I love the Val Lewton-produced horror movies from the 1940s.
Lewton produced a bunch of low-budget horror pics that impressed with style and atmosphere and have become some of the classics of the genre, films like CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). He also produced three movies starring Boris Karloff, films that are among the best in Karloff’s career, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), BEDLAM (1946), and the subject of today’s column, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945).
Sadly, Val Lewton’s life and career were cut short when he died of a heart attack on March 14, 1951, at the age of 46.
ISLE OF THE DEAD features one of my favorite Boris Karloff roles. Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a general in the Greek army who goes by the nickname “The Watchdog.” He’s cold, ruthless, and nothing gets by him.
The story takes place on a Greek island in 1912, during the Balkan War. There’s a lull in the fighting, and General Pherides takes American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to the Isle of the Dead to pay respects to the General’s deceased wife, who is interred there. They discover that the grave has been disturbed, and when they hear a woman singing in the distance, they follow the voice to investigate and come upon a house full of people, a guest house run by a retired archeologist named Dr. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.).
Albrecht invites the General and Oliver to join them. When the General questions them about the desecrated grave, Albrecht explains that years ago the islanders plundered many of the graves in search of valuable Greek artifacts. But Albrecht’s superstitious housekeeper offers a different explanation. She tells the General that it’s the work of the vorvolaka, evil spirits, and that one of the guests, the young and pretty Thea (Ellen Drew) is in fact a vorvolaka. The housekeeper tells the General that people there will die because of Thea.
The General scoffs at this suggestion, but when the guests do indeed start dying, and the housekeeper continually accuses Thea, the General changes his tune. He enters his “Watchdog” mode and declares that he will get to the bottom of what’s going on and protect everyone there. When a doctor (Ernest Deutsch) explains that it is the plague and that they must be quarantined, the General makes it his mission to prevent anyone from trying to leave the island. As more people die and the housekeeper’s accusations against Thea continue, the General finds himself swayed to the point where he himself believes that the true culprit here isn’t the plague but the vorvolaka.
ISLE OF THE DEAD is blessed with the same strengths of all the Val Lewton movies, an intelligent script and an almost palpable eerie atmosphere.
The screenplay by Ardel Wray, who also wrote the screenplay to two other Val Lewton movies, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE— one of my favorite horror movies of all time— and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), does a masterful job mixing the supernatural with reality.
The character the audience probably most relates to is reporter Oliver Davis, and he never suspects the vorvolaka. In fact, on the contrary, he vows to protect Thea from the General’s ever-increasing irrationality.
The story becomes a fascinating treatise on one man’s descension into despair. The General goes from competent pragmatic leader to a man motivated by fear.
Karloff is great in the role. As I said, it’s among his best performances. Famous for making the Frankenstein Monster a sympathetic character, he does the same here for the cutthroat General Pherides. At times, Karloff channels the cold dark ruthlessness of the General, but he also imbues the character with a fierce need to protect those around him.
Jason Robards Sr. is also memorable as their host on the island, Dr. Albrecht, as is Ernst Deutsch as Dr. Drossos, the doctor called to the island to deal with the plague. Deutsch was also notable in a supporting role as Baron Kurtz in Carol Reed’s classic THE THIRD MAN (1949) starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Deutsch also starred in the silent German classic THE GOLEM (1920).
Also in the cast is Alan Napier, as one of the guests. Napier of course would go on to play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the Adam West BATMAN TV series (1966-68). And Napier starred in several other genre films as well over his career, movies like THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).
And Helene Thimig makes for a creepy housekeeper, Madame Kyra, who keeps peppering the General’s thoughts with her cries of “vorvolaka!”
Director Mark Robson, who also directed BEDLAM, does a nice job with the spooky atmosphere, giving such authenticity to the warm winds blowing over the island you can almost feel the breeze on your skin.
There are lots of creepy elements to keep the audience unsettled, including one of the characters who suffers from a condition where she collapses into a catatonic state that mimics death. Rightly so, she has an intense fear of being buried alive. That sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen on this island, right? RIGHT???
Sorry. All bets are off.
I really enjoyed Robson’s work here, so he can be forgiven for directing one of the all time worst disaster movies, EARTHQUAKE (1974) starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy.
ISLE OF THE DEAD is a classic example of quiet horror. It possesses a winning combination of smart writing, atmospheric direction, and solid acting. Detractors of Val Lewton’s movies complain that they are more drama than horror, as the supernatural elements are reduced to pretty much nil, but this has never bothered me because regardless of whether or not the supernatural is alive and well in these films, they still tell stories of horror.
What happens on the island in ISLE OF THE DEAD is frightening, and as such, it makes for a compelling horror story.
It’s also fun to watch Boris Karloff play a role in which he’s not a monster, or a mad scientist. The three Val Lewton films that Karloff starred in gave him the opportunity to play roles unlike the ones he was playing for other directors. I think some of Boris Karloff’s best acting appears in these movies.
September means the end of summer. Vacations are done, the kids are back in school, and the focus for most is on work rather than play. Likewise, September is the perfect month for some serious horror viewing.
So check out ISLE OF THE DEAD, a classic horror drama shot in spooky black and white that tells a subtle yet nonetheless frightening story of a group of people quarantined on an island, fighting both the plague and the horrors of superstition, and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s best performances, as General Pherides, “the Watchdog,” a man hellbent on protecting those around him, unless of course, he suspects they’re a vorvolaka. In that case, he’s every bit as lethal as the plague.
It’s a deadly mix, and for the folks on this island, it really is the ISLE OF THE DEAD.