Release Date(s)1945 (March 30, 2021)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Val Lewton is the producer responsible for such horror classics as Cat People, The Body Snatcher, and I Walked with a Zombie. His films relied upon foreboding atmosphere rather than monsters to elicit scares. Made during the 1940s, Lewton’s films were RKO’s answer to Universal which, up until then, had cornered the market with cinematic horror.
Isle of the Dead, one of two films Boris Karloff made for Lewton in 1945, takes place during the Balkan War of 1912. General Pherides (Karloff) rows to a small Greek island to visit the grave of his wife. Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), an American newspaper reporter, accompanies him, and they accept lodgings in the household of antiques collector Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.). But they soon discover that plague has infested the island. One by one, members of the household die of the horrible disease. Kyra (Helene Thimig), a superstitious old crone, believes Thea (Ellen Drew), an attractive young Greek woman, is responsible for the deaths because she’s a vorvoloka, a kind of vampire. One woman, Mrs. St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery), succumbs to a cataleptic trance. Believing her to be dead, the others entomb her in a coffin.
An intriguing piece of psychological horror, the film follows Pherides as he becomes unraveled by fear of his own making. Director Mark Robson’s pace is leisurely and the film is highly atmospheric, particularly in its final, climactic scene when tension builds increasingly as horror greater than the plague befalls the individuals on the island.
An early scene sets the mood. The general and the reporter walk across a battlefield strewn with war debris and human skeletons. They pass a large cart filled with bodies on its way to a burial place for the casualties of war. The general is philosophical about death. Moments earlier, he handed a gun to an officer under his command who had made tactical and strategic miscalculations. Shortly afterward, we hear an off-screen gunshot. The officer has taken his own life, the only way to uphold his honor. Clearly, death is the theme that runs throughout the film.
The vorvoloka, in Lewton’s mind, is an entity to be feared more for its legendary reputation than its physical manifestation. We never know whether Kyra’s superstitions hold some truth and whether innocent-looking Thea truly is the cause of the deaths that suddenly occur. Because the boat the general arrived in has been destroyed, there’s no escape from the island.
Karloff always elevates the films that he’s in, whatever the quality of the script. His Pherides is a tortured man whose visit to the island causes him to spiral downward as he becomes obsessed with the idea that Thea is indeed a vorvoloka and is determined to destroy her. The term “vampire” is never used, and the film never makes clear whether this creature is a superstitious legend or a reality. The uncertainty makes for considerable suspense.
Entirely studio-filmed, Isle of the Dead has some nice simulated outdoor scenes on the balcony of the Albrecht house, the woods surrounding the house, the battlefield, and especially a staircase and dark passageway with shadows that may or may not be of a supernatural being.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray release of Isle of the Dead features 1080p high definition resolution. Sourced from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The picture is sharp with optimal clarity and no visible imperfections. Surface dirt specks, scratches, emulsion clouding, and cue marks are completely absent, making for a pleasurable viewing experience. Scenes that benefit the most are those in dimly lit locations. Lewton and director Robson rely a great deal on shadows and intentionally obscuring large parts of the frame to enhance tension. Details such as the wrinkles in Pherides’ face, the flowing gown of Mrs. St. Aubyn, grim battleground images, and moonlit shrubbery are sharply delineated. In one scene, in which Thea and Mrs. St. Aubyn never move, the passage of time is indicated by the shifting moonlight shadows of Venetian blinds on a door and across the floor. Blacks are rich, deep, and velvety.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout, with Karloff’s distinctive lisp giving his line readings a tinge of menace. Lee Harline’s musical score is used economically. Robson prefers to use silence and subtle sound effects to build an eerie scene. The sound of gently blowing wind is used significantly, as it was in I Walked with a Zombie. Combined with creepy locations and the realization that a woman has been buried alive, the wind is very unsettling. Occasionally, Robson will toss in an extremely loud noise for a jump scare.
Bonus materials on this Region A Blu-ray release include an audio commentary and the original theatrical trailer with Spanish subtitles.
Audio Commentary – Screenwriter and film historian Dr. Steven Haberman regards Isle of the Dead as an “underrated masterpiece” and “the most subtle and philosophic of all vampire films.” An adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 vampire lesbian novella, Carmilla, Lewton thoroughly researched the vorvoloka before embarking on the script. Vorvolokas in Greek folklore are similar to vampires in Slavic tradition. They can be destroyed by exorcism, impaling, beheading, cutting them into pieces, or cremation. Karloff’s character is a troubled individual. A first draft of the movie, entitled Carmilla, had an overabundance of supernatural references and horror film cliches. Karloff’s role was also subservient. That script was scrapped, but many elements of it were retained. Differences and similarities between the two drafts are discussed. Lewton concentrated on the tragedy of General Pherides. Karloff had a two-picture deal with RKO. The plague in the story is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Most of Lewton’s films were scored by Roy Webb, but for Isle of the Dead, Lee Harline wrote the music instead. The art director designed vaults, columns, tunnels, rock walls, and cypress trees to simulate the Greek island. The tunnel represents a “dark symbol of the unknown.” Director Mark Robson is in no hurry to get from one shot to the next. He allows characters to move through scenes with shadowy lighting, point-of-view shots, and serious reaction close-ups. Pherides slowly turns his back on a reality he can’t control. “Lewton’s characters are almost always decent people whose kindness is no weapon against superstition and the inevitability of death.” For much of history, premature burial was a real concern, especially for those suffering from catalepsy, when both the heart and breathing slow to almost imperceptible levels and there’s an insensitivity to pain. Isle of the Dead is compared to Roger Corman’s House of Usher. Both films dramatize a “world where the line between life and death is thin and sometimes non-existent.” Isle of the Dead has not always been appreciated as one of Val Lewton’s masterpieces, but its reputation has grown steadily due to its availability on home video. In 2013, director Martin Scorsese listed it as number two on his list of the ten scariest horror films.
Theatrical Trailer (1:29) – The original theatrical trailer is presented in English with Spanish subtitles.
Isle of the Dead is highly atmospheric. If you have the patience for a fairly slow pace, you’ll be rewarded by a gripping finale which truly gets under the skin. Vampire film aficionados might feel let down or impatient with the film’s subtleties, but Karloff is always fun to watch and adds badly-needed star power to the second-tier cast.
- Dennis Seuling