with the former route. I’d take Cassavetes over Lean any day.

Posted By M. A. Hauck : March 10, 2010 9:23 pm

@Mitch Farish

At one time, Scorsese wanted to be John Cassavetes. Somehow, he morphed into David Lean instead over the last decade, with the exception of Bringing Out the Dead, which I think is a masterpiece (thanks in part to Paul Schrader’s script).

He should have stuck with the former route. I’d take Cassavetes over Lean any day.

Posted By cassandralopestamaria : March 11, 2010 12:17 am

Cool post. I am so going to watch Shutter Island.

Posted By cassandralopestamaria : March 11, 2010 12:17 am

Cool post. I am so going to watch Shutter Island.

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