The key to the enduring appeal of the horror movies that Val Lewton produced for RKO in the ’40s lies in the man himself. Val Lewton was educated, and sophisticated, but the nature of his business meant he was under constant budget and commercial constraint. His movies had to be cheap; they had to make money. But he had an artist’s desire for self-expression and quality, and a sense of taste. That led to his films, whatever the concept, having layers and intentions that were not base, even if the movie was a strictly commercial endeavor.
Take Isle of the Dead, recently released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive. The film is essentially a vampire story. People on an island are getting sick, an old woman blames the young girl who seems impervious to the illness. It’s boiler plate horror movie fluff.
But Val Lewton used what resources he had at hand to give the story texture, and multiple layers of meaning. First, the setting is unusually specific. Isle of the Dead takes place in Greece during the Balkan wars, where Oliver Davis, an American journalist is traveling with a harsh Greek general Pherides. Boris Karloff plays the general with a steely, uncompromising resolve. During a brief respite in battle, the two travel to an island just off the shore where the General’s wife was buried. There, they find the coffin broken into, the body gone.
This isn’t a supernatural occurrence, but the responsibility of grave robbers, looking for antiquities. The island’s sole living inhabitant, an archaeologist Dr. Aubrecht, explains that his own investigations indirectly led to the desecration by villagers. Now he lives mostly alone on the island, in a kind of vigil. His house is unusually full then, with refugees from the battle: a British salesmen, a diplomat and his sickly wife, and their Greek companion, Thea. There’s also an old Greek woman, Madame Kyra, who is relieved the general has come to join them: she knows he’s old Greek, and will understand when she says a vorvolaka walks amongst them.
Vorvolakas are a bit of peasant Greek folklore, a sort of vampire, and Madame Kyra is sure that Thea is one. She stays healthy and youthful while her mistress is waning away. The General, of course, dismisses this as superstition. That’s part of the old Greece that the wars should be doing away with, ushering in a new age of enlightenment. Until the Englishman drops down dead, and a doctor comes and pronounces it to be plague. Everyone is stuck on the island, and they cannot leave. The General will make sure of that.
From a relatively simple set up, Isle of the Dead mines a considerable amount of dramatic tension. There’s the rational doctor who sets up a number of rules that everyone must follow, including limiting personal contact and strict washing of hands. The archaeologist thinks there’s better hope in prayer and leaving their fates up to the Gods, rather than the doctor’s reasoning. Madame Kyra is sure Thea is the culprit, and is so relentless with the girl that Thea herself begin to question her own humanity. The General’s own decisive action, to follow the doctor’s lead without question, turns from reasonable precaution into a kind of authoritarian madness. (The astute reader can reasonably detect a parallel with modern day issues, I believe.)
But it’s also a spooky ’40s horror movie. The crumbling stone catacombs, the darkened nights barely lit by candles, the wispy shadows of female form moving through the dark are all appropriately atmospheric. And there’s a climax involving a possible premature burial (or is it a supernatural creature?) and a vengeful spirit. Isle of the Dead packs a lot into its brief 72 minute running time, and Mark Robson in the director’s chair keeps the pace swift and maintains a firm balance between what could be too many thematic elements being told with a relatively simple story.
If there’s an unsuccessful element to the whole show, it’s the damp squib of the “hero”, Oliver Davis. He’s ostensibly the point of view character, and Thea becomes his eventual love interest. Besides being a foil for Boris Karloff’s general to bounce his strident viewpoints, and perhaps eventual madness off of, he has nothing to do for most of the movie. What little service he has to the plot is generally to tell Thea she’ll be all right, but to stay in her room upstairs so she won’t accidentally run into a plot development. This also allows her stay conveniently close to her tormentor, Madame Kyra.
The hero is a dud, but the rest of the characters and their performers make up for it. Boris Karloff has more to do with his role as The General than he was generally afforded in horror films. He’s a complex character, who’s cold and hard but not an unthinking monster. He truly believes the line between living or dying rides on his authority, and thinks if he just follows the right rules without fail, he can win any fight. When that doesn’t work, his move towards madness follows a dark logic, and never seems out of character. The other characters are broader, but generally entertaining in the classical Hollywood mold.
Isle of the Dead came out near the end of Val Lewton’s tenure at RKO. Though it ended up being one of the more expensive productions (partly because it had to be stopped midway through for Karloff’s back-surgery) it is not one of the most lavish. There aren’t any of the fun location shots that pepper The Leopard Man – as far as I can tell, this is strictly a studio sound stage affair.
In terms of chills or psychological terror, it probably ranks in the lower half of the Lewton RKO oeuvre. While it is heady with atmosphere, it’s not overladen with plot, and the most of the horror movie antics are confined to the back 20 minutes. But all of the Lewton produced films of this era are worth exploring, and Isle of the Dead features on of Karloff’s best performances. It’s a sophisticated role from a sophisticated producer, who always put more into his films than the minimum requirements.
Isle of the Dead was released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive. Extras on the disc include a commentary by Dr. Steven Haberman, which I believe is new to this release of the film. It was not included on the earlier box set release of Lewton’s films. There’s also a theatrical trailer for the film.