Director: Mark Robson
This review is part of the Val Lewton Blogathon, hosted by The Evening Class.
By Roderick Heath
Val Lewton’s series of RKO Horror films concluded with a triptych of features starring Boris Karloff: Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. Lewton was initially far from happy about having Karloff, the top star of the goosebump genre, forced upon him by studio executives, who maintained a hands-off policy as long as his films kept making money hand over fist. Karloff’s presence threatened to bend Lewton toward the Universal approach, which had degenerated into monster mash hilarity. However, Karloff, a gifted actor, gave Lewton a strong frame around which to build his films, an improvement over Lewton’s earlier films, which wobbled with unreliable lead actors. Lewton was not popular in Hollywood because of his reputation for cultural snobbishness. A native Russian, he had come to the United States in the company of his aunt, actress Alla Nazimova, and hovered around the edges of cinema and literature, publishing novels and pornography and working as David Selznick’s assistant, in which capacity, hating Gone with the Wind, he tried to talk him into filming War and Peace instead.
Amidst the flag-waving and mind-clogging escapism Hollywood was churning out, Lewton’s approach insisted on a detailed, yet carefully smudged contrast between the everyday world and the Id, painted with dreamy poetic realism. Lewton’s first director, Jacques Tourneur, had been promoted to A pictures, so Lewton broke in two editors as directors: Robert Wise and Mark Robson. Robson gained solid footing here after his uneven debut, The Seventh Victim. Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting “The Isle of the Dead” (seen on a wall in I Walked with a Zombie) depicts a boat rowed by a figure in uniform, carrying a white-robed female figure and a flower-decked coffin to the gated lee of a Mont St. Michel-type island studded with Grecian ruins. Böcklin produced five versions, which came into the hands of such experts of death as Lenin, Hitler, and Freud. Lewton, keeping in mind his own background, often referenced Slavic and Hellenic folklore in his horror films. Böcklin’s concept was fused in Lewton’s mind with Pontikonissi, off Corfu, a place Lewton had visited and photographed. The film was called “Camilla” during production, indicating that the story may also have been inspired by Sheridan LeFanu’s sepulchral romance. In the end, the finished film bore little resemblance to the script from which it began, not the first time Lewton threw out a screenplay and recomposed it on the run. The tale Lewton composed (he had a hand in writing all his films), with Ardel Wray and Josef Mischel as the credited screenwriters, is set during the bloody 1913 Balkan War, when Greece engaged in one of its periodic rows with Ottoman Turkey.
The prologue states that this corner of the world, the cradle of Western Civilization, is now violent and backward. The fade-in reveals a Greek officer being disgraced, as he bleats excuses for his soldiers’ late arrival to battle. His general, Nikolas Pherides (Karloff), wordlessly hands the man a pistol to go outside and do the honorable thing. It’s the last dirty job of a dirty day for Pherides. “And I’ve been wondering why they call you The Watchdog,” mutters Boston Star correspondent Oliver Davis, disturbed by this event after having befriended this super-patriot. Pherides offers a calming smile; used to suppressing his personal sensations to duty, he shows flickers of repressed warmth when he recalls his deceased wife, who found him anything but “cold and brutal.”
Pherides means to take advantage of the brief peace bought by victory to visit an island off the nearby coast, used as a cemetery, where his wife was buried more than 15 years earlier. He invites Davis to come along. They walk across the battlefield, a hellish vision of corpses and moaning wounded under sickly moonlight. Exhausted soldiers are hauling cartloads of bodies for burial. Davis protests: “Why can’t you use horses?” “Horses cannot understand why they have to work beyond endurance for their country,”says Pherides, “but the men understand.” Pherides has Davis to talk with Dr. Drossos (Ernst Dorian [Deutsch], who also memorably played Baron Kurtz in The Third Man), who explains the army is in danger of epidemic. “The horseman on the pale horse is pestilence. He follows the wars.”
Pherides and Davis row a boat to the Isle. To his horror, Pherides finds all the crypts have been plundered and the dead removed. They follow a lovely female singing voice through the labyrinthine ruins to the Isle’s peak to find that the uppermost building is inhabited by Swiss antiquarian Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.). Albrecht blames himself for the cemetery’s desecration. Peasants had looted the graves to sell him relics until he stopped the trade and made his home on the Isle. Albrecht is sheltering travelers from the fighting; St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), a British diplomat, his wife Mary (Katherine Emery), and Henry Robbins (the unmistakable Skelton Knaggs), an apparently soused Cockney merchant. Albrecht’s housekeeper, the formidable Madame Kyra (Helene Thimig), idolizes Pherides and warns him that after the looting, they had to burn the disturbed corpses because of an unleashed evil, a vampire-like wolf-spirit called a “Vorvoloka,” that she hints has taken possession of St. Aubyn’s young Greek maid Thea (Ellen Drew) and is preying on her sickly mistress. Thea, however, seems entirely normal. She refuses to serve wine to Pherides, who, irritated, wants to return to the army. Davis talks him into staying the night; Pherides strips his bed down to its bare boards.
