What evil force is loose that empties graves of these long dead…buries those still alive…leaves behind it death…AND WORSE!
Boris Karloff is still rather summarily dismissed in some circles as the actor who played Frankenstein or perhaps by younger generations as he who voiced the Grinch in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Those who are familiar with his work, however, will know that Karloff was a well accomplished thespian with a range much better than he is given credit for.
This brings us to 1945’s The Isle of the Dead, which was filmed at a time when Karloff wanted to distance himself a bit from his stereotype as a movie monster. The Isle of the Dead was the first in a three picture deal he signed with RKO as he felt the Universal Frankenstein series had run its course. All three pictures were produced by Val Lewton and although shot primarily first, The Isle of the Dead was released after the subsequent film The Body Snatcher.
The Isle of the Dead isn’t particular strong in the Val Lewton filmography; in fact it is rather formulaic and tedious. Karloff is General Nikolas Pherides, a Greek general during the Balkan War of 1912- you guys remember that war, right?
In the aftermath of a battle, Pherides and reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) visit a small island to visit the grave of Pherides’ late wife, only to find it vandalized and empty. Hearing an odd woman’s wail in the night, they follow it to find a small lodge and its occupants. Pherides and Oliver stay the night after meeting a retired archeologist (Jason Robards, Sr.), Kyra the housekeeper (Helen Thimig), a British diplomat (Alan Napier) and his wife (Katherine Emery). Also in the lodge are the wife’s friend Thea (Ellen Drew) and a tinsmith.
In the morning they arise to find that the tinsmith has died. Pherides calls his unit’s doctor (Ernst Deutsch) who proclaims septicemic plague as the cause of death. He places the island under strict quarantine until the dry sirocco winds come- to blow the plague away. Kyra disagrees and states that the plague is God’s retribution on them for harboring a vorvolaka – a mean spirit in human form. She claims Thea is the vorvolaka. Mostly the group dismisses (at least initially) Kyra’s theory.
The next portion of the movie is where it truly shines, as on doctor’s orders the group doesn’t congregate together in groups or come into contact with each other. Director Mark Robson – though no Frank Capra- does an outstanding job in creating an atmosphere. All of the shots- even the exteriors- are cramped and crowded, mimicking the inhabitants isolation on the island and increasing the feeling of claustrophobia. Coupled with the overall dark tone of the picture it creates a great atmosphere.
The suspense builds as more die. First the archaeologist and then the good doctor himself give up the ghost. Between these two passings the archaeologist’s wife appears to pass. However unbeknownst to most she is in fact in a cataleptic trance and has been entombed alive. As the bodies mount Pherides gives the story of the vorvolaka more credence almost to the point of obsession, vowing to slay the creature if he can confirm who it is.
Here is where things go sideways. What so far has been an increasingly good suspense thriller devolves into a schlock attempt at horror. Whether through the shortcomings of a weak script or an ill-suited supporting cast, the plague in completely forgotten as the remaining cast chases after the vorvolaka and/or that poor archaeologist’s wife (Mrs. St. Aubyn), who come to and breaks out of her coffin, floating around the island in an campily effective white flowing gown.
As they presumably begin to tire from running, the foretold sirocco comes to blow away the plague. But Pherides now is suffering from the plague as well, and the wind comes too late to save him. Mrs. St. Aubyn, having lost her mind after being buried alive, kills Kyra and tries to kill Thea as well before being chased off a nearby cliff.
As they return to Pherides’ bedside, the gravely ill general comes to long enough to demand they kill the vorvolaka at all costs. They tell him it’s already been done as he breathes his last.
The Isle of the Dead isn’t Val Lewton’s best, though it still bears his trademark touch. It’s hard to say there is much that is truly scary about the picture, though many of the exterior scenes are quite suspenseful. As with many pictures that have this disjointed composition (two rather disconnected plots) the first half is by far the stronger. It’s unfortunate that somehow the plague could not have been wired into Mrs. St. Aubyn’s trance and subsequent insanity.
Karloff is the star of the show, and the film suffers each time he isn’t on camera. Thankfully these moments are few and even when he’s on camera you can tell that for the most part he doesn’t have much to play against.
That said, Karloff provides a stern and enjoyable performance, cleverly displaying Pherides’ decline into obsession with first the plague and then in desperation the vorvolaka. Early on his powerful declaration of “No One Leaves the Island” are backed up by his smashing of a rowboat to prevent a would-be escape.
Later, as his obsession with order and rules (he is a general, after all) moves into the vorvolaka and doesn’t even pass with his dying breath. Even in death his survivors say he did it all for them, which perhaps they did. It’s wonderful to see the characters gradual (though not that gradual as the movie isn’t overly long) decline from rock hard stability to maniacal madness.
The Isle of the Dead isn’t great art, but it still is far from a “B” picture. Watch it for the well done atmosphere of claustrophobia and of course Boris Karloff.