Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Written by Ardel Wray
Director Of Photography: Jack MacKenzie
Film Editor: Lyle Boyer
Music by Leigh Harline
Cast: Boris Karloff (Gen. Nikolas Pherides), Ellen Drew (Thea), Marc Cramer (Oliver Davis), Katherine Emery (Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn), Helene Thimig (Madame Kyra), Alan Napier (St. Aubyn), Jason Robards, Sr. (Albrecht), Ernst Deutsch (Dr. Drossos), Sherry Hall (Col. Kobestes), Erick Hanson (Officer), Skelton Knaggs (Andrew Robbins)
Producer Val Lewton made a number of artful horror movies at RKO, a string of creepy, wonderful classics that includes Cat People (1942), The Ghost Ship (1943) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943).
One was so artful, in fact, it was actually inspired by a painting, Arnold Böcklin’s Isle Of The Dead. The painting is pretty much recreated early in the 1945 Lewton film of the same name.
It’s the story of a group of people quarantined on a small island during the Balkan Wars of 1912 — Gen. Pherides (Boris Karloff) and Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) rowing to the island is where art imitates art (above). The plot, which gets a little complicated at time, touches on the plague, grave robbing, premature burial, madness and the dreaded vorvolaka. Like most of the Lewton pictures, it’s relentlessly creepy — with more overt horror/scary stuff towards the end, and the screens seems to drip atmosphere onto the floor.
Val Lewton was a novelist who wound up a producer. In the early 40s, he found himself in charge of a small unit at RKO, making horror films for $150,000 each. His psychological approach, preying upon our fear of the dark and the unknown, was both effective (the first, Cat People, grossed millions and helped save the studio) and cost-effective (little light, minimal sets and no monster makeup). Lewton believed it was better to suggest horror than to show it. Leaving RKO in 1946, he made films for Paramount and MGM, and considered starting an independent production company with two of his directors from RKO, Robert Wise and Mark Robson. It fell through. There was talk of an association with Stanley Kramer at Columbia. And there was a producing gig at Universal-International — which resulted in Apache Drums (1951), which turned out to be his last film.
Mark Robson started out as an editor, assisting Robert Wise on Citizen Kane (1941). It’s hard to believe that the Mark Robson who directed The Seventh Victim (1943) and Isle Of The Dead, tight little movies brimming with atmosphere and suspense, is the same Mark Robson responsible for the big, bloated Earthquake (1974), which is almost totally devoid of atmosphere and suspense. In between this film and the wretched Earthquake, he made some good stuff: Champion (1949), Roughshod (1949), The Harder They Fall (1956) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965), to name a few.
Boris Karloff is terrific in this. Production was interrupted by his back surgery, which might explain some of the plot confusion, but his performance is dead on. His curly hair gives him a really odd appearance, which along with the uniform, puts a new spin on the kind of tortured soul thing he does so well. The more time that goes by, and the more of his films I see again and again, just how great an actor Karloff was becomes more and more apparent.
Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray of Isle Of The Dead is really incredible. Coming from a 4K scan of original nitrate camera negative, it’s flawless. I can’t imagine it looking any better when it opened in 1945, and it’s a real pleasure to see Jack MacKenzie’s beautiful black and white look like this. We’re also treated to some nice extras — a commentary and an original trailer (with Spanish subtitles). The Lewton horror films are essential viewing, and since so much of their power comes from atmosphere, a high-def presentation like this is a huge leap forward. Essential.