Isle of the Dead was the second horror film released by Val Lewton's RKO production unit in 1945, it was the first one started; it was beset by backstage difficulties, and The Body Snatcher was made during a gap in production as Isle's cast was impossible to gather back together. It was also the first Lewton film to see release after the end of World War II. Neither of these facts is incidental, though only the first one goes any way to explain something even more important than basic movie trivia: that the film is also the low ebb of the producer's genre pictures. I'm not certain if that's necessarily the conventional wisdom on the film or not, though I've always had the sense that it is; at any rate, nobody has ever gone out of their way to proclaim it one of his very best, and it is uniquely devoid of any point of real distinction on its own merits - which is not to say it lacks any merit, only that it is by and large the least interesting of the nine films that make up the Lewton horror cycle, doomed to perpetually be recalled alongside its eight siblings as an afterthough; the "oh, and that other one" of the Lewton Unit.
The film is set against the 1912 Balkan War in Greece; and let us pause for a moment to admire that even here, Lewton simply could not have things easy, because even separated by a mere 30 years and not a full century, it seems impossible to assume that a predominately American audience would know enough about the First Balkan War to make it so casually the backdrop for a horror movie. As I was saying, in Greece, in 1912, there is a certain General Pherides (Boris Karloff), a man of unmatched, unyielding patriotism, whose desire to weed out any and all Greeks who do not meet his standard of behavior can hardly be fathomed; but it is conceded even by those who trust him the least that he is motivated primarily by a desire to protect and preserve, no matter the cost.
One of those who don't entirely trust him is American journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), who plans on getting away from all the battle and psychotic generals for a little while by visiting a small island near the front lines (this island, when we see it in the form of a less-than-impressive matte painting, is directly based upon the Arnold Böcklin painting that gives the film its title). Pherides happens to know the island well - his wife is buried there - and he decides, in his peremptory, bullying way, to play tour guide for the American. The two of them find the island is the worse for wear after waves of grave robbers, hunting for antiquities, with Swiss archaeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.) holding court in what looks to be the island's sole habitable building, along with its owner, Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), an English couple by the name of St. Aubyn (Alan Napier and Katherine Emery), and Mrs. St. Aubyn's nurse, Thea (Ellen Drew) - for she is wasting away of the kind of disease you don't get better from, and the hugely superstitious Kyra is convinced that Thea is a vampire-like being called a vorvolakas. When the island's other refugee (Skelton Knaggs) dies of the same plague that has been ravaging the mainland, this merry situation turns into a locked room, for the island is immediately placed under quarantine, with the instantly-smitten Oliver siding with Thea against Kyra and Pherides, who harbors underneath his zealous, rationalistic shell the soul of a complete superstitious loon to even make Kyra look progressive, and he has political reasons to hate the young woman, as well.
My apologies for sort of dumping a plot synopsis in a big pile like that, but it's mostly unavoidable: Isle of the Dead has that kind of screenplay where almost everything that happens is one form of exposition or another, and this is part of the film's problem: event at just 71 minutes, it feels like its spinning its wheels for a long time in between Oliver and Pherides arriving on the island, and the eruption of what a modern viewer would probably call "actual" horror film elements slightly after the 50-minute mark. This space is filled up with talking: much about Pherides's cruelty, and about the nature of the vorvolakas - exposition that would be more useful if the film made even a slight feint towards a paranormal explanation for any of what happens - and a bit less about how the characters feel about the situation they've ended up in, suggesting something like a middle-tier Twilight Zone episode unaccountably tripled in length. Much of the film's narrative problems can probably be explained by its disjointed production - certainly, the about-face that Pherides makes about two-thirds through from cold realism to dazzled superstition, is almost certainly a relic of that shift.
It's the only time in any of Lewton's films where I truly regret the loss of Jacques Tourneur's direction: in a lot of ways, the moody, atmosphere-over-horror character drama elements of the film resemble I Walked with a Zombie most out of any previous Lewton production (the films share screenwriter Ardel Wray), and since that filmed relied to an inordinate degree on Tourneur's poetic style to make it such a great piece, and it's awfully easy to imagine the same thing working here. For the primary drama of Isle of the Dead lies in watching a group of mistrustful, scared people, waiting out a plague, and wondering what the hell is going on with the sick woman upstairs. That's a damned abstract thing to film, and it wants an abstract style; but the director on hand, Mark Robson (his fourth feature with Lewton, and third horror film) is at his best when he's not being abstract, at least not in that regard. He's powerless in the face of a shapeless middle act, and he draws attention to the unbearably cheap exterior sets - the worst-looking locations in any film of this cycle - without doing something interesting with their artifice, as I imagine in my consequence-free mind's eye that Tourneur would have done.
On the other hand, he makes the last 15 or 20 minutes really sing with black energy, along with cinematographer Jack MacKenzie (an RKO contractor with no real grounding in Nicholas Musuraca-style Gothic excess), with a handful of scenes that are black in ways that movies had ought not to be black, almost, and one particularly great moment in which Thea, trapped in a pitch black room with a woman she believes to be dead, hears Kyra's harsh, accusatory whispers through the door, and it is a moment of genuinely great psychological terror in a film that has to that point been almost as light on terror as on psychology.
The one thing that manages to salvage Isle of the Dead from being completely unmemorable - yes, "unmemorable" and not "bad", for there are no truly incompetent moments and it is too short to be overly boring - is, unsurprisingly Boris Karloff, whose second/first performance in a Lewton film is not at all so robust as he was in The Body Snatcher, though by behaving so much more "human"-sized, the monstrosity of his Pherides ends up being that much more chilling because it is not based in any of Karloff's more theatrical gestures. He even makes the abrupt shift in character seem perfectly natural if not inevitable, thereby saving the film from the one flaw that might truly have doomed its story. One single performance is not, maybe, enough to redeem an entire movie, but Karloff... well, he's Karloff, and he had the kind of presence that old horror movies thrived on. The rest of the cast is perfectly satisfactory - Drew particularly, making the musty romantic subplot seem actually worthy of our time - but Karloff alone pushes into another level: the frosty cruelty he carries with him every time he arrives onscreen is far and away the best thing Isle of the Dead has to offer, jolting the occasionally anemic mood of hopelessness that's meant to be around everything into high gear, and proving that even at their flimsiest, there's still no such thing as a worthless Val Lewton horror picture.
Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)