Last night I watched Isle of the Dead: produced by Val Lewton, directed by Mark Robson, and starring Boris Karloff. YES PLEASE. Karloff is just terrific in whatever role directors find for him. He was phenomenal as a slimy divinity student in Five-Star Final and he’s fearsome here as a merciless Greek general.
The movie is set on a remote Greek island–cue Lewtonish classical allusions–whose inhabitants are menaced by either the septicemic plague, or the vampire-like Vorvolaka. The religion/myth vs. science themes don’t add much, and the actors who aren’t Karloff are fine but not outstanding. There are a few powerful images, like the battlefield draped with corpses at the beginning and the lovely graveclothes blowing in the wind at the end, but overall the imagery isn’t the movie’s strong point.
You know what is terrifying in this movie? The noises. Karloff’s voice is dark and insinuating, smoothly-oiled and ferociously grim. An old woman stays up at night hissing cruel imprecations through the walls. A woman shrieks when she realizes she’s been buried alive. (The visual here is terrifying, just the completely motionless coffin as we hear her beating on it and howling.) The night noises of the island. Even the movie’s very first act of violence takes place offscreen, marked by the sound of a gunshot.
This isn’t the first Lewton you should check out if you’ve never seen his work before. I’d suggest I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and The Leopard Man, probably in that order. But if you already know you love his death-enraptured vision, you already know you’ll love Isle of the Dead.
As Lewton and Robson headed for the door, [RKO executive] Holt spoke up. “Remember!” he said, pointing at Lewton. “No messages!”Lewton turned and left without a word, but by the time he got to his office he was furious. He had his secretary get Holt on the line. “I’m sorry, but we do have a message, Mr. Holt,” he bellowed into the phone. “And our message is that death is good!”