Carrying on with the theme of “yes, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, but it could be worse,” this is the perfect time to revisit one of Val Lewton’s less well-known, but still excellent, horror films. That would be his 1945 Isle of the Dead, starring Boris Karloff as a Greek general who, in 1912 during the Balkan Wars, finds himself on a literal isle of the dead—an island that serves as a graveyard—during an outbreak of the septicemic plague.*
General Pherides (Karloff) visits the island to pay his respects at his wife’s tomb, accompanied by the America reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cremer), a real gosh-golly type who serves as the audience representative and all-around “normal guy” in contrast to the unfamiliarity of the setting and the “foreignness” of the other characters. Of course, all the characters are played by veteran American and European actors (many members of Lewton’s unofficial “stock company”) and they’re doing their work on a Hollywood set, so it’s a credit to Lewton’s art of doing a lot with a little that he manages to make the setting feel isolated and mysterious.
All is not well on the this island—the tomb of General Pherides’ wife, as of many others laid to rest there, has been vandalized. In the process of investigating this, they come to meet a retired archaeologist (Dr. Albrecht, played by Jason Robards, Sr.), his superstitious housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), a Cockney longing for home (Andrew Robbins, played by the always-distinctive Skelton Knaggs), a British diplomat (Alan Napier) and his sickly wife (Katherine Emery), and the wife’s companion, Thea (Ellen Drew). The war provides background more than subject matter: everyone already on the island but the archaeologist and his housekeeper are refugees from the shelling on the mainland, while we get a quick introduction to Pherides’ character when we see him execute one of his own officers for failing to live up to the General’s standards.
The plague is already on the island, so everyone is told to avoid personal contact, but one by one they sicken and die. You and I may assume there is a common-sense explanation-a communicable disease—but Madame Kyra thinks otherwise. Her theory is that Thea, who retains her youthful attractiveness while others around her sicken and die, is a vorvolaka, a vampire-like creature of Greek folklore that feeds off the living. Lewton prepared the audience for this theory with a title card mentioning the legend, and does a great job convincing you that Madame Kyra might have it right.
The Isle of the Dead reliably delivers the pleasures expected from a Val Lewton film—chief among them psychological terror based on suggestion–thanks to a tight script by Andrew Wray, atmospheric black-and-white cinematography by Jack MacKenzie, appropriate music by Leigh Harline, and solid performances by actors that don’t overstep their roles. But don’t take my word for it—no less an authority than Martin Scorsese ranks it as the second scariest movie of all time. Sarah Boslaugh
*For those who are like to know about such things, the septicemic plague is one of three versions of the plague caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It’s spread by bites from infected fleas, and one of the symptoms is blackening of the skin due to gangrene—hence it’s also known as “the black plague.” Before the discovery of antibiotics against it, it was serious business indeed, as any scholar of history knows.
If, unlike me, you don’t have the legendary 2005 Val Lewton Horror Collection box set, you can find out where to stream Isle of the Dead on reelgood.com. Be sure to select the 1945 horror movie with Boris Karloff, not the 2016 zombie movie (although that one might be good also—I can’t say because I haven’t seen it). |