ISLE OF THE DEAD (director: Mark Robson; screenwriters: Ardel Wray/Josef Mischel; cinematographer: Jack Mackenzie; editor: Lyle Boyer; music: Leigh Harline; cast: Boris Karloff (General Nicholas Pherides), Ellen Drew (Thea), Marc Cramer (Oliver Davis), Katherine Emery (Mary St Aubin), Helene Thimig (Kyra), Jason Robards (Albrecht), Ernst Dorian (Dr Drossos), Alan Napier (St Aubin), Skelton Knaggs (Andrew Robbins); Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Val Lewton; RKO; 1945)
“Its poetical finale comes a little too late to save it from its general dullness.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson (“Bedlam”/”Youth Runs Wild”/”The Ghost Ship”) said Isle of the Dead was inspired by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin’s most famous series of paintings entitled “Isle of the Dead.” Robson was also inspired by Goya’s drawings of the Iberian campaign from his “Disasters of War,” which was used to depict the scorched battlefield that opens the film–one of its most effective scenes. That’s the scene where the hardboiled Greek General Nicholas Pherides (Boris Karloff) walks amidst the carnage and sadly comments about the horrible waste of war. Though mostly a dull and muddled affair with far too much chatter and too little action, nevertheless it sets a constant creepy mood and brilliantly comes alive for a few scenes such as the burial sequence and the water dropping on coffin lid that revives a woman buried alive who in a state of madness sleepwalks in a white robe zombie-like through shuttered rooms and is mistaken for a vampire.
It’s set on a small deserted Greek island towards the end of the Balkan war of 1912, when a windblown plague threatens the island; it focuses on the following people–the rigid General Pherides (known as the “watchdog” for his zeal in safeguarding his country), an American war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), a British consul St Aubin (Alan Napier) and his invalid wife Mary St Aubin (Katherine Emery), the nursemaid companion of Mary’s named Thea (Ellen Drew), Swiss archaelogist Albrecht (Jason Robards), Albrecht’s old hag superstitious housekeeper Kyra (Helene Thimig), and homesick British tin salesman Andrew Robbins (Skelton Knaggs)–who are stuck on the remote island that is placed under quarantine by General Pherides on advice from Dr Drossos (Ernst Dorian).
On the general’s visit to the grave of his wife in an island cemetery, he finds her crypt empty and desecrated. He hears of a peasant legend about vorvolakas (ancient Greek vampires) that possess the dead, as the superstitious locals suspect vampires have been stealing the corpses. The general knows different (but still gives the tale some credence) and vows that the greedy peasants stealing the corpses and valuables will be captured and punished by him.
The British Consul’s wife Mary is being treated by Thea for fainting spells; Thea detests the general for his cruelty to the Greeks and refuses to pour him wine on his visit. Soon the inhabitants of the island are felled, one by one, by what Dr. Drossos says is the plague, but what Kyra insists is the work of the vampire Thea. Thea’s patient goes into a trance and is pronounced dead by Albrecht and is buried alive. But the mistake is acknowledged when it’s realized she suffers from catalepsy and was buried alive. Her burial has driven her insane and she goes after Kyra. Meanwhile the doctor has died from the plague and the general has contracted it, causing him to go mad. Those few left alive will leave the isle after the plague blows over, just as the medical man said it would. The film spends most of its time with a debate raging between science and superstition, with science winning in the end but all the scares coming from the belief in superstition.
The ghoulish melodrama is an unusual horror film, more of a conversation piece than a fright fest. It wins out because occasionally it evokes what the superior horror film’s produced by Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”/”Leopard Man”/”I Walked With A Zombie”) were able to accomplish through fright by suggestion. It’s just too bad that the film wakes up from its trance so late, just in time for the climax; but its poetical finale comes a little too late to save it from its general dullness.
REVIEWED ON 11/1/2006 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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