Isle of the Dead

Isle of the Dead (1945) movie poster

(1945) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 06/03/10

Another of producer Val Lewton’s RKO horror/thrillers, directed by Mark Robson (The Ghost Ship 1943)) and starring the inimitable Boris Karloff (The Body Snatcher (1945))as a Greek general during the First Balkan War 1912-1913.  I’d seen images from this film for years, but had never seen it, and Martin Scorsese considers it one of his top 11 most frightening films.

With a running time of only 72 minutes, this low-budget thriller really doesn’t have any fat on it, though it also doesn’t quite ascend to the scariness of Night of the Demon (1957), Cat People (1942), or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), all of which were directed by the great Jaques Tourneur for Lewton (Night of the Demon also makes Scorsese’s list).

After the end of a battle, an American journalist accomapnies a tough Greek general to an “isle of the dead”, a cemetary isle where the general’s wife is buried.  The general is dismayed to see that his wife’s body has been dug up by thieves searching for antiquities and seeks out a resident on the island, a retired Swiss collector, for information.  The bad news befalls them and the small group of visitors at the house, all of them potential plague victims, requiring them to stay quarrantined to protect the army from infection.

As they start dying one by one, a superstitious housekeeper speaks of the evil doings of a vorvolakas, a Greek evil spirit not unlike a vampire.  One of the visitors, a young assistant to an ill older woman, is suspected of being the evil being, feeding on the ill woman.  And the ill woman has a knack for falling into a death-like state, with heartbeat and breathing lowered beyond recognition, so she has a real phobia of being buried alive.  Well, you can probably imagine where this is going to lead to.  Karloff’s Greek general, a tough but practical man, eventually starts to believe in the superstitions himself, trying to keep order, trying to keep them all alive.

The film’s best sequence is toward the end, where the strangest and most spectral moments occur, with zombie-like trances, a potential spectre, and a few rather dramatic deaths make for solid B-movie entertainment.  It’s good stuff.

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