It's 1912 and Greece is beset by war and pestilence. As his troops bury their dead after another bloody battle, stern General Pherides (Boris Karloff) goes to visit the grave of his wife, buried on an island nearby. He's horrified to see her tomb has been looted and learns grave robbers are to blame for the desecration but there is worse news to come: plague has come to the island. The doctors are powerless but perhaps the sickness has another cause. Could it be that a 'Vorvolaka' - a vampiric demon - is at large on the island? And is there anything that can stop it?
Spoilers follow ...
- Isle of the Dead review by NP
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Greece, 1912. It must be pretty miserable to hear that a spreading plague necessitates strict confinement to your home; when one of your house-guests is Boris Karloff, that misery takes on a new dimension.
‘Isle of the Dead’ is an RKO horror film, one of a series produced by Val Lewton. Whereas Universal had cornered the monster market, with increasingly exploitative meet-ups between Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and The Wolfman, Lewton specialised in less obvious, more psychological dramas. The horror here is more prevalent in what you don’t see. Whereas 1942’s ‘Cat People’ may be the most successful example of this approach, Lewton produced a hugely impressive body of work, among which this production stands tall.
When the shadow of Gen. Nikolas Pherides (Karloff) falls across a scene, there is an instant atmosphere of jeopardy, of cruelty, disease and fear. Pherides has a reputation for cruel efficiency, and he brings this to his authority when dealing with the house-full of potential plague carriers, himself amongst their number.
The stand-out scene for me is when Katherine Emery as Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery) falls into a cataleptic trance, is subsequently buried, and wakes screaming in her casket. We hear her fear and desperate scratching as the camera lingers on her incarcerated wooden tomb, the shadow of blowing branches fallen across it, relentless drip-dripping of the damp stonework upon it. The box splinters and is pushed open as the camera maddeningly pulls away to another scene. Her friend Thea (Ellen Drew) goes in search of the escapee in a perfect studio-set nightmare, her white nightdress blowing in the wind – St. Aubyn has seemingly been driven out of her mind by the experience and parades the house and its surrounding grounds like a vengeful ghost. No-one is safe it seems, especially Pherides, who, for all his sins emerges as a kind of misunderstood anti-hero …
Melodramatic it may be, there’s no denying the intensity brings with it a true spirit of dread.