Isle of the Dead (1945)

“I told you that no one could leave.”

Synopsis:
Accompanied by an American reporter (Mark Cramer), a Greek general (Boris Karloff) during the Balkan Wars orders a group of island residents to remain quarantined in the house of a sickly woman (Katherine Emery) when plague breaks out — but Emery’s beautiful young caretaker (Ellen Drew) soon feels her life is at risk when the household’s superstitious housekeeper (Helen Thimig) convinces Karloff that Drew is a vampiric demon known as a “vorvolaka”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is more a fan of this “intelligent, atmospheric horror film” (produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson) than I am. He argues that while the “picture suffers because of [the] uninteresting coupling of Drew and Cramer” (which is true), the performances by “Karloff and Emery are outstanding”, the “set design is imaginative (for a low-budget film), the camera work properly excites, and the horror is intense”. I’m not quite in agreement. Emery (who only made 12 films, a few of which are listed in Peary’s book) is fine if underused in what turns out to be a pivotal role, but I actually don’t find Karloff all that convincing as the boot-quaking general, and many of the other supporting performances are surprisingly stiff. Meanwhile, the film as a whole simply fails to either engage or adequately frighten (at least until the final spooky fifteen minutes, which are worth a look). Ultimately, while all the necessarily ingredients for a rich and provocative Lewton-ian experience are here, they unfortunately never quite gel.

Peary spends the bulk of his review analyzing the film and its characters in light of Lewton’s limited but impressive oeuvre (nearly all of which are “must see” movies). He points out that “in Lewton films, when a character” (such as Karloff’s general) “loses his mind he reverts to old, superstitious ways”, and notes that the screenplay allows Lewton to “exploit his concept of man controlled by fate”. He makes an apt analogy between Drew’s character (Thea) and Simone Simon’s Irena in Lewton’s Cat People, noting that Thea, like Irena, is “not sure she doesn’t harbor evil within her” — but while Irena is immediately presented as a sympathetic character whose fate we genuinely care about, Thea (a gypsy) simply functions here as a conveniently “Othered” scapegoat (and a requisite romantic lead). Ultimately, you’re better off spending your time rewatching one of Lewton’s many other classic psychological horror flicks — though film fanatics will be probably be curious to check this one out at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • The creepy “premature burial” scene

Must See?
No; this one isn’t a must-see Lewton film.

Links:

One Response to “Isle of the Dead (1945)”

  1. I agree, not must-see.

    As usual, Lewton’s unique production value impresses. However, this earnest tale of plague and superstition is strangely written and constructed and doesn’t seem to follow its own terms. What it does, unfortunately, remain true to is its talky nature. Ultimately, there’s almost nothing here that is very satisfying.

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