AMAD: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
I meet my old familiar enemy, death. I have fought him before, I have won often.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Let me start out today’s column by saying that ISLE OF THE DEAD is a fucking scary movie. No, really. It’s not “oh, I can see how that was scary back in the day,” or “for it’s time, it was a horrifying picture.” No. At the end of the film, during the chilling climax I not only jumped at one scare, but there was a moment in a crypt that genuinely gave me the heebie jeebies.
And I don’t get scared during horror movies. Sure, I’ll jump at a cheap noisy stinger and I can appreciate real tension, atmosphere, gore, suspense, creature work… but it’s not very often a horror film draws me in and actually scares me.
The last time I can remember that was when I was sitting in a small theater during AFM with maybe 4 other people and the original JU-ON: THE GRUDGE played. That movie scared me. When the EXORCIST was re-released and Mercedes McCambridge’s voice was booming at me in surround sound, that movie scared me.
And this movie scared me. Got the goosebumps and shivers down to my core during the abovementioned crypt scene. The use of tension, sound design and shadows just really got to me.
Directed again by Val Lewton regular Mark Robson and starring the great Boris Karloff as General Pherides, a strict commander of the Greek army, ISLE OF THE DEAD really hit all the right notes for me and is my personal favorite of the box set so far.
Karloff is an army man, a mean old bastard of a General, who is entertaining an American reporter (Marc Cramer) during a war in the early 1900s. The troops are exhausted, having just fought a major battle and then having to clear the battlefield of the dead in order to keep the plague away.
Karloff ends up going to a small cemetery island off the coast of Greece to visit the tomb of his long-dead wife, the American reporter in tow. When they get there they find her tomb has been broken into, her body gone.
Upon investigation of matters, they stumble upon a small cabin which has a small gathering of different nationalities who crossed over to avoid the battle that just occurred. Maybe I missed it, but I’m not clear what this little abode is. I’m under the impression it’s owned by an archeologist who first appeared there to excavate some treasures and unwittingly encourages the locals to rob the tombs, destroying the bodies.
He explains to Karloff that is what happened to his wife’s grave.
The rest of the group includes a British couple and their youthful, hot helper (Ellen Drew), a Cockney gentleman and an old Greek woman (Helen Thimig), a superstitious lady who suspects one of the guests of the house to be the living embodiment of the Vorvolaka, an evil spirit that brings ill tidings and death with it.
Suddenly, the cockney man dies… thankfully. He was so over-the-top that if he had more than introductory dialogue scene (spewing out nonsense about trading in hidden artifacts for a good ol’ whiff of fish & chips, guvna, an’ jus’ a little glimpse of Whitechapel… wot-wot) he would have derailed the whole picture.
Karloff takes charge of the situation right away, stepping into his comfortable station in life… giving orders to those around him. He sends away for the Army doctor, who comes over and diagnoses the man having died of the plague.
From here on out everybody is quarantined on the island, Karloff insistent that nobody leaves to spread the plague to his army.
This is actually the perfect double feature with THE GHOST SHIP as we see a man in charge slowly begin to lose his sanity as those around him start dying and the crazy superstitious old lady fills his head with evil thoughts, playing to his heritage and making him believe in the Vorvolaka.
Actually, it struck me while watching that it was quite possible this was the kernel that stuck in Stephen King’s mind as he wrote THE MIST. We have old world superstition in place of extremist Christianity, but the same thing happens. A group of people are trapped, surrounded by death and the insanity of a single person infects others, causing normally rational people to go to extremes.
Karloff is great, of course. He takes a character who is at his core someone you can’t empathize with and makes him interesting, his turn towards insanity is tragic and yet somehow understandable. It’s a helluva performance. Not showy at all, very low-key, but he does a whole lot and he does it effortlessly.
Ernst Deutsch is perhaps my favorite of the side characters, playing the Army Doctor, Dr. Drossos. He makes a wager with Jason Robards Sr.’ archeologist character that his science will get them through this while Robards decides to pray to a Pagan God to appease them, apologize to the affront that is the Vorvolaka, even though he doesn’t believe in it at all. He just figures there’s as much chance of the old woman being right as there is of her being wrong.
Deutch plays the doctor with a sharp wit and humanity. The quote is from him, after he concedes that his science has lost the wager as he feels the first symptoms of the plague.
Also look out for Lewton regular Alan Napier (Alfred from the Batman TV show) as the husband to Katherine Emery’s Mary St. Aubyn. Emery is another stand-out, playing a woman with a terrible fear of being buried alive, suffering from a disease which causes her to feint and show almost zero signs of life. The second we know that about her we’re just waiting for the shoe to drop, getting more and more nervous as people start succumbing to the plague around her.
