One of the later films from the canon of RKO Radio pictures B-unit producer, Val Lewton, Isle of the Dead takes the mechanics of a period gothic horror film and sandwiches them into a melodrama and a mediation on the relationship between science and superstition.
Lewton knew how to craft effective horror pictures for very little cash. While employed at RKO, his pictures had to meet two requirements; a budget of under $150,000, and a running time of 75 minutes or less.
75 minutes being the operative length for a typical B-picture on a typical (of the era) double feature. With these constraints in hand, Lewton's earlier work paired him with such directors as Jaques Tourneur, and later a very young Robert Wise, and Mark Robson. Tourneur's effective use of shadows and light, staging, and moving shots helped elevate the budgetary restrained works to, at the very least, A-picture visual quality. While RKO Radio Pictures had a small stable of actors to choose from, Lewton managed to match his available talent to the material well. And, he always managed to shoot an extremely well written script, often made more evident when the right cast who performed it.
Nowhere is this commitment to detail more evident than with his three-film run with Boris Karloff. The star of 1931's Frankenstein's star was still on the rise in 1945 when he contracted for three pictures under Lewton's guidance. But he was often typecast as barely speaking monster roles that played off his success as Frankenstein's monster (in its sequels) and The Mummy. However, Karloff would prove himself a formidable dramatic actor as well, and the three pictures he shot with Val Lewton behind the development are a testament to that.
By the time Lewton had moved into his later period at RKO, the budgetary restraints eased some and, while not blockbuster money even then, Isle of the Dead came in around $250,000.
Isle of the Dead was meant to be the first of the three films, but Karloff's back surgery postponed production. During recovery the crew and a new cast made the best known of these films, The Body Snatcher, based on a Robert Lewis Stevenson fictionalization of a real graverobbing trial from Scotland, the film puts Karloff in the unenviable position of Resurrection Man John Gray to the always harried Dr. "Toddy" McFarlane.
Much like his scene stealing role as the jolly but murderous John Gray, he would take on a more complex character as General Nikolas Pherides, a leader of the Greek army engaged in a war with the Ottoman Turks. Interestingly, but not overplayed here, is that 1912 is right about the threshold where warfare ceases to be a 19th century affair and becomes a wholesale industrial slaughter with the opening of World War 1, not ironically, in The Balkans, the same general region where out films takes place.
We are introduced to General Pherides when he deals with the failure of a battalion commander to reach the battlefield on time for the battle. Whether the army won the day or not is irrelevant (they won). Pherides cannot abide failure and places his revolver down for the man to take. No one comments when the battalion commander exits the tent and shoots commits suicide.
Traveling with the command staff is a reporter from the Boston Star, Oliver Davis, covering the war for the folks back home. He wants to get inside the mind of a man who could, but mere suggestion, get a military man to take his own life to account for his failure in leadership. Pherides is a pragmatist, a statist too, who recognizes his position as an appendage of the ruling government and enforcer of their laws. His philosophy is elegant to the point of simplicity: protect Greece. His reputation is such that he's earned the nickname The Watchdog. However, his past campaigns have led to hard feelings between some of the peasantry and him. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities with the Turks, Greece suffered from small peasant rebellions over increasingly regressive taxation.
Davis notices that the men are clearing the bodies immediately from the battlefield and asks why they can't be allowed to rest until morning as they were force marched here, then fought off the Turks. Pherides explains that there has been an outbreak of Septic Plague and that the bodies have to be removed immediately or the danger of a rampant outbreak cannot be estimated.
They battle happens to take place near the small island where Pherides' wife and daughter were interred after they succumbed to a past outbreak of the same plague. The general would like to lay flowers at their crypt and allows Davis to tag along. Upon reaching the isle he learns that the crypt has been ransacked and the bodies of his wife and daughter are gone.
The cause of this grave robbing is the Swiss archaeologist Albrecht, who published papers about his archaeological finds in the ancient island cemetery and that create a market for antiquities. The side effect of this boom was the desecration of several hundred modern graves. As a penance, perhaps, he's chosen to live on the small island with an old peasant woman, Madame Kyra, and act as a caretaker. He's also taken up the ancient religion of the Greeks.
Staying in the small home within the cemetery are an English couple, the St. Albans, and Thea, a local peasant girl employed as Mrs. St. Alban's caretaker and nurse. Finally, another Englishman, a man who travels in tin kitchen ware. Oliver convinces Pherides to stay the night in the comfy home, and by the next morning one of the guests has died of plague.
Now, quarantined with the medical doctor (brought over to confirm the plague death), the cast must try to stay alive until a change in the wind brings hot air sufficient to kill the fleas that carry the disease and end the quarantine. Meanwhile, the peasants have their own understanding of the plague, an angry evil spirit known as a Vorvolaka is loose on the island and no one and nothing can stop her. Wrestling with his own past is Karloff who tries to protect all of them in quarantine from the ravages of the plague, and ignorance, and superstition.
Sounds like a hell of a lot for a 75 minute movie doesn't it? And it is! But one of the strengths of Val Lewton's films was the way he structured the dialogue to carry the plot along. In many cases the violence and horror of the story is not captured in some fleeting image of a ghostly woman in gossamer white, but through the conversations of the main characters as they duel for position among the plot elements.
These films are a fascinating look at storytelling and the film medium and the effective use of cast to drive a horror picture where most of the horror takes place in the minds of the viewer.
Turner Home Entertainment has thus one bundled with Bedlam, the third of the Lewton/Karloff films on a single DVD. The film looks great and features English, Spanish, and French subtitles. The most special feature on these disks is Boris Karloff's acting. He really is amazing to see in his prime. Amazon lists this thing for under seven bucks new! That's freaking peanuts for a movie this good, and Bedlam, the other gem on this double DVD, is just as great as Isle of the Dead.