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Top 10 Women in Horror Movies #5 Nell Bowen

Behind asylum bars, the brave Nell Bowen.

Behind asylum bars, the brave Nell Bowen.

Bedlam (also 1946) is another film that straddles the horror/ other genre line.  In this case it’s period drama.  However, since it was made by Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO, it’s a horror film for the purposes of this list.

Some historical background is necessary.  In Georgian England, it was a common past-time to go and look at the insane in the various mental “hospitals.”  The most famous/notorious being St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, otherwise known as Bedlam.  For more information, see Horrible Histories: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V60mZv1Djc.

Anyway, the movie begins with a man frantically trying to escape the hospital, only to be killed “accidentally” by falling off the roof.  The next day, the director of the hospital, Master Simms (Boris Karloff) is called before Lord Mortimer to explain what happened.  He smoothly flatters the fat aristocrat out of being punished, but Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), Mortimer’s protege, is curious and pays for a tour of the asylum.  Simms obliges her, fondling a woman in a catatonic state and describing his other patients in bestial terms, “Some are dogs, and I beat them.  Others are pigs, and those I let wallow in their own filth.”  She strikes him across the face with her riding whip and runs away.  Out in the street, she meets a Quaker stonemason who refused to work for the shady Simms, and he suggests she use her influence with Lord Mortimer to improve the conditions of the asylum.  Initially Nell pretends not to care, but soon changes her mind.  Simms, on the other hand, angry over his sore cheek, begins to work against her and convinces Mortimer that she belongs with the other loonies of Bedlam.

After a few hellish days, Nell collects herself enough to begin organizing the saner inmates to improve the situation, although she does insist her Quaker friend lend her his sharp trowel when he sneaks in among other workers to visit her.  Unfortunately, the makeshift weapon is soon stolen by another patient.  Her courage does not fail, however, until Simms threatens her with primitive shock treatments– something that causes the entire room to cringe– and she is motivated to escape.

Nell’s physical toughness, spunk, and leadership skills set her apart from the typical horror movie heroine by themselves (like Maria, she too can stop riots), but other plot points of note make her story stand out.  In particular is her relationship with the mason– the Quaker Society of Friends has always been one of the most socially progressive Christian branches (they were among the first to allow women to preach).  Their ultimately romantic relationship fits nicely with Nell’s feminist portrayal.

Interestingly, this was not the only time Anna Lee played a strong woman who got the better of a villain played by Karloff.  1936’s The Man Who Changed His Mind (or The Man Who Lived Again) features her as a scientist who not only fends off the amorous mad scientist but rescues her silly boyfriend from his death-trap, but seems to decide to remain a working scientist rather than give it up to marry the newspaper heir.

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