Isolation, illness, and fear; humanity's history and misery can be tracked through its battle with plagues. Isle of the Dead is a 1945 release from the Val Lewton production unit at RKO, noted for their non-traditional horror tales. The movie is a character study of people grappling with overwhelming disaster.
Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin's 1883 work Isle of the Dead inspired the film. Ardel Wray (I Walked with a Zombie), Josef Mischel (Prison Ship), and uncredited Val Lewton wrote the story and screenplay. Film editor turned director Mark Robson (Bright Victory) proved himself adept at the relatively modest tales released by the unit. Cinematographer Jack MacKenzie (Two O'Clock Courage), in films since the teens, worked in B films for the studio and helped create the shadowy atmosphere.
Our setting is 1912, the War of the Balkans. The battlefield is strewn with corpses and the threat of plague is in the air. General Pherides played by Boris Karloff is an old campaigner and a stern officer. Marc Cramer plays Oliver Davis, a war correspondent from Boston assigned to follow the General. He will follow him to an island cemetery to pay respects to the General's long dead wife.
The Island and its odd component of residents are placed under quarantine when funny little Andrew Robbins played by Skelton Knaggs. The traveler only wanted to return to the sound of Bow Bells, but he staggered to his death on the desolate island. The army physician Dr. Drossos played by Ernst Deutsch issues the quarantine orders and instructions regarding hygiene and distancing yourself from others. Once contracted, there is no cure for the illness. Hope is held out in a watch for the warm sirocco which will clear the area of fleas.
The owner of the home belongs to an archeologist, Mr. Albrecht played by Jason Robards Sr. He does not discount the doctor's science, but steeped in an antiquarian's mindset he amusingly says he will pray to the god Hermes, and see who helps their plight first.
A married couple, the St. Aubyns played by Alan Napier and Katherine Emery have secrets to keep and to share, involving Mrs. St. Aubyn's delicate health. Thea played by Ellen Drew is a companion to Mary St. Aubyn. The St. Aubyns love and trust the young woman, but Madame Kyra played by Helene Thimig is suspicious, perhaps jealous, of the younger woman's blooming health.
Kyra spreads old country superstitions about the evil spirit of the undead vorvolakas. In her eyes, Thea is to blame for the troubles that have befallen them. Sensing a kindred soul in Pherides, Kyra turns the General against Thea.
Death, fear of death, superstition, and fear of the unknown are among the plagues that come to the small island. Will the wind change? Will it be too late?
RKO Studios and Boris Karloff had a felicitous teaming in the mid-1940s when the actor appeared in a series of pictures for the B unit run by producer Val Lewton. "B" in budget and expectations, but "A" in the care given, the ensemble casts, and Boris Karloff following his phenomenal Broadway success with Arsenic and Old Lace. The pictures include one of his finest performances as the grave robber Gray in The Body Snatcher, the sadistic Master Simms in Bedlam, and General Pherides in our picture. Karloff also struts his stuff in a 1947 release for the studio, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome.
TCM is screening Isle of the Dead during the daytime of Tuesday, May 18. Islands figure prominently in the lineup which includes Robinson Crusoe, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Little Hut.