Starring: Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Alan Napier
“When war and tumult torment the Earth,
the Dead are disquieted; there is frenzy in the grave.”
This is not one of my favorite of Val Lewton’s series of horror films for RKO, but it is certainly one of his most interesting and ambitious. Though The Body Snatcher was technically released prior to Isle of the Dead, this was Lewton’s first collaboration with horror icon Boris Karloff. The film was delayed because Karloff needed back surgery and Lewton was unable to reunite the cast and crew, so instead filmed The Body Snatcher in the interim. Though initially reluctant to work with Karloff - he assumed, correctly, that hiring the actor was a stunt by RKO to piggyback on the success of his films with Universal - the two men become close friends and successful creative partners. Karloff believed Lewton revived his career and allowed him to make serious horror films instead of forcing him into increasingly gimmicky, make up-focused roles as Universal was doing. Though his performance in The Body Snatcher is perhaps the finest in his career, he gives a good turn here as an increasingly paranoid Greek general.
Karloff stars as General Pherides, a commander in the First Balkan War of 1912. Along with a young war correspondent, Pherides travels to a nearby island to visit the grave of his wife, but orders the island quarantined when a plague breaks out. The small group begins to die one at a time, but an old woman on the island thinks something more sinister than the plague is responsible. She believes a young nursemaid is a vorvolakas (also known as a vrykolakas), a blood-drinking, vampiric being of Mediterranean or Slavic legend. When Pherides begins to believe the old woman, the young girl’s life is in danger, as is everyone on the island.
The script, written by Lewton and a regular collaborator, Ardel Wray, was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s disturbing painting Isle of the Dead (pictured above). It was initially going to be an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous lesbian vampire tale, Carmilla, and shades of this remain in the script. As with all of Lewton’s films, style is the main objective. Though Mark Robson made a number of other interesting and beautifully shot, noirish films with Lewton, this is unfortunately his darkest. Some of the stark, nighttime or indoor scenes of Lewton’s masterpieces like The Seventh Victim and Cat People are filled with beautiful chiaroscuro, but Isle of the Dead is plunged into almost total darkness and it is occasionally difficult to tell what is happening.
Isle of the Dead is deeply flawed and often seems confused about its larger aims. Though the film raises questions about the power of beliefs and tradition, of fear and desperation, it fails to follow through on anything more than a perfunctory examination. Though the script utterly resists following a formula, sometimes to its benefit, it frequently gets caught up with twists and turns that lead nowhere. As far as menace and scares, several scenes are set up but soon fizzle out. For example, when Karloff visits his wife’s grave early in the film, it is empty and desecrated, but this disturbing image is quickly forgotten. The most successful scene involves a woman being buried alive and horrifically clawing her way out.
Though Karloff is always excellent and gives a good performance as the icy, conflicted General, most of the other characters are simply too weak to be interesting. As a group, they should feel the pressure of enforced quarantine on a tiny island, but seem too nonchalant and ignore the fact that they are supposed to be isolating themselves from other people to keep the plague away. Next to Karloff, the most interesting characters are, unsurprisingly for Lewton, the women. Ellen Drew’s lovely young nursemaid accused of being a vampire has a compelling dilemma and her patient (Katherine Emery) turns out to be much more than she seems. The other men are difficult to watch. Marc Cramer is incredibly irritating as the young male lead and Jason Robards Sr is somewhat pointless as a man who prays to Greek pagan gods.
Overall I would recommend Isle of the Dead, even if you only get around to renting it. Like Lewton’s masterpiece The Seventh Victim, death haunts nearly every frame of this film. Cerberus looms large over the proceedings, often literally in the form of a cemetery statue. It is also one of Lewton’s few works to reference WWII, which was underway during all of his films. War, disease, superstition, desperation, and madness push the film toward its impressive conclusion. Isle of the Dead is available on a split disc with Karloff and Lewton’s final film together, Bedlam. You can also find it as part of the excellent Val Lewton Horror Collection box set.