Although I have watched a number of the Val Lewton-produced films of the 1940s by now, I decided to review this one not so long after I Walked With A Zombie because it feels, in many ways, as if it covers familiar ground. It's overflowing with the usual atmosphere, of course, but at the heart of it is an examination of characters who disagree over the power of faith, with one particular individual seemingly happy to do make themselves look bad if it benefits the greater good.
Boris Karloff is General Nikolas Pherides, a man who visits the "Isle Of The Dead" to pay respects to his dead wife. He is accompanied by a reporter (Oliver Davis, played by Marc Cramer). Discovering the grave site has been disturbed, Pherides and Davis eventually wander through different parts of the island, ending up at the household of Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards Sr.), who also has the company of his housemaid (Madame Kyra, played by Helen Thimig), a visitor named St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his poorly wife (Mary St. Aubyn, played by Katherine Emery), and their young companion, Thea (Ellen Drew). There are one or two others also packed into this one household, but these names make up the main group. Unfortunately, all end up quarantined when one of the guests dies from what a doctor diagnoses as the plague. Can everyone hold out, stay safe, and wait for quarantine to be over? Or will they remain in danger until they get rid of the vorvolaka (a malevolent demon in human form) in their midst? Most people don't believe in the vorvolaka, but Madame Kyra does, and she intimates to Pherides that she suspects Thea.
Written mainly by the talented Ardel Wray, Isle Of The Dead is a character study, an examination of the hold that folklore can have over some people, and essentially a battle between faith and science. The scenario allows neither side an obvious path to victory, but that does nothing to dim the belief of anyone hoping against all hope that they will be helped by the system they support.
Director Mark Robson has everything he needs to help make this a cracking little yarn. The script is solid, and has one or two genuinely creepy moments amidst the plague drama, the production design and set dressing is superb (allowing the locations to feel 100% real throughout), and there’s an absolutely fantastic performance from Karloff at the heart of it, a man who can steel himself to do what others would find unpalatable, to say the least.
Although there is ample screentime for both Cramer and Drew, the younger members of the group who end up trapped and in danger, and you also have some scene-stealing from Thimig and Emery, the two women causing tension in very different ways, this is a film that belongs to Karloff. When he is onscreen he is magnificent, but he also casts a lengthy shadow that slows you to feel his presence for many moments that don’t have him front and centre.
Clocking in at about 70 minutes, this is another lean chiller that does everything it wants to do, setting things up quickly and then allowing for a really interesting middle section before the resolution starts to play out. Although not mentioned half as often as some other great titles from this time, Isle Of The Dead deserves a hefty serving of praise and recognition. It’s a fantastic little film, and I hope others find it, or (for those who found it way before I did and are currently rolling their eyes at my standard tardiness) I hope people keep recommending it alongside the more commonly-mentioned titles in this category.
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