Isle of the Dead directed by Mark Robson
The history of the American horror film in the 1940s can practically be summarized with two words: “Universal” and “Lewton.” Throughout that decade, megastudio Universal pleased audiences with a steady stream of films dealing with Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Mummy and the Wolfman, culminating with the finest horror comedy ever made, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Meanwhile, over at RKO, producer Val Lewton was taking a wholly different tack, and between the years 1942 and ’46, brought to the screen no less than nine wonderful, literate, intelligent and highly atmospheric horror outings. Those films – Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People (hardly a sequel!), The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam – all depended more on mood, striking photography, sound effects and the power of suggestion, rather than monsters, to work their magic, and, needless to say, all hold up wonderfully well today. Perhaps not as popular as some of the others, Isle of the Dead has long been a favorite of this viewer. I have seen it more, certainly, than any of the other Lewton pictures, and indeed have been captivated by this little chiller ever since I was 11 (a loooooooong time ago!).
In the film, the great Boris Karloff plays Gen. Pherides, a Greek (!) soldier during the First Balkan War in 1912. (Not that it matters for an enjoyment of the film, but this was the war in which Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro bested the Ottoman Empire, leading to the birth of Albania.) Pherides travels to a desolate island off the Greek coast, accompanied by an American reporter, to visit his wife’s grave, and is self-quarantined when septicemic plague attacks the small group that has gathered there: a Swiss archaeologist, a British consul (Batman‘s Alan Napier) and his invalid wife (Katherine Emery), their gypsy servant Thea (pretty Ellen Drew), a British salesman and an “old woman” (played by the attractive, middle-aged Helene Thimig, who was only 56 years old when she essayed this role). Things grow desperate as the island inmates start to die off, one by one, Ten Little Indians style, and become positively macabre when the old woman, Madame Kyra, gets it into her head that Thea is no less a legendary figure than the “vorvolaka,” a kind of soul-sucking demon. And when the consul’s wife, only seemingly dead with catalepsy, is entombed and later reawakens, now a homicidal madwoman, things go from very bad to even worse…
Anyway, when my cousin Richie and I first saw this film after day camp decades ago, on TV’s 4:30 movie at age 11, we were blown away by it, and no wonder! The film features very fine acting by all, including yet another splendid performance from Karloff (who would also appear in The Body Snatcher and Bedlam); expert direction from Mark Robson (who had previously helmed The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship and who would go on to direct Karloff in Bedlam); a memorable island that seems to be half cemetery (inspired by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin’s 1886 painting Isle of the Dead); a sombre and morose score by Leigh Harline; and no less than three absolutely stunning sequences. (Strangely enough, Karloff does not figure in any of these three scenes!) In the first, Thea sits with her seemingly dying mistress, while Madame Kyra taunts her with hissing words from outside a locked door: “I have twisted rose briar before your door. The thorns that pierced His brow will tear your flesh, evil one. I have put salt in the fire and a cross of ashes on the door. Vorvolaka, vorvolaka! Vorvolaka, born of evil, sinful and corrupt, your hands are bloody with violence, your mouth bitter with the taste of sin and corruption. You are guilty and abhorred, vorvolaka…” Trust me, it is one chilling sequence, indeed! In the second, the camera slowly zooms in on the coffin of the consul’s wife, until suddenly … one truly horrible scream erupts from within! And in the third, that same woman, now driven insane by her premature burial, flits through the night in her flowing, white burial garments, wraithlike, while the wind whispers, a bird screeches, and Thea searches for her through the gloom. Offhand, I cannot recall a more chillingly atmospheric sequence in any 1940s horror film, unless it is perhaps Jane Randolph’s midnight swimming pool experience in Cat People, or perhaps the remarkable nighttime stroll that Frances Dee and Christine Gordon take through the soughing cane fields in I Walked With a Zombie. Clocking in at a mere 72 minutes, Isle of the Dead is a remarkably compact affair, with nary a wasted word or scene. As a little kid, I appreciated its ghoulish atmosphere, and for years afterward would taunt my buddy Rich with cries of “Vorvolaka!” As an adult, I can still appreciate the film’s wonderfully creepy miasma, but have come to the realization that the picture is a genuine work of cinematic art. While Isle of the Dead’s original poster hyperbolically proclaimed that it “Will Keep You Screaming,” it is no exaggeration to say, I feel, that the film will surely keep you stunned…
This sounds like a good one!
I highly recommend all nine of those Lewton titles, Jana…especially at this time of year….
Too right — this time of year is ideal for movies like Lewton’s!
I think Kat and I have decided that this is the right time of year for horror movie reviews. That’s why we’ve been coming out with a LOT of them lately….