Final Thoughts: Sharp directing by Mark Robson, smart writing by Ardel Wray and a great lot of performances really make this work. This is by far the most effective of the Lewton movies I’ve seen, at least in terms of growing suspense and real scares. I was shocked to see how much this movie got to me. Maybe I was caught off guard not expecting it and others might be ready for it, but it really did hit me dead center. Karloff is the man and I can’t wait to follow him for a couple of flicks.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Wednesday, September 3rd: BEDLAM (1946)
Thursday, September 4th: BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Friday, September 5th: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Saturday, September 6th: TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (1972)
Sunday, September 7th: TRAGIC CEREMONY (1972)
Monday, September 8th: LISA AND THE DEVIL (1976)
Tuesday, September 9th: BARON BLOOD (1972)
Tomorrow is more Lewton, Robson and Karloff with BEDLAM! See you folks then!
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Sept. 2, 2008, 11:44 p.m. CST
Sept. 2, 2008, 11:50 p.m. CST
This is THE Val Lewton film . It hits all the right notes has great performances ... I would love to watch a double feature of this and White Zombie in an old theater on Halloween night ! Just great atmosphere!!
Sept. 2, 2008, 11:50 p.m. CST
Really...not if you paid me.
Sept. 2, 2008, 11:51 p.m. CST
Oh yes, that final sequence when (SPOILER) the wife escapes from the coffin and stalks the others on the island is as scary and suspenseful piece of filmmaking as you will ever see. A brief glimpse a white dress, a rustling of branches, a distant moan or footstep - very scary. And without any music or score! Just natural (or should I say expressionistic) sound to induce chills. The rest of the movie is flawed, yes, but the end is nightmare inducing.
Sept. 2, 2008, 11:53 p.m. CST
I disagree with you about this being THE Val Lewton film (for me that honor belongs to Cat People or The Leopard Man) but I am glad you brought up White Zombie. That is definitely one that Quint should add to his October list.
Sept. 2, 2008, 11:56 p.m. CST
by The Eskimo
...not really. It scared me too. So did The Ring. Anyone who says differently was sitting in the theater staring just away from the screen at the emergency exit sign the whole time so his friends (date, maybe, doubtit) wouldn't see him jump at the scary parts...and then left saying loudly "that movie wasn't scary." I know this person. Well.
Sept. 3, 2008, 12:44 a.m. CST
by The Eskimo
Sept. 3, 2008, 1:27 a.m. CST
I don't think you got what Quint said. He saw the movie before there was a whisper about it. Nobody had seen a trailer, there was no Asian DVD to import. He saw it before Dreamworks bought it. And he saw it in a room with 4 people - none of whom knew what they were watching. - That's the same way I saw THE EYE - and it fucking froze my blood - at one point I swear something came off the screen and went through me. Of course that was 2 years before it came to the U.S.'s dvd market. Amazing.
Sept. 3, 2008, 1:28 a.m. CST
by wuher da brewer
They're both quite good. Will you be getting to them? Bedlam has kind of an Arkham Asylum feel. I've enjoyed your Lewton reviews. I'm not a big fan of Seventh Victim though.
Sept. 3, 2008, 3:05 a.m. CST
At that screening, the theater was pitch black. I don't even remember seeing exit signs, the sound was loud and I was completely in the movie. This was before Asian horror saturated the genre. And make sure you know I'm not talking about the iffy US remake, but the original film, which still gets my skin crawling... the sound she makes, the way she broken-bones crawls, the inescapable finality once you've gotten her attention... I hold the original Ju-On is one of the best haunted house movies in the genre, not to mention one of the best genre pictures of the last decade or two. Maybe not THE best, but damn it worked for me.
Sept. 3, 2008, 4:17 a.m. CST
It’s interesting how similar this is to The Ghost Ship. Unstable commanders with diminishing abilities take actions with life and death consequences. Boris Karloff isn’t quite as mad as Richard Dix, but the line between fantasy and reality crumbles nonetheless. I wonder if Mark Robson and Val Lewton were commenting on the inherent fascism of the World War II machine at the time. We were on the right side of the war, but atrocities like the Japanese interment camps happened here at home. Abuse of power seems forefront in their minds. It’s another illustration of the horror genre’s ability to comment on current events without ruffling most people’s feathers. The story doesn’t have the clean narrative lines of The Ghost Ship, but I still think it’s quite good. The psychological defects of Karloff aren’t as clearly explained as Dix’s, but I wonder if they might be clearer on a second viewing. The exploration of science versus superstition is interesting. What will people revert to when death looms? The draping of spooky superstitious language and stories is impressive. Helen Thimig excels as the old woman. There’s also a microcosm aspect to the events like in The Ghost Ship. The folks facing death on the island stand in for all of us. Like in these other Lewtons there’s a square hero type who irks a little. I guess they need somebody the audience can unquestionably root for. The climatic sequences are quite tense with some fantastic cinematography. The first scene with Karloff’s silent order is terrific. Much like Dix, a lot of what Karloff says is reasonable, which makes his fall tragic. Overall though it didn’t grab like The Ghost Ship, but I’d like to revisit Isle of the Dead again.
