In the 1940’s, RKO Pictures enlisted B-movie producer Val Lewton to bulk up the studio’s output with low-cost, high quality thrillers that would more than make back their budgets at the box office. At the same time, tired of the typecast monster films that he was making for Universal, Boris Karloff signed a three picture deal with RKO and was assigned to Lewton’s unit. This synchronicity began an all too brief but amazing partnership between Lewton and Karloff that would produce three classic films, the first of which was 1945’s Isle of the Dead.
Boris Karloff was already an accomplished actor by the time he made Frankenstein in 1931, but the role of Frankenstein’s Monster literally defined his career. Karloff hoped that Isle of the Dead would give him a chance to get back to real acting.
Isle of the Dead is set on an island off the coast of Greece during the 1912 war. General Nikolas Pherides (Karloff), a by-the-book soldier whose men have nicknamed him “The Watchdog,” goes to the island, accompanied by an American journalist named Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer from The Canterville Ghost), to visit the grave of his dead wife. The pair arrives at the cemetery, only to find the gravesite vandalized. While searching for answers to the wanton destruction, they come across the residence of a Swiss archaeologist named Albrecht (Jason Robards from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) who has opened his home to a group of travelers who have been displaced by the war. While the general and reporter are there, one of the other guests comes down with the Septicemic Plague, and the rest of the travelers must be quarantined on the island to prevent the spread of the disease. As if that is not enough, an old peasant lady on the island named Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig) makes the accusation that one of the guests is a vorvolaka, a vampire-like beast from Greek legend. Not only do Pherides and Davis have to deal with the plague outbreak, they’ve got an alleged monster to battle.
Isle of the Dead was written by Ardel Wray, who worked with Lewton on I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, and directed by another longtime Lewton collaborator, Mark Robson (The Ghost Ship, The Seventh Victim). The script is as fresh as any good horror script, albeit a little slow and wordy in places. Towards the middle, the film feels longer than its 71 minute running time, but the ending picks up the pace and hurls the viewer towards its inevitable conclusion.
The surprise star of Isle of the Dead is Marc Cramer’s Oliver Davis. Cramer’s reporter is the perfect opposite to Karloff’s general. The two men get along well, but disagree on just about everything, so their exchanges give the viewer volumes of expositional background about both characters in an organic way. Cramer’s character is sympathetic and kind, while Karloff’s is stern and serious. There is great chemistry between the two actors, and their performances make otherwise wordy dialogue scenes not just watchable, but captivating.
Like with the rest of Lewton’s films, low budget does not mean low quality. The talented Robson makes the most of his resources by employing a “less is more” philosophy. Along with cinematographer Jack MacKenzie (who would go on to work on “Leave It to Beaver”), Robson uses sparse lighting and tight camera work to capture the isolation of the island and the helplessness of the characters. The separation from society coupled with the dual threat of the disease and the creature are the elements that make Isle of the Dead frightening. The film also contains one of the most subliminally terrifying sequences ever committed to celluloid, a claustrophobic scene involving one of the guests being entombed while still alive. The film does not come off as a low-budget B-movie, but instead looks like a well shot, well produced bigger budget movie.
Before Isle of the Dead was even finished, Lewton and Karloff would end up collaborating on the more well-known The Body Snatcher. The next year they would reunite with Robson to make Bedlam. RKO’s horror movie dream team only made three films together, but they got their start on the eerie Isle of the Dead.