The pictorial bedrock is Hogarth (The Rake’s Progress, Plate 8), postwar trauma pervades the "Age of Enlightenment." The first mental hospital in 18th-century England is a tour house for aristocrats marveling at the "loonies," the Apothecary General (Boris Karloff) takes the inmates as amusement to a nobleman’s fête. A gold gilt-covered youth expires for their laughter; "That’s a Tory joke for you," the gross lord (Billy House) declares, but the Whigs at the table are snickering, too. The heroine (Anna Lee) is the nobleman’s spiky protégée, whose empathy hides behind a snippy façade: "A kind heart butters no parsnips." Bitten by the reformist bug, she has her pity tested when the vengeful Karloff contrives to have her sent to the asylum. Polanski remembered the corridor walk toward the barred door (Repulsion), the sanatorium’s cell becomes a stage in Marat/Sade. The snake pit also occasions a comment on Val Lewton’s shadow realities: "They have their worlds, we have ours... Like separate dreams." Hierarchies continue in the madhouse -- Ian Wolf’s paranoid lawyer (who doubles as a flipbook projectionist) and Jason Robards Sr.’s silent, alcoholic novelist comprise the "upper classes" of the catacombs, a cage with a chained goliath is opened so that Lee can test the limits of her compassion. (Karloff watches gleefully from the outside, like a Buñuelian decadent savoring the degradation of a saint.) The elements are all in place, but, without a cinematic spark in Mark Robson’s direction, they coagulate rather than flow. Still, the feminist-political fable is couched in absorbing grey zones. The heroine gets a smitten, pacifist Quaker (Richard Fraser) to lend her a trowel as a weapon by reminding him of her threatened beauty, while the villain is given the chance to defend his deeds in a mock-trial. Lewton tries to understand "the fear within" Karloff, the better to send him off on a note from Poe. Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca. With Glen Vernon, Leyland Hodgson, Joan Newton, and Elizabeth Russell. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce