AMAD: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) I meet my old familiar enemy, death. I have fought him before, I have won often.
Published at: Sept. 3, 2008, 3:15 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Let me start out today’s column by saying that ISLE OF THE DEAD is a fucking scary movie. No, really. It’s not “oh, I can see how that was scary back in the day,” or “for it’s time, it was a horrifying picture.” No. At the end of the film, during the chilling climax I not only jumped at one scare, but there was a moment in a crypt that genuinely gave me the heebie jeebies.
And I don’t get scared during horror movies. Sure, I’ll jump at a cheap noisy stinger and I can appreciate real tension, atmosphere, gore, suspense, creature work… but it’s not very often a horror film draws me in and actually scares me.
The last time I can remember that was when I was sitting in a small theater during AFM with maybe 4 other people and the original JU-ON: THE GRUDGE played. That movie scared me. When the EXORCIST was re-released and Mercedes McCambridge’s voice was booming at me in surround sound, that movie scared me.
And this movie scared me. Got the goosebumps and shivers down to my core during the abovementioned crypt scene. The use of tension, sound design and shadows just really got to me.
Directed again by Val Lewton regular Mark Robson and starring the great Boris Karloff as General Pherides, a strict commander of the Greek army, ISLE OF THE DEAD really hit all the right notes for me and is my personal favorite of the box set so far.
Karloff is an army man, a mean old bastard of a General, who is entertaining an American reporter (Marc Cramer) during a war in the early 1900s. The troops are exhausted, having just fought a major battle and then having to clear the battlefield of the dead in order to keep the plague away.
Karloff ends up going to a small cemetery island off the coast of Greece to visit the tomb of his long-dead wife, the American reporter in tow. When they get there they find her tomb has been broken into, her body gone.
Upon investigation of matters, they stumble upon a small cabin which has a small gathering of different nationalities who crossed over to avoid the battle that just occurred. Maybe I missed it, but I’m not clear what this little abode is. I’m under the impression it’s owned by an archeologist who first appeared there to excavate some treasures and unwittingly encourages the locals to rob the tombs, destroying the bodies.
He explains to Karloff that is what happened to his wife’s grave.
The rest of the group includes a British couple and their youthful, hot helper (Ellen Drew), a Cockney gentleman and an old Greek woman (Helen Thimig), a superstitious lady who suspects one of the guests of the house to be the living embodiment of the Vorvolaka, an evil spirit that brings ill tidings and death with it.
Suddenly, the cockney man dies… thankfully. He was so over-the-top that if he had more than introductory dialogue scene (spewing out nonsense about trading in hidden artifacts for a good ol’ whiff of fish & chips, guvna, an’ jus’ a little glimpse of Whitechapel… wot-wot) he would have derailed the whole picture.
Karloff takes charge of the situation right away, stepping into his comfortable station in life… giving orders to those around him. He sends away for the Army doctor, who comes over and diagnoses the man having died of the plague.
From here on out everybody is quarantined on the island, Karloff insistent that nobody leaves to spread the plague to his army.
This is actually the perfect double feature with THE GHOST SHIP as we see a man in charge slowly begin to lose his sanity as those around him start dying and the crazy superstitious old lady fills his head with evil thoughts, playing to his heritage and making him believe in the Vorvolaka.
Actually, it struck me while watching that it was quite possible this was the kernel that stuck in Stephen King’s mind as he wrote THE MIST. We have old world superstition in place of extremist Christianity, but the same thing happens. A group of people are trapped, surrounded by death and the insanity of a single person infects others, causing normally rational people to go to extremes.
Karloff is great, of course. He takes a character who is at his core someone you can’t empathize with and makes him interesting, his turn towards insanity is tragic and yet somehow understandable. It’s a helluva performance. Not showy at all, very low-key, but he does a whole lot and he does it effortlessly.
Ernst Deutsch is perhaps my favorite of the side characters, playing the Army Doctor, Dr. Drossos. He makes a wager with Jason Robards Sr.’ archeologist character that his science will get them through this while Robards decides to pray to a Pagan God to appease them, apologize to the affront that is the Vorvolaka, even though he doesn’t believe in it at all. He just figures there’s as much chance of the old woman being right as there is of her being wrong.
Deutch plays the doctor with a sharp wit and humanity. The quote is from him, after he concedes that his science has lost the wager as he feels the first symptoms of the plague.
Also look out for Lewton regular Alan Napier (Alfred from the Batman TV show) as the husband to Katherine Emery’s Mary St. Aubyn. Emery is another stand-out, playing a woman with a terrible fear of being buried alive, suffering from a disease which causes her to feint and show almost zero signs of life. The second we know that about her we’re just waiting for the shoe to drop, getting more and more nervous as people start succumbing to the plague around her.
Final Thoughts: Sharp directing by Mark Robson, smart writing by Ardel Wray and a great lot of performances really make this work. This is by far the most effective of the Lewton movies I’ve seen, at least in terms of growing suspense and real scares. I was shocked to see how much this movie got to me. Maybe I was caught off guard not expecting it and others might be ready for it, but it really did hit me dead center. Karloff is the man and I can’t wait to follow him for a couple of flicks.