Their dawn departure is stalled by the discovery that Robbins has died. Pherides sends for Drossos, who finds Robbins died of septicemic plague. The Isle is quarantined, and its inhabitants wait for the sirocco wind to blow and burn away the plague-carrying fleas. Drossos lays out a plan of contagion prevention that Pherides enforces with iron certitude. The next victim is St. Aubyn, leaving his wife in panic. She jabs a pin in his corpse to make sure he’s dead. She tells Drossos that she suffers from catalepsy and has an abiding fear of premature burial. Now, if I was a cataleptic in a place where people are being buried without much deliberation, I’d make sure everyone would know to stick a pin in me to see if I’m done, but Mary St. Aubyn is too English and proper to broadcast it.
Thea tells Pherides her reason for disliking him: Pherides once quelled a rebellion in her home district with field artillery. Albrecht sets up a pyre to pray to the Greek god Hermes on the theory that it’s as good as anything for warding off Fate. Drossos, listening to Albrecht’s prayer, adds twigs to the pyre, stating the gods are more powerful than his science—he’s dying. Mary begs him to take an opiate to ease his dying spasms, but Drossos refuses. His final words, amongst the most stringently stoic in any movie. move me: “I have watched so many times. I will watch this time too…Fight death all your days, and die knowing you know nothing.”
Without Drossos to represent science and modernity, the survivors begin to splinter. Albrecht prescribes Christian prayer, hoping to regain the feeling he had as a small boy in church. Oliver and Thea have a gentle tryst and give themselves up to romantic fatalism. Kyra’s paranoia infects Pherides, who, with roots in unforgiving peasant life, abandons the rational and hunts for the Vorvoloka, harassing Thea so violently that Davis announces his intention to get Thea off the island. Pherides responds by smashing the boat. Mary, enraged, gives Pherides a tongue lashing, but upon returning to her room collapses. Thea spends a horrid night as Kyra hounds her in whispers through the door. In the morning Pherides kicks in the door, and she is found wringing hands guiltily over Mary’s body. Albrecht, mindful of Mary’s concerns, tests her for signs of life, but she seems very dead. When everyone exits the room, the camera gently zooms onto her mouth to show a brief twitch.
We all know what’s coming, and Robson stages it with cool brilliance. Davis and Albrecht place Mary’s casket in a stony crypt. The camera slowly slides up to the coffin, and we expect a scream at the climax of the dolly, but instead there’s a cutaway to Pherides and Davis on the terrace. The wind has changed, salvation is at hand, but Pherides realises he is infected and doomed. Cut back to the tomb, and the ugly jolt of Mrs St. Aubyn’s screaming and scratching. Night comes, the tomb is silent, apart from the steady drip of water on the box (Jack MacKenzie’s sharp photography at its best here). As Thea waits in the glens for Davis to come for their nightly tryst, she hears wood shattering. Kyra, tending Pherides in his death throes, also hears and sweats in fear. As Thea negotiates the dark, she encounters Mary St. Aubyn’s white-shrouded, insane figure and fetches Oliver and Albrecht to deal with her. Mary enters the house, and, armed with an antique trident, insane but with a remnant of her protective purpose, stabs Kyra and Pherides before falling to her death from the terrace. Dying, Pherides moans, “The Vorvoloka! I saw her! I saw her! Is she dead?” Albrecht tells him yes, and The Watchdog dies serenely. Davis and Thea are shoved off in the repaired boat by Albrecht.
The vivid quality of Isle of the Dead is the inescapable dread, contrasted with the characters’ attempts to retain their humanity—the fundamental theme of all Lewton films. Karloff rises to the challenge of playing a man who is both monstrous and sympathetic. It’s revealing to contrast Isle of the Dead’s evisceration of patriotic militarism with its celebration during the war years. Each character also represents less a nationality or a moral than a different way of dealing with existential fears. Pherides is a man of brute instincts but also deeply caring, a Hector used to the cold calculus of battlefield morality—if I have to kill 10 to save a thousand, so be it. His peasant background is the source of unyielding strength, though he doesn’t realize it; when he puts faith in an idea—even if it’s antimysticism—it is with mystical completeness. Albrecht, St. Aubyn, and Davis accept the limits of human capacity. Thea is a plain humanist, concerned only with peace and tranquility. Drossos, a warrior-healer, knows his combat is ultimately futile.
Isle of the Dead considers the human condition as necessarily self-deluding. When life is a hair away from extinction, the conduct of human beings toward each other is a paramount problem. Crisis in Isle of the Dead arrives when the unbalanced General threatens Thea, violating their multiethnic fellowship. As a warrior, he is both the problem and the solution. Mary St. Aubyn is Pherides’ opposite, seemingly fragile and doomed, she is the voice of morality and reason spoken from the edge of the ethereal, trying to the edge of death and beyond to defend rational decency even in a murderous rampage.
Lewton’s series concluded with the war, and transmitted its fatalistic air to noir – unsurprisingly, Lewton’s protégés Tourneur, Wise, and Robson, became major noir creators. Punctuated by Leigh Hurline’s atmospheric score, the best in a Lewton work, Isle of the Dead isn’t as symphonic an achievement as The Body Snatcher or as poetic as The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie, but it is the most fully developed metaphoric drama of Lewton’s films. Given Lewton’s fragile health, he may have placed his personal anxieties in his stories. He would die within seven years of Isle of the Dead. Mark Robson’s later roster of films reflects the general lot of an A-list Hollywood director, including rock-hard classics like Champion and The Harder They Fall, and wretched junk like Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake.