Isle of the Dead (1945)

Isle of the Dead (1945), produced by Val Lewton, directed by Mark Robson.

First review

Inspired by Arnold Böcklin's painting of the same name.

A Greek general (Boris Karloff) enforces a plague quarantine on an island during wartime. A hard skeptical man, his rationality cracks and he begins to believe that a vorvolaka, an undead creature, is preying upon them. Or is it just the plague?

A dark, funereal air broods over the story. Disturbed graves, premature burial, childhood nightmares returned.

What scares a skeptic? The possibility that his unbelief is not well-founded, and that reality is not what it seems to be.

Very dark throughout, finely composed. No commentary track.

Second review

During grim wartime, a Greek general offers to take an American correspondent across to a cemetery island, a chance to visit the tomb of the General's wife. They find all the coffins smashed and the bodies missing. The archaeologist at the big house says that peasants looted the crypt looking for treasure, but the old serving woman takes the General aside: "We burned the bodies. One was an Evil One. Another such is upstairs now, healthy and full of blood while others become weak and pale".

The General does not believe it. At first...

This film plays better the second time, after we know what to expect. At first exposure the narrative seems to drift without any urgency as we wait for it to settle into a familiar genre.

I would divide it into several acts:

First: the setup where we suspect a vampire-like vorvolaka -- a beautiful young woman -- is preying on the other members of the house during quarantine.

Second: our realization that there is no supernatural element. It is just the Plague, terrifying in its own way. We are now moved to pity the young woman, accused by the others and even beginning to suspect herself.

Third: the dramatic final act with even more Poe themes of catalepsy and the dread of premature burial.

During Plague time, people do what they can, but if distancing and hand sanitation don't work, many are going to die. Some take it quietly, philosophically, but the General is not like that. He is "The Watchdog" of his country and he will fight the disease like any other enemy. That means finding a cause of the deaths, some weapon to fight back. If his adult scientific skepticism fails then he -- egged on by the old woman -- will fall back on the mountain village superstitions of his youth.

"My belief has many sides," he says. "Good sides and bad sides".

Which means he has to find someone to blame.

Boris Karloff did some of this best work in Val Lewton films, this and The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946). His General is not a cruel man but he has had to do hard things and he will do anything to defeat the evil influence afflicting his people. This is the story of his tragic fall from reason and balance to obsessive superstition.

Ellen Drew -- Christmas in July (1940), The Baron of Arizona (1950) -- is the persecuted young woman. Her face and posture clearly show the doubts growing in her mind as she too sinks into superstition. She denies being such a creature but the General asks her: How would you know? Where does your spirit go while you sleep?


Lewton did not have his accustomed cinematographer -- Nicholas Musuraca -- this time, but Jack MacKenzie ably reproduces his dramatic light and shadow composition.

Score by Leigh Harline.

Available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. A planned Shout Factory disc was canceled, probably because of poor sales for their editions of Lewton's The Leopard Man (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). That's too bad: Shout provides rich sets of extras.

Warner does add an information-rich commentary track by Steve Haberman.

He says Lewton was originally going to do Le Fanu's female vampire Carmilla, later used for The Vampire Lovers (1970) and other films. When that project collapsed the residue became Isle of the Dead.

A troubled production, rewritten and condensed, he was not very happy with the result.

It appears on Martin Scorsese’s list of his favorite horror films: