I wandered away from the Val Lewton box set over the past weeks (well, I wandered away from watching films in general, but this in particular) and I'm not sure why, considering how pleased I was with all the ones I've seen so far. Still, it's what I did and that's that. I decided to try and finish it off soon, so I grabbed one of the discs I had once purchased outside the set (but subsequently returned on discovering a film exclusive to the set) and just started it up, knowing that as per usual Lewton's films ran shy of even an hour and a half (occasionally just over an hour, usually around 70 minutes) and decided that it would be quick enough to get through even if it wasn't engaging. Somehow, I forget how charismatic its star is though–Boris Karloff. Unfortunately, Karloff is primarily known for Universal's monsters–The Mummy in 1932 and Frankenstein in 1931, the latter especially, while a fine performance, is awfully limited in terms of what skill Karloff can show–a role that would reflect his range if it were remembered alongside ones like the one in this film.
Alas, my extreme appreciation of this film was soured, not by itself, nor trivia behind it, but by the news that apparently RKO (I suppose getting reduced returns on "their" films after losing control of the library, except as regards sequels, remakes, etc) has decided to remake this film. Admittedly, I liked Paul Schrader's 1982 remake of Cat People, but I fear any modern horror remake will show that same loss of subtlety and ambiguity–but without that bloody-minded sensibility that instead pushes things to down-and-dirty horror violence, instead inserting cheap (or expensive, but cheap-looking) CGI shots of fluttering ghostly images and sledgehammer jump scares based around flash-cutting and musical stings. I'm trying to learn to reserve judgment on these things (though most recently I've not been rewarded for this). Anyway, before I derail myself on that side passion (a hatred of burying originals behind inferior remakes that fail to bring anything new to the table), let me instead address the movie actually at issue.
Like the other RKO films produced by Val Lewton, Isle of the Dead is misleadingly titled and was misleadingly marketed: Lewton always took titles given and twisted them into films that were usually at least creepy if not outright scary, thus fulfilling the horror requirements, but managing to remove any concrete ideas of the supernatural and injecting them with real pathos and realistic plotting, characters and dialogue–or at least these three things in a form that bore less resemblance to B-pictures and more to A-pictures. General Nikolas "The Watchdog" Pherides (Karloff) is a Greek general in the First Balkan War in 1912, first shown taking a hard-nosed approach to the commander of lagging troops–he hands him a gun, nods and sends him outside the tent he met him in, leading to a distant gunshot. Not the stuff of a particularly sympathetic protagonist, but, as always, we find our feelings more grey by the end of the film. Bostonian journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) is not particularly a fan of the General's methods, but is interviewing him for his paper–in the process suggesting that he believes Pherides would sacrifice wife and child for Greece, discovering his social faux pas when Pherides mentions the death of his wife, and decides to visit her grave, bringing Davis along with him. Here we find the titular island of "the dead"–a cemetery island, where his wife is entombed. They find her body missing, the trail leading them back to Swiss archaeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr., father of the more famous "Jason Robards"–technically "Junior") and his staff and guests–British Counsel St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his invalid wife (Katherine Emery), her assistant Thea (Ellen Drew), Avery Robbins (Skelton Knaggs, who narrated the earlier Lewton-produced, Robson-directed The Ghost Ship), and his housekeeper Kyra (Helen Thimig). When Robbins complains of feeling ill and collapses, dying shortly, they call in Dr. Drossos (Ernest Dorian) to determine the cause. He confirms their worst fears–septicemic plague. The General immediately quarantines the island, but is now subject to the unavoidable suspicions of superstitious local–and fellow–Greek Kyra that the real cause of their troubles is a vorvolakas, a being similar to a vampire or succubus that saps the strengths of others–and she's convinced the vorvolakas is none other than Thea.
As per usual, Lewton's crew, here headed by director Mark Robson, who already directed The Ghost Ship and The 7th Victim for Lewton, and writer Ardel Wray who worked with Lewton on the prior screenplays for The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie, manages to come down on not only avoiding the supernatural, but in fact using the unfounded fear of it to promote terror. Factions form, but not in the barely contained fear and arrogance of Romero's Night of the Living Dead, but rather on calmer, more restrained lines–Albrecht sarcastically prays to Hermes while the relentlessly pragmatic General takes up with Drossos' science and medicine. Kyra clings tenaciously to her superstition about evil spirits, and Davis resigns himself to the seeming inevitability of death. The General's commanding nature leaves him most at a loss, though, when even Drosses winds up taking ill, as he has no definitive basis for his views other than experience, and when that dries up with Drossos, he leaps around to find some rock with which he can take up his fight with death, in contrast to the resigned nature of the rest of the characters. He begins to believe Kyra may be right, even. In all of this we begin to see something of the General as a human being rather than just a cold, ruthless commander. He fears death almost more than those around him, yet at the same time wishes even more to protect them–earning his nickname quite rightfully, even if his methods and logic are questionable. The extreme fear Kyra begins to show when she fears that Thea has finally claimed her mistress' life and in the process created yet another vorvolakas is almost palpable, leading to a grudging respect of her reasons for her beliefs–mortal fear.
I'm not someone easily scared by film anymore–in my extreme youth nearly anything would scare me out of my wits, but these days it takes a good creep to really get under my skin (disturbing is another matter, and oddly less difficult, though still relatively so). This film manages it. I imagine it is only with an eye 65 years experientially (if, obviously, limited in the scope and coverage of those years) the senior of this movie that I heard Mrs. St. Aubyn speak of cataleptic fits–when first brought up, it would seem a ludicrous explanation, but for the cleverly written screenplay that makes it clear this is a desperate attempt by a wife to cling to the though of her husband's survival based on esoteric knowledge–and her admittance of suffering them, that I began to knowingly dread exactly what she feared: premature burial. I don't think it's ruinous to anyone in the modern age who gets to that point in the film to know that that cannot come up without being later relevant. Of course, perhaps Lewton simply wants to instill that primal fear of asphyxiation and paralysis when she finds herself in a coffin–but the image is absolutely chilling and induces a crawling-skin that was not easy to shake off, kicking the entire film into overdrive on such factors, the brilliant composition managing to perfectly emulate the fleeting shapes in the dark anyone remotely nichtophobic is familiar with.
It's quite a loss how forgotten Lewton's films are by the public at large, but even then a loss that this one tends to be lesser thought of, or even known, even amongst those familiar with him. I am extremely pleased with anyone film that can successfully give me the heeby-jeebies, and one that stars the wonderful Boris Karloff, in one of his great performances (and with a nice head of strange curly grey hair, no less!) can only near perfection. Give this a shot if it ever wanders near you.