I: Isle of the Dead (1945)

If you’ve been with me for any length of time (and why wouldn’t you be? I only vanish for months, sometimes years occasionally), you know I like to include at least one Karloff movie in Hubrisween. Here’s one I hadn’t seen, a Val Lewton movie I hadn’t seen, and most importantly, it starts with the letter I.

During the First Balkan War in 1912 (it seems that 2021 wants to school me in European conflicts glossed over by my World History classes), Karloff is General Pherides, so by-the-book that the movie opens with him overseeing the dishonorable discharge and execution-by-suicide of a commander for not getting his men to the battle quickly enough. Oliver (Marc Cramer), a war correspondent for the Boston Star, is shocked, but American, so he doesn’t really care.

The war has taken them near an island that houses a cemetery – in fact, where Pherides’ long-dead wife is entombed – and Pherides intends to visit his wife’s grave that night, Oliver tags along, eager to have something write about besides war and the septicemic plague stalking the Greek forces. Pherides is dismayed and angered to find his wife’s coffin – and others – smashed and the bodies missing. Seeking answers, the two men come upon a house owned by archeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.).

The desecration took place some years earlier, Albrecht tells them, and he blames himself; the locals knew he was paying top dollar for antiquities, and it was they who greedily disturbed the dead, searching for those antiquities. There are a number of refugees in his house, taking shelter from the recent battle; diplomat St Aubyn (Alan Napier), his wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her aide, the Greek girl Thea (Ellen Drew), and drunken marketeer Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).

But the person we’re going to have to watch is the housekeeper Kira (Elaine Thimig), an elderly woman who has become obsessed with the idea that Thea is a vorvolaka, a sort of vampiric evil spirit, because she is obviously young and healthy, while her employer daily grows weaker and paler. Kira tells the equally provincial Pherides of her suspicions, and he joins the rest of the household in tut-tutting this superstitious nonsense.

Well, it turns out Robbins was not just disagreeably drunk, he was suffering from -you guessed it – septicemic plague, and the entire household finds themselves quarantined on the island. The plague will claim one victim after another, while Pherides commands the quarantine the only way he knows how, through tyranny, even while Kira reawakens his beliefs in the Old Ways in her war against Thea.

Mrs. St Aubyn’s condition, you see, is catalepsy – the tendency to fall into a death-like trance. Now, you don’t suppose that will become important plot-wise, do you?

I’m going to give Isle of the Dead top marks for a different setting, different mythology, and giving Karloff curly hair. Past those, however, it is definitely a lesser entry in Lewton’s sterling run at RKO. Lewton and director Mark Robson made two movies inspired by art in 1945 – this one and the much better Bedlam, based on Burne Hogarth’s illustrations for A Rake’s Progress. Isle of the Dead is based on a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin, apparently very popular in European households in the early 20th century. Though Hogarth’s pictures were chaotic and presented numerous story hooks, Bocklin’s is more a mood piece, starkly melancholy yet beautiful.

Lewton and Robson try their usual set pieces – most notably lone women walking through dark spaces they shouldn’t – but the drama of the quarantined household becomes rather tedious and repetitive, committing the prime sin any movie should avoid: it gets boring.

Karloff is wonderful, as usual, managing to turn from menacing to apologetic at a moment’s notice; he was always able to find the human in the monsters he played. Jason Robards Sr. (yes, his father) is wonderfully kind and empathetic as Albrecht, a fine contrast to the driven Pherides. Ellen Drew is good as the prototypical Lewton tormented female protagonist, and I really loved Katherine Emery as the doomed Mary St Aubyn, especially since her roles usually cast her as a villain. Pity she didn’t do more movies.

So there are little gems to be found in the sullen morass that is Isle of the Dead. Your enjoyment of them may depend on your forbearance. But when has that never not been the case with movies?

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