The time of the spooks is upon us! Happy almost-Halloween to my fellow classic movie buffs. Halloween on TMP means Horror Half-Week, a four-day celebration of eerie films from the early to mid-20th century. Today we’ve got Isle of the Dead, starring the great Boris Karloff. Day 1: The Walking Dead (1936); Day 2: The Giant Behemoth (1959)
While his men bury their plague-striken dead, General Pherides (Boris Karloff) decides to take American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to visit the grave of Mrs. Pherides on the Isle of the Dead, a nearby island cemetery.
When Pherides and Oliver arrive at the crypt, they find that it has been disturbed, and they hear a woman’s voice singing. The island is supposed to be uninhabited, but for the bodies buried underground. Could the voice be coming from General Pherides’ mysteriously-revived wife?
Also on the island are Swiss archaeologist Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), his housekeeper Kyra (Helen Thimig), a young Greek woman named Thea (Ellen Drew), an English man selling tin (Skelton Knaggs), a doctor (Ernest Dorian), British diplomat St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), and his wife (Katherine Emery). Kyra warns the group that there’s a “vorvolaka” in their midst — an undead, evil creature taking on human form.
Was the mysterious voice truly coming from the spirit of Pherides’ dead wife, or from something more sinister? And will anyone survive to tell the tale?
Isle of the Dead was directed by Mark Robson and produced by Val Lewton. The screenplay was written by Ardel Wray, with some uncredited assistance from Lewton and Josef Mischel.
Offering an interesting twist on the usual “trapped in an old house with spooks” premise, Isle of the Dead traps its characters on an island populated by dead bodies and possibly a vampire, or zombie, or several of each. Surrounded by water, their only manner of escape is by rowboat, and that boat can only take them to a place where people are dying of plague. Options are slim for these folks, especially when they suspect their own numbers are being diminished by plague, though at least they have shelter in the form of Aubrecht’s middle-of-the-graveyard mansion.
Aubrecht, of course, has a perfectly fine explanation for why he chose to take up residence in a cemetery pre-plague. As an archaeologist, he’s fascinated by the antiques buried with the dead. This is a point of contention between Aubrecht and Pherides, whose wife’s grave was robbed. The tension between the men is short-lived, though, dissipating after the tin seller turns up dead and the group is overtaken by fear.
For the audience’s part, the seeds of uneasiness have been planted long before the tin seller’s body turns up. From the minute Pherides and Oliver Davis arrive at Aubrecht’s house, it’s clear that something odd is going on, and suspicions only continue to mount. The viewer can sense that, plague or not, the Isle of the Dead would likely be a place of odd happenings.
“We are dark people, out of an old soil, with old blood that moves through ancient sorceries. Magic. Good spirits, and bad spirits. […] We face death here. […] And worse than death. Evil things… that I know, and that you know, and Thea knows. Things that we cannot tell in words, but which we feel. Feel and fear.” -Kyra
The story is told in a shadowy fashion, moody from the start and increasingly eerie as it progresses, though touches of humor are woven in now and then (see: the light-hearted “feud” over whether medicine or Greek gods can cure the plague). It’s a story of the supernatural — prophetic nightmares and mysterious ghouls — with an anchor of reality brought by the suspicions of illness.
Wonderful photography by Jack MacKenzie adds splendidly to the film’s sense of disquiet. And then there’s Karloff, of course. The film’s supporting cast is very effective, but this is Karloff’s show, his obsession with the “vorvalaka” growing.
There’s no bad time of year to watch a Karloff movie, but Isle of the Dead is especially appropriate for the fall/Halloween season! Though not the most talked-about Val Lewton production, it’s deserving of much more attention than it gets, and is absolutely worth tuning in for.