By Scott Dorward
Isle of the Dead (USA, 1945)
Throughout the 1940s, Val Lewton was the mastermind behind some of the greatest horror films ever made. It is unusual to credit a producer in this manner, but Lewton deserves it. He was a guiding hand behind the scenes, either revising screenplays uncredited or writing them under pseudonyms. While he is best-known for his collaborations with director Jacques Tourner, such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, a few, including Isle of the Dead, were made with Mark Robson.
Unfortunately, I’m running out of Lewton productions to review for the October Horror Movie Challenge. In previous years, I’ve discussed The Body Snatcher, The Leopard Man and The Seventh Victim. As of this year, there were only two of his horror films I hadn’t seen — Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. I chose this one pretty much at random. Bedlam can wait until next year.
American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) is covering the Balkan Wars of 1912. He has been shadowing the army of General Pherides (Boris Karloff). We open in the aftermath of a battle in Greece, as the dead are buried hastily before the plague currently ravaging the region can infect any survivors. The general decides to take the opportunity to visit his wife’s tomb on the nearby Isle of the Dead, and Davis accompanies him.
On the isle, the men discover her tomb empty. Hearing a woman singing nearby, they come upon the home of Dr Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr), a former antiquities dealer turned self-appointed caretaker. He explains that some corpses were stolen years ago by looters. Dr Aubrecht has a number of guests staying with him, including a British diplomat, his sickly wife, and a local woman who looks after her.
When one of the guests dies that night, a local doctor determines that the plague has come to the island. With everyone under quarantine, the mood grows darker. The housekeeper tries to convince the general that the lady’s companion is a vorvolaka — a type of evil vampiric spirit. As the deaths mount up, the general starts taking desperate action to save those who are left.
Isle of the Dead is a film that relies on mood over plot. Every shot is atmospheric, filled with long shadows and gothic gloom. This is, fundamentally, a simple story, and a short one. With a running time of 71 minutes, Isle of the Dead is a film that does not overstay its welcome.
For all its atmosphere, Isle of the Dead makes sparing use of sets and locations. Most of the film takes place in the Aubrecht house, with only a few external scenes. The film’s gothic aspirations are somewhat undermined by promising us an Isle of the Dead but only showing us a single tomb.
There is still plenty of the gothic to be found in the story, however. This is high melodrama, with fraught emotions driving people to madness. The fear of being buried alive plays a key role, adding a dash of Poe to the proceedings.
The use of the Greek vorvoloka myth is unusual in horror cinema — possibly unique. That said, nothing we’re told here differs greatly from more familiar vampire legends.
Watching Isle of the Dead in the age of COVID is interesting. Most of us will readily empathise with the fear of infection. What is more jarring, however, is the measures the characters take to avoid the plague. They are quick to wash their hands but regularly forget about keeping a safe distance. Several times, I found myself wincing as a character casually embraced someone they knew to be infected. If I want to watch such blatant disregard for safety measures during a deadly pandemic, I’ll just take the bus.
The performances in Isle of the Dead are strong but sometimes disconcerting. While the characters come from all over Europe and the USA, there is little attempt to match languages or accents to nationalities. Everyone speaks English in the native accent of the actor. This was distracting at first, as I tried to keep track of who was meant to be Greek, for example. Happily, I stopped noticing after the first 20 minutes or so.
Boris Karloff rarely disappoints and he certainly doesn’t do so here. While we may not always agree with the general’s actions, he is not a villain, and Karloff brings his internal conflicts to life wonderfully. His presence adds some much-needed weight to what is otherwise a fairly slight film.
The simplicity of Isle of the Dead is both a merit and its greatest weakness. There isn’t much time to craft a complex story in such a short film, and the tale we are told feels obvious. While there is some gripping intrigue, I can’t help but feel the script could do with a bit more flesh on its bones. And although the story takes some unexpectedly dark turns, the resolution is too neat to be wholly satisfying.
While I found a lot to like about Isle of the Dead, it falls short of the genius of Lewton’s other productions. It is definitely worth watching, but only after you’ve exhausted the rest of his catalogue.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!