Of the three films that Boris Karloff acted in for producer Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) tends to get the short shrift. This is a bit of an unfair match, especially when one of the other movies is THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), directed by Robert Wise and based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest horror pictures of the 1940s, with an unmatched turn from Karloff as the utterly insidious resurrection man-cum-murderer John Gray. The other film, Mark Robson’s BEDLAM from 1946, the last of Lewton’s run of terror productions, is a solid period piece that has Boris essaying the more layered but no less nasty role of asylum-keeper Master George Sims.
So where does this leave ISLE OF THE DEAD?
If THE BODY SNATCHER is Grand Guignol and BEDLAM is prestige (albeit low-budget) melodrama, then ISLE is a tone poem from the underworld. Lewton’s horror films are known for their shadows, but ISLE is enveloped in a darkness that is ever-present, making it the most relentlessly morbid of the whole lot. There is virtually no sunshine or levity to be seen. The skies are perpetually overcast with grey clouds, and at two key moments the light of a candle is snuffed out, leaving our heroes to find their way through the night. The characters, even down to the requisite young lovers, talk endlessly of death, disease, and fear. Even the appearance of comic relief in the form of an inebriated bit player (Skelton Knaggs, the mute mate from THE GHOST SHIP ) is cut short when his character is found dead in his bed the next morning.
All of this misery is rooted in the Balkan War of 1912, where Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a strong-willed militant who suffers no turmoil when he wordlessly orders an officer to end his own life after the man’s troops arrive late to a battle. The somber mood is only enhanced as Karloff and Marc Cramer, as Boston Star reporter Oliver Davis, traverse through the barren warfield where the broken bodies of the fallen intermingle with crumbling brick and twisted tree branches. The corpses are in extra abundance due to a streak of typhus that’s broken out, leading the army to dispose of their heroes in quenching fire least the contagion spread.
Pherides and Davis take a boat to a nearby island where the general’s late wife is interred to pay their respects but are perturbed to find the grave site desecrated. Inquiring with Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), an archaeologist who has made his home on the island, they discover that the tombs were rifled by peasants who were supplying him with ancient relics for his studies. Many of these pieces now adorn Robard’s home, effectively transforming it into the very same tombs that they were pilched from, especially as the film’s body count escalates. If all that weren’t bad enough, Pherides is told that many of the cadavers were destroyed by the superstitious villagers for fear that an evil vorvolaka might be walking in their midst.
The native madam of the house, Kyra (Helen Thimig)—and very soon Pherides himself—is convinced that the dark spirit has taken over servant girl Thea (Ellen Drew) who slakes her unholy thirst on the ailing wife (Katherine Emery) of British diplomat Alan Napier. This strain of the plot explains the film’s initial working title, CARMILLA, but the rest of the story bears no resemblance to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous vampire tale.
The actual source of the title is Arnold Böcklin’s same-named painting which makes an appearance under the opening credits. (Böcklin’s self portrait, which in the kindred spirit of the film shows the visage of Death hanging onto the artist’s shoulder, shows up later in Robard’s home as well.) “Isle of the Dead,” which was rendered in five different versions, is itself a masterwork of mood and melancholy, forcing the viewer’s eye to move from the eerie, white-shrouded figure aboard the rowboat with its grim cargo to the dark heart of the lonely island filled with tall cypress trees that are replicated in the film by the expert art direction of Albert S. D’Agostino. Böcklin’s own estimation of his work (“[I]t must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door”) perfectly sums up the kind of chilled introspection it inspires in the viewer.
With people dropping like flies that have the plague, the remaining island residents seek out those two cherished sedatives to quell their fear of the unknown: science and religion. Pherides puts his faith into the diagnoses of his military physician Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) while Albrecht offers up fiery tribute to Hermes and the other ancient gods. It’s an old horror film conceit, but it actually works here because the audience is in the same boat as the characters. We have every reason to believe that the cast is merely succumbing to rampant illness, but we don’t know that. Lewton’s films always left room for the supernatural, with some falling on one side or the other. Here we’re never quite sure what side the coin is going to land on so the film forces us to consider where we would place our beliefs if it meant seeing the next sunrise.
In one canny montage that demonstrates the close link of the two doctrines, Robson shoots close-ups of the character’s hands submerging in a basin, the water eddying in a mad whirlpool as the hands scrub and writhe together. It becomes apparent that their motions and frantic cleaning to avoid the spreading of pestilence becomes as much a religious ceremony as the signing of a cross to ward off evil spirits.
The defining moment of ISLE OF THE DEAD, the sequence that pushes it straight into nightmare territory is its rendition of the famous “Lewton walk” first popularized by CAT PEOPLE (1942). Here it’s Drew’s servant that takes the fated gambol through the claustrophobic corners of the island, following the sound of a sing-song voice to the penumbra-wreathed burial chamber. The keening of the wind, the steady drip of water, the shadows of leaves that play upon Drew’s face as she peers intently into the dark, trying to discern the flitting figure of what appears to be a ghost is perfectly excruciating. The tension is only given expression when the figure lets loose its maddened cry of vengeance and we, wrung dry, can only sink back into our seats and watch the rest of the ride.
The remaining moments of the film are no less unrelenting. Three more characters perish in a matter of minutes, all of them violently. Cruelest of all is the fate of Emery’s character. Driven to the breaking point after finding herself prematurely entombed, the widow is pursued by Robards and Cramer only to inadvertently fall off the side of a cliff. It wasn’t enough for Emery to witness her own death once. She’s forced to face her inevitable demise first in the confines of a makeshift coffin and then yet again at the sight of the sea rushing up to receive her. And on both occasions the last thing she hears is the sound of her own scream.
In the end, the reason ISLE OF THE DEAD may not be accepted as widely or discussed as much as Lewton’s other productions is that we just can’t handle what it’s giving us. With a philosophical center as bleak as anything Lewton presented to audiences before, it exchanges the producer’s personal feelings that “Death is good” for a far grimmer acceptance as voiced by Ernst Deutsch in his last mortal moments: “Fight death all your days and die knowing you know nothing.” We may not understand anything more about life after watching ISLE OF THE DEAD, but we certainly feel like now we know what death looks like.