Isle Of The Dead (1945) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.

So brace yourself, folks.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Director: Mark Robson
Starring:  Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer

“The horseman on the pale horse is Pestilence- he follows the wars.”

Inspired by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting, this seminal horror film marked the first of three collaborations between RKO producer Val Lewton and British genre star Boris Karloff. Set during the 1912 Balkan Wars, Isle of the Death featured Karloff as Greek general …

After losing interest in Universal’s monster mash direction for their A-list horror stable, Boris Karloff moved over to RKO Studios where producer Val Lewton had already established himself as a creator of nuanced and more adult fare than their big band rivals.

The pair would go on to make three films in a row together, with Isle Of The Dead the first to emerge after an attempt to adapt Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla came to nothing.

Isle of the Dead is a dark, complex and claustrophobic tale of paranoia and authoritarianism, one that marked the birth of a short-lived but fruitful collaboration between two of the most respected names in horror.

In the aftermath of a battle during the 1912 Balkan war, General Pherides (Karloff) and American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) visit a nearby island to pay their respects to the General’s long-dead wife, but on arrival find the tombs and mausoleums empty and desecrated.

They elect to spend the night in the home of Swiss archeologist Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.) and his Greek housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), who already have a full house of guests in British diplomat Mr. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier) and his sickly wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her youthful Greek peasant companion Thea (Ellen Drew), and English tinsmith Andrew Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).

When Robbins is found dead the following morning, Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) arrives and immediately quarantines the island, blaming an outbreak of septacemic plague, but both Kyra and the General suspect another reason, that the young peasant Thea is a vorvolaka, an Ancient Greek malevolent entity that takes on human form. One by one, the bodies start to mount up, but is it from natural causes or does evil live on the Isle Of The Dead?

Before he’s even uttered a word in the first scene, Boris Karloff’s General Pherides has forced his friend to commit suicide for arriving late with his troops to a battle. In one intense, gut-wrenching moment, he’s established as implacable, a man who will do anything in the name of duty. A monster, in other words.

Then though, we see him relaxing and forming a friendship with the young journalist from Boston and he’s anything but. He’s warm, compassionate and charming, even though we know what he’s capable of. It’s a testament to the considerable acting chops of Karloff that we buy both of these aspects of what is a very complex character.

With its sprawling ensemble cast, there’s a lot of intricate relationships at play here. Oliver falls in love with Thea at the same time Pherides is threatening to murder her if she is found to be a vorvoloka, taking obvious pleasure in her fear of him, which again is nicely contrasted with Mrs St Aubin’s closeness with the girl.

Considering the darkness of the concepts being examined (war, disease, evil itself etc…) there’s very little overt horror on display here. This is a particularly talky film, one where people discuss those ideas instead, developing an atmosphere of creeping dread that is punctuated every so often by another body turning up.

Director Mark Robson makes the most of the confined setting, emphasising the claustrophobia and fear that fills the house with tight shots and darkened rooms, often only illuminated by a single candle that can be blown out at any second. Shadows are everywhere, light is noticeable by its absence, save the odd break through a window shutter. It’s a place of death, whether supernatural or not and Robson rams that home at every opportunity.

The real nightmare fuel only kicks in almost at the end, when Mary’s fear of premature burial is horribly realised when she is entombed alive. The sounds of her screaming and nails scraping the inside of the coffin lid are truly chilling, as is her eventual escape, a horror reinforced by the plague-wracked and bedridden Pherides’ terrified reaction on hear the wood crack and shatter.

Her mind broken by her ordeal, Mary looks like an apparition, floating about the island in a flowing white dress while wielding the fork of Neptune with murder on her mind. It’s marvellous stuff and makes for an ending that is as bleak as is shocking.

Isle Of The Dead isn’t the most obvious of films and it does get overly verbose in its middle section at times, but it’s relentlessly captivating for the most part and is an essential entry in the filmography of both Lewton and Karloff.


Rating: 4/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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