RKO RADIO PICTURES
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Written by Ardel Wray
Those of you who are fans of horror movies are probably well acquainted with the career of Val Lewton. Even though he didn’t direct any of his horror movies, his unmistakable style permeates all of them. So much that the movies he produced are referred to as ‘Val Lewton’ films. But he worked with directors that obviously were in total sync with what he wanted so I don’t think they minded too much. Most people know him for “Cat People” “Curse of The Cat People” and “I Walked With A Zombie” and they would cite those as their favorite Val Lewton movies. Me, I much prefer and enjoy “The Body Snatcher” “The Seventh Victim” (which I think could be seen as a prequel to and would make a great Halloween triple feature with both “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Angel Heart”) and the movie we’re going to talk about for a bit; ISLE OF THE DEAD. I’ll get into the reasons why it’s my favorite of Val Lewton’s movies once we get the obligatory plot synopsis out of the way.
General Pherides (Boris Karloff) is fighting the Balkan Wars of 1912 in Greece. He’s not only fighting human troops but septicemic plague. He explains to American journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) that the bodies of the dead on the battlefield must be buried and or burned immediately. Pherides is a hard man, one who has earned the nickname of “The Watchdog”. Despite his hardness, he and Oliver have become friends. So much so that Pherides invites Oliver to come with him to pay respects to the burial site of his wife on the nearby Isle of The Dead.
Upon reaching the island, Pherides finds his wife’s tomb violated, among with many others. The bodies are gone, the coffins smashed. Vowing vengeance, Pherides and Oliver prepare to leave but hear a sweet, female voice singing. They investigate and are surprised to find people living on the island: archaeologist Dr. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr. and yes, he’s the dad of Jason Robards) who takes responsibility for the violations of the tombs. He explains to Pherides that he was paying such high sums for Greek artifacts that the natives who once lived on the island performed the desecrations. Dr. Albrecht himself remained on the island as a self-imposed penance. He bought the house he lives in from Madame Kyra (Helen Themig) who stayed on as his housekeeper. British diplomat St. Aubyn (Alan Napier) his wife (Katheryn Emery) her companion Thea (Ellen Drew) and British citizen Robbins (Skelton Knaggs) have all taken refuge on the island to escape the fighting on the mainland until it’s safe for them to seek passage back to England. Pherides and Oliver accept Albrecht’s invitation to spend the night on the island. The morning comes and with it the discover that Robbins is dead. Dr. Drossus (Ernst Deutsch) is summoned from the mainland and diagnoses that the man died from the plague.
Dr. Drossus says that they must all remain on the island until everyone is dead or until the hot sirocco winds from the south blow across the island, killing off the fleas that carry the plague. However, Madame Kyra has another explanation which she conveys privately to Pherides: she’s of the opinion that Thea is a vorvolaka (basically the Greek version of a vampire) because Mrs. St. Aubyn grows ever more pale and weak while Thea is robust and healthy. And yeah, the actress Ellen Drew is very healthy, if you know what I mean (nudge nudge wink wink).
This is where the plot really kicks in as people start dying off one by one and Pherides, spurred on by the long buried beliefs of his childhood starts to think that maybe Madame Kyra may have a point. The situation is complicated by Oliver’s falling in love with Thea. Which results in Oliver and Pherides finding themselves on opposite sides in this brutal little war of belief and survival on this small island.
If you’re a fan of Boris Karloff (and if you’re not then why are we friends?) then you will most definitely enjoy this one. Much like in “The Black Cat” Karloff shows here that he really was a helluva actor and didn’t need horrific makeup to portray a monster. ISLE OF THE DEAD stands out for me because it’s my favorite kind of horror movie; the one where human beings are the monsters. Karloff’s Pherides isn’t a likable character but that’s not important to me. I understood his motivations and for me that made him sympathetic. Even while I deplored the actions he takes in this movie, I understood why he did them and that was enough.
I really enjoyed the relationship between him and Marc Cramer’s Oliver who more than holds his own in his scenes with Karloff. You get a real sense that even though these two men have not known each other long, there’s a genuine mutual respect and they really do like each other. Which gives a poignancy to their later scenes on the island when people are dying left and right and they each have to pick a side to be on.
And for a movie that’s only 72 minutes long, it packs more story and characterization in that running time than many a 3 hour movie I’ve seen. In fact, due to the richness of the story and the skill of the actors and the characterization they bring, the movie actually seems longer than 72 minutes. I was actually surprised when I did my research on this movie to write up this review that it had such a short running time.
In short, ISLE OF THE DEAD is perfect for this Halloween season but don’t let that stop you from seeing it any time the notion hits you. Turner Classic Movies airs it pretty often during the rest of the year but if you can find it on Amazon or Hula or whatever, I urge you to give it one viewing at least. It’s one of my favorite horror movies and if you give it a chance, I think it’ll be one of your favorites as well.