A Tiny World Full of Dread – Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead
Halloween brings out the horror movie fan in all of us. There are the classics like Frankenstein, Dracula or the Wolf-Man that serve as the holiday’s traditional offerings. Those who seek scares that do not rely on special effects should check out the productions of Val Lewton.
A Russian immigrant born Vladimir Leventon, Lewton’s family immigrated to the United States when he was five. As a young man he lost a job as a reporter in Connecticut when it was discovered he had fabricated a story about a truckload of kosher chickens dying in a New York heat wave. From then on he worked in fiction, first as a pulp novelist and later as a publicist and writer for David O. Selznick. He once told the legendary producer he was making a grave mistake producing the expensive “Gone With the Wind.”
In 1942, Lewton was hired as the head of RKO Studio’s horror unit. The studio, already in the decline that would kill it off in the late 1950s, gave Lewton three rules that he had to follow: (1) all the movies had to be made for less than $150,000 each; (2) their running times had to be less than 75 minutes; and (3) the studio would supply the titles for the movies. For four years until studio upheaval cost him his job, Lewton turned out a collection of atmospheric, often chilling movies. Due to their short running times, each remains entertaining today. Although they are of varying quality, these films serve as a sort of thinking-man’s horror.
Isle of the Dead shows Lewton’s strengths if also some weaknesses. This 1945 film stars the most prominent actor of the Lewton films, Boris Karloff. At this time stuck in Universal’s increasingly derivative fright films (the previous year has seen the release of House of Frankenstein and that year would see the debut of House of Dracula), Karloff was grateful for the chance to do something different. Here he is a different kind of monster than the one built by Dr. Frankenstein.
General Pherides (Karloff) commands a Greek army in a 1912 Balkan war. Seen as bloodthirsty and merciless, he believes his actions essential to victory. In forcing his war-weary troops to draw wagons of their dead colleagues to bury, he says this is preferable to using horses that have not made a commitment to fight for their nation. Oliver Davis, a visiting American journalist (played by Marc Cramer) following the Greek war effort is stunned by the waste of life. He is further shocked to learn that Pherides once had a lovely young wife with whom he was a much different man. He takes Davis with him on a late-night pilgrimage to the tiny island where his wife is buried.
Pherides finds his wife’s coffin desecrated; several other bodies have been removed from other coffins as well. Hearing a woman singing a haunting tune in the distance, they set out to find out what is going on. Finding a home, they encounter a retired Swiss archaeologist (Jason Robards, Sr.) and his houseguests, four people stranded on the island. The next morning one of them is dead. The cause is septicemic plague; the island must be quarantined. As the epidemic strikes more people, Pherides must consider the possibility that one of the other people confined on the island is a vorvolaka, an evil force in human form. By this view, the plague is God’s wrath upon them for sheltering her. By this time, Davis is falling in love with Thea (Ellen Drew), the suspected vorvolaka. As the plague (and fear) spreads, Pherides must take action to save lives. Can someone with a reputation as a bloodthirsty butcher preserve life or will he become a victim?
To see “Isle of the Dead” is to realize that Boris Karloff had a greater range as an actor than is generally remembered today. Since his most famous role required little dialogue but hours in the makeup chair daily, it’s easy to be surprised by a part that requires other skills. Here he uses his wonderful voice and burning stare to imbue Pherides with a fierce intensity. At the same time, he makes you believe he once was happy and in love. While the rest of the cast works to varying degrees of effectiveness, that is no matter; Karloff mesmerizes.
Like many of Lewton’s films, this one also takes advantage of a unique location. Owing to the world conflagration wrapping up at the time of the film’s release, a story of the collateral damage from war resonated at the time. The story also reflects the view that horror wore a human face. Not one special effect appears in the tidy 71-minute picture. The concept of the vorvolaka, an Eastern European folk legend conveniently in the public domain, creates a monster that may be of human form or may not even exist.
By the end, Isle of the Dead impresses mostly because of how much it does with so little. No one in Hollywood ever mastered the art of doing a lot with a little better than Val Lewton. To see this film will illustrate that well while creating an atmospheric sense of dread that still chills today.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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