Isle of the Dead

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    Very possibly Val Lewton's and Boris Karloff's scariest horror film. A group of people are stranded on a greek isle during the war of 1912, due to a deadly epidemic or plague. Those who catch it will die, but the symptoms are mistakenly confused by a belief that an evil wolflike spirit called the "Vorvolaka" possesses its victims until it drains them of their strength and blood. Katherine Emery is brilliant as a cataleptic who returns from the grave to avenge herself of those who mistakenly buried her alive! Caution: this film can give you nightmares even decades after watching it!...more info
  • A ghostly characterization of plague on a greek isle.
    A black and white brooding horror story of people under siege on a greek island during the black plague, How they survive the horror and what happens to them makes for an intensely dramatic movie....more info
  • Ghosts of the past
    "Isle of the Dead" is a multilayered film that is at first hard to penetrate, but when the viewer actually understands what's going on the rewards are rich. A group of people are quarantined on a small Greek island during the Balkan war of 1912, and things start happening which we can never be sure are actually supernatural or not until the horrific ending.

    Boris Karloff is in top form playing the creepy but well intentioned "watchdog" General Nikolas Pherides, a man set apart from others by his inhuman loyalty to the military and his singular loneliness. Also, as the film goes on and he grows more and more irrational, we see that he is slowly losing his mind.

    One gets the sense from the beginning of the film that this tough and alienated old man probably would have been better off if he had never decided to accompany a strangely sprightly reporter, Oliver Davis (he seems almost amusingly out of place in this movie, and his cheesy romanticism makes you wonder if he wandered off the set of "Casablanca") to the small island where his wife is buried.

    As it turns out, all the coffins have been pillaged by peasants for antiques, and the bodies destroyed by a superstitious old woman who turns out to be the real villian in the film, a black clad old coot named Mira. From the outset she preys on the General's already unsound mind, insisting that Thea (Ellen Drew), a healthy young woman, is a vampire feasting on the ill health of the rest of the islands' inhabitants. At first Karloff's character writes her off as a nut, but as his friends start falling dropping off like flies from the plague which has struck the island, he becomes more and more vulnerable to her nonsense, and begins watching Thea like a hawk.

    Albrecht (actually actor Jason Robards' father in an unflattering role), who owns the island, is a native Greek and sits somewhat happily as the dementia escalates. He seems like the Santa Claus of the movie, praying to Hermes and insisting that one must surrender to the gods in order to achieve an honorable death. There is one unforgettable scene in which the military doctor catches the plague and simply says, while dying, "Live fighting and die knowing you know nothing". Thereby another knotch in the already deteriorating psyche of the General is undone.

    This is a film about acceptance of fate and the consequences of dogged stubborness represented by the General. The last half hour is unforgettable; a woman is buried alive, bursts from her coffin (the mood of unrelenting doom and inevitable death is pure Poe) and begins a killing spree which ends in the death of both the General and the superstitious old Mira. Ultimately the General is a sympathetic character. We are not sure what to make of his intensity. In the first scene he sends a man to die for abandoning his troops without blinking, and yet throughout the rest of the movie his more human side emerges, which he has obviously been repressing for a long time. The atmosphere of this film will not leave you long after watching it. ...more info
  • A Tranquil Horror Film
    This film takes place in 1912 Greece during a Balkan War. A Colonel is punished for lagging behind. A reporter for an American newspaper interviews General Pherides. The dead must be quickly buried for fear of plague. Who can be singing in a graveyard at night? The General and the reporter find a house with refugees from the war, and stay overnight. The darkness and night provides atmosphere, but nothing happens. Thea dislikes General Pherides because of his ruthlessness in collecting taxes before the war. There is danger of septicemic plague; no one may leave the island. If the sirocco wind blows it will kill off the fleas that spread the plague. There is fear of vorvolakos, the evil spirits that sicken and kill people [vampires?].

    The British consul St. Albans has caught the sickness; he soon dies. His wife mourns, she has other fears. Doctor Drossos is next to suffer. Prayer brings comfort to some. The old woman Kyra warns about evil demons. The General orders Thea to stay away from the others - in case she is a vorvolakos! Mrs. St. Albans has collapsed. Is it death or a cataleptic trance? The story has a shocking surprise. But little horror.

    This film must be an example of what Hollywood stamped out to provide cheap mass entertainment in the 1940s. [When the number of movie theatres started to decline.] The low budget shows in the script and scenery. [Earnest Dorian is best known as "Baron Kurtz" in "The Third Man".]
    ...more info
  • Thick opened crypt...and pestilence. It must be an isle of the dead
    This Val Lewton-produced Poverty Row programer is a good example of why B movies are B movies. The story could be interesting: A small group of people in an isolated setting (in this case, a small Greek island) are forced to deal with a threat to their lives (in this case, a nasty pestilence called septicemic plague), and in the course of the movie some will live and some will die, some will prove brave and some will go mad, some will swear there is an evil force and some will blame things on the wind and the fleas. And yet, while Boris Karloff does a fine job as the aging General Nikolas Pherides, the rest of the cast demonstrate why they never broke out of Poverty Row.

    It's 1912 and we're in the middle of the Greek wars. The General has won a victory, but there are many dead on the darkened battlefield. He is a hard man, driven by duty and patriotism, yet by his standards fair. He's not without warmth and friendliness. He and Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), an American reporter, visit a small island, used for decades as a place of burial, where his dead wife lies in a crypt. The island is just off the coast where the General's army is encamped. They find the crypt has been forced open and the body missing. But on this isolated little crag of an island they find a large stone house where there is a Swiss archeologist; his severe Greek housekeeper from whom he bought the house; Thea (Ellen Drew), a beautiful young servant; and three guests...soon to be just two. One of the guests, in the middle of dinner, declares he feels ill and staggers to his room. He is soon dead of the plague. The General has an army doctor come over who confirms their worst fears. The General is determined to fight the plague and keep it from infecting his army. He takes charge of the house. He insists that no one may leave the island. They all can only wait and hope the plague strikes no more of them down. And all this time the housekeeper whispers about death and demons. She sees the work of the dreaded vorvolaka, a wolf spirit in human form, and she insists the vorvolaka has taken the shape of the servant girl. As people die, we have noble death, madness, a live burial and, in at least one case, the triumph of superstition.

    What to make of this? The first half of the movie is a taut look at people reacting under pressure, led by the excellent performance of Boris Karloff. We start out on a Greek battlefield at night, filled with the groaning wounded and the dead in carts being hauled to speedy mass burials. "The rider on the pale horse is pestilence," explains General Pherides to the reporter, "and he follows the wars." Then we're off on a small boat to the dark, well-imagined mountainous island, full of rocky, steep paths, threatening trees, a mouldering crypt and crashing waves below a cliff. We meet the cast and, at dinner, see their tentativeness. We can take a measure of their characters. But then the second half of the movie is upon us. We're in the middle of a corny Hollywood horror story with awkward acting (except for Karloff) and even cornier dialogue. "The vorvolaka still lives," whispers the crone of a housekeeper, "rose-cheeked and full of blood!" We're in the poverty-row world of white gauzy gowns slipping around corners, of creaking caskets, a mad death scene, a vicious-looking trident and a leap off a cliff. It's become predictable.

    The movie has great atmosphere and Karloff. It's enough for a strong beginning (and for a generous four stars) but, in my view, not enough for a strong ending. I particularly enjoyed two members of the cast, in addition to Karloff. One, Skelton Knaggs, is only on screen for a couple of minutes. Knaggs had a distinctive-looking face, weak, ugly and unhealthy. Combined with his whiny voice, he was hard to ignore. In another Val Lewton-produced movie, The Ghost Ship, he plays a deaf-mute who, it's true, narrates the story. The other actor I like is a woman named Katherine Emery. She plays the ill wife of a British diplomat. She has a cultured, precise and unhurried voice. Close your eyes and you'd swear you were listening to Mercedes McCambridge. To see her in full dominant mode, watch Eyes in the Night. ...more info


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