Isle of the Dead was one of the last of Val Lewton’s films that were produced during the war period, which included The Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. The basic image of Isle of the Dead is inspired by the famous evocative painting by Arnold Böcklin. The story of this film has some philosophical affinities with I Walked With a Zombie, so it’s interesting to examine why it doesn’t quite measure up to the greatness of that previous film.
The story (a good review of which can be found here) is set during the 1913 Balkan war between Greece and Turkey, and it opens with a scene depicting the kill-or-be-killed brutality of war. Greek general Pherides (played by Boris Karloff, in one his finest performances) condemns to death an officer colleague who underperformed in a recent battle. An American war correspondent, Oliver Davis, who witnesses that scene begins a discussion with General Pherides that results in their joint intention to visit the grave of Pherides's wife on a nearby coastal island. During this sequence, we learn that the army is not only threatened by the enemy but also by the appearance of septicemic plague, which could cause massive casualties. Anyone who dies must be buried immediately in order to curtail the spread of the disease.
When they arrive on the isle, they meet a retired archeology professor, Albrecht, who is living in a house owned by a Greek woman, Madame Kyra, and served by a maid, Thea. Albrecht has offered shelter to three English foreigners seeking to escape the ravages of the war. Very soon one of these guests dies, and when General Pherides summons the military doctor, Dr. Drossos, he is informed that the guest has died from the plague. General Pherides, a man used to making tough decisions in wartime, decides to quarantine the island: in order to protect his troops on the mainland, nobody is permitted to leave the island. So the rest of the film is restricted to the fate of these seven people: General Pherides, Dr. Drossos, Oliver Davis, Madame Kyra, Thea, and the English diplomat, St. Aubyn, and his wife. Somewhat like Albert Camus’s The Plague, they all have their attitudes towards the threat of death.
Soon St Aubyn succumbs to the plague, and Madame Kyra, a woman steeped in superstitious beliefs of evil spirts, decides that Thea is possessed by the vampire-like evil demoness, Vorvolaka. General Pherides, a man guided by strict observance of the whatever laws are in force, dismisses Kyra’s old-wives tales as backward rubbish and out-of-tune with the modern world. Drossos, the doctor, has a firm belief in medical science, but knows that in the present circumstances, he is powerless. Albrecht is something of a pantheist and believes that preying to whatever god one might believe in will give some comfort. Mrs. St. Aubyn, Thea, and Davis are humanists, concerned with the welfare of the people around them and unwilling to submit to draconian schemes that are outside of their horizons.
As the plot unfolds further, we learn that Mrs. St. Aubyn suffers from a form of catalepsis that causes her to appear to be dead for perhaps as long as a day. She confesses this to Doctor Drossos, and tells him that she has always had a horrible fear of being buried alive. It comes as no surprise that Drossos soon succumbs to the plague, and when Mrs. St Aubyn later collapses, she is presumed to have died from the plague, too (but, of course, we suspect differently). So Mrs. St Aubyn is quickly entombed inside a stone casket in the ancient burial crypt.
Meanwhile Kyra has been working on General Pherides, insistently reminding him of her belief that Thea is Vorvolaka. Pherides is susceptible because of some earlier bad-feeling between himself and Thea over Thea’s dislike of his use of military force to solve all problems.
Although a warm sirocco now coming to the island means that it will kill off the plague-bearing fleas and put an end to the quarantine, Pherides cannot rejoice, because he feels the early plague symptoms and knows that his death is near. At the same time, we hear Mrs. St. Aubyn’s desperate screams from the crypt and know that she has awakened, but is still entombed. Meanwhile Davis, now amorously protective towards Thea, urges her to stay outside in the evening, away from Kyra’s accusations. As Thea approaches the crypt, she sees in the dark shadows Mrs. St. Aubyns, who has broken out of her casket and is now utterly mad. Mrs. St. Aubyns, in her deranged state, grabs an ancient trident relic and kills both Kyra and Pherides. She then runs away from her pursuers, towards a terrace cliff wall, where she jumps off the edge to her death.
It is interesting to compare Isle of the Dead with I Walked With a Zombie, since both films present conflicting world-views concerning life and death. Isle of the Dead, offers a clash between scientific beliefs and those of witchcraft, while I Walked With a Zombie depicts a similar clash between Western European thinking and Voodoo. In addition, both films feature brooding atmospheric and evocative black-and-white cinematography, in which characters move about in a shadow-laden interiors and exteriors. But I Walked With a Zombie is definitely superior in all respects, and here are a few areas in which Isle of the Dead is deficient:
- Although the mise-en-scene of both films is superb