Director Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead, which was produced by legendary horror filmmaker Val Lewton, takes place in Greece in 1912, during the First Balkan War. In it, Boris Karloff plays a cold and brutal general in the Greek army named Nikolas Pherides. Known as “The Watchdog,” Gen. Pherides is the kind of man who, when faced with an officer who has failed to complete an objective, hands the man a revolver with a single bullet in it and orders him to shoot himself.
When Gen. Pherides and some of his troops are garrisoned in a house on an island, the serving girl, Thea (Ellen Drew), refuses to pour him wine, because he once gunned down people in her district who refused to pay taxes. He confronts her in private. She denounces him for murdering people who were rebelling against unjust taxation. “Who is against the law of Greece is not a Greek,” he says. Not only is he a rigid interpreter of the law, he seems to take pleasure in wielding power. After his encounter with the girl, he tells another man, “When I went up there she wasn’t quite so impudent. She was frightened.” He says it with grim pleasure.
The next day, however, the island is faced with an outbreak of septicemic plague, and Gen. Pherides promises that the quarantine on the island will observed. Having the military, under the command of someone like him, available to enforce order falls under the category, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and not surprisingly, there are complications. A woman named Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery), who is staying on the island with her husband (Alan Napier), suffers from attacks of catalepsy. Unable to refill her medication on the mainland, she falls into a catatonic state, is presumed dead, and is buried alive.
Compounding this horrific event is a superstitious old woman named Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), who has the general’s ear. She convinces him that Thea, the young serving girl, is a vorvolaka, a harmful undead creatures from Greek folklore, roughly equivalent to the vampires feared in neighboring Slavic countries, although blood drinking is not something they seem to engage in. In the world of the film, the vorvolakas are sent by the gods to punish humans who offend them. The combination of the plague and the apparent death of Mrs. St. Aubyn gives Kyra’s mad proclamations a certain believability, and Gen. Pherides becomes convinced that Thea was responsible for Mrs. St. Aubyn’s “death.”
After Lewton’s phenomenal success with Cat People in 1942, RKO would give Lewton a title, a maximum running time, and a budget. Most everything else was up to him. He could have been handed a script called Zombie Gut Munchers and ended up making an eerie film about the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844 in Prussia that was more about poverty and oppression than it was about the living dead. Starting in 1945, however, the studio also forced Karloff on Lewton, a move he reportedly wasn’t immediately happy about, since Karloff was emblematic of the Gothic and increasingly corny Universal Pictures approach to horror films that Lewton actively resisted. Karloff was an exceedingly good actor, however, and his performances for Lewton are some of the strongest of his career. (Isle of the Dead was the first to start production, but shooting was suspended when Karloff needed to take time off for back surgery, and The Body Snatcher ended up being their first collaboration to be released into theaters.)
Like The Ghost Ship (1943), which was also directed by Robson and produced by Lewton, Isle of the Dead is a meditation on the abuse of power. Unlike The Ghost Ship, however, Isle of the Dead is not just a metaphorical title, and the film delivers some truly stunning and horrific scenes in its final reel. In fine Lewton fashion, Mrs. St. Aubyn is never shown inside her coffin, desperately clawing at the wood that imprisons her. A shot of the coffin sitting on a stone bier accompanied by her screams suffices. Later, the coffin is shown again, with water dripping on it. There is no other sound. The viewer is left to wonder whether or not the woman inside is still alive, being driven mad by the sound of the water.
There is a theory that some people who were buried alive in less scientifically enlightened times may have clawed their way out of their graves and shown up in town filthy and quite possibly raving mad, and that this phenomenon is what led to folk tales and legends about vampires and their ilk. Whether or not this ever actually happened, Robson and Lewton take full advantage of the concept to fashion a denouement that is not supernatural but that still ranks among the most horrifying depictions of a person rising from the grave ever depicted on film.
What leads up to it is sometimes stilted and slow-moving, although a second viewing reveals a lot of well-done foreshadowing. Like a lot of Lewton’s films, the symbolism in this film is overt. Gen. Pherides is known as “The Watchdog.” Several times in the film there are shots of a statue of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who stopped the souls of the dead from escaping Hades back across the River Styx. Which is exactly what the general does. There are many shots of water, and of decaying marble columns and balconies that hearken back to a more enlightened time in Greece.
At the end of the film, someone says of the general, “Back of his madness there was something simple, good. He wanted to protect us.” This is a charitable description that is not entirely supported by what comes before. Karloff’s portrayal of the general is not as overtly malevolent as other roles he has played, such as Cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher, but he has few redeeming characteristics.