Sept. 3, 2008, 4:26 a.m. CST
ISLE OF THE DEAD marks the 3 month anniversary of A Movie A Day! I love you, sweetheart! Maybe one of these days I'll pop the question.
Sept. 3, 2008, 4:29 a.m. CST
LOL Congrats on 3 months! But will you pop something else of hers? Yes, my mind is very dirty.
Sept. 3, 2008, 4:29 a.m. CST
The original screenplay for this movie turned up online, and I have to say that it is a vastly richer and more satisfying film than what they made. In fact you could almost just take that script and make it today, without the obvious budgetary and running time restrictions Lewton so brilliantly worked with.
Sept. 3, 2008, 5:05 a.m. CST
For me it's probably Cat People then Isle of the Dead. Although Isle of the Dead is more my kind of film, I find Cat People a lot more memorable. Good luck with Bedlam - I can't remember much about that one - it's kind of merged with The Flesh and the Fiends in my head.
Sept. 3, 2008, 8:59 a.m. CST
by the beef
I may be a little off on this, but after I watched all of the Lewton flicks and then a few more non-Universal monster Karloff pictures I noticed a lot of similarities between Karloff and Jeremy Irons. I watched the JU-ON television mini-series at a friend's house (which we rented from Pedazo Chunk)a few Halloweens ago, and I had issues driving home that night.
Sept. 3, 2008, 9:17 a.m. CST
by Nasty In The Pasty
"Karloff is not fit enough to SMELL my SHIT!"
Sept. 3, 2008, 10:12 a.m. CST
After "I Walked with a Zombie", this is my favorite Lewton film. Both films, at least in my opinion, are able to create a world that's at once believable and dream-like. The black & white cinematography, the sound design, the performances, they all work to draw you in. When I think about "Isle of the Dead", I think about the scene that really creeped me out, which was the scene in the tomb: the quiet, the dripping water, and then the sound of fingers clawing at the inside of a coffin. Still creeps me out. The performances are pretty high calibre with, as Quint noted, the exception of the cockney merchant, who is straight out of central casting. Fortunately he gets about four lines before he's tits up dead. Karloff is terrific and contrary to Quint's review, I thought he was a very sympathetic character - a guy who's had a hard life, dealt with war and loss, and made a lot of hard decisions. And even when he slips into insanity, he's still trying to do what he perceives as his duty to save lives. So yeah, pretty sympathetic to me. The guy playing Dr. Drososs was also excellent, and I liked the archeologist. But, as one would expect in a Lewton film, the women really steal the show and have the most dynamic roles. The old woman, the wife, and the servant girl, they're really the catalysts for everything that happens. And they're all very good, especially the wife, who is a pretty nervy broad for standing up so forcefully to Karloff's character. And when she goes completely off the rails after being buried alive, and becomes this homicidal white phantom floating through the climax of the picture, she's really scary. So "Isle of the Dead" really works for me. I have probably seen it a dozen times now and I just enjoy going back to it. The painting, called "Isle of the Dead", that gave rise to the title of the film, appears in the nurse's bedroom in "I Walked with a Zombie", and I also have it hanging over my bed. That's how much I liked these Lewton films. But I'm afraid "Bedlam" is going to be a letdown for you, Quint. It was the last Lewton horror picture at RKO and its not the strongest Lewton film, or even the best one with Karloff. "The Body Snatcher" is much more satisfying.
Sept. 3, 2008, 10:17 a.m. CST
As long as we are talking Karloff, I am going to throw out the suggestion again that Quint should review "Targets". If you haven't seen it, is a damn good movie. One of my favorite Karloff flicks (along with "Mad Monster Party?")
Sept. 3, 2008, 12:34 p.m. CST
Sept. 3, 2008, 1:06 p.m. CST
by Napoleon Park
I watched the House double feature last night and seeing those shots of Karloff not in monster make-up makes me see a remarkable resemblance. In a couple of years, after House runs it's course, Hugh Laurie should look into starring in a Karloff biography. Plus, he'd get to wear the Frankenstein's monster and Mummy make-up. Tim Burton could direct.
Sept. 3, 2008, 2:25 p.m. CST
I love Targets... was introduced to that one years ago by the Alamo Drafthouse, with Peter Bogdanovich in attendance no less. Karloff is awesome in that movie... that shot of him determined to get to the shooter at the drive-in at the end is burned into my brain. <BR><BR>WriteFromLeft - That's a good one!
Sept. 3, 2008, 2:30 p.m. CST
Seriously - watch Night of the Demon! Watch it!
Sept. 3, 2008, 2:35 p.m. CST
Would watch it whenever it was on. In the days before home video us kids were slaves to local programming. Upside was we saw a lot of stuff we wouldn't have watched otherwise if given a choice; downside was we would wait years to see something again.
Sept. 3, 2008, 3:37 p.m. CST
by tobias funke
Apparently it scared the crap of Scorsese when he was younger too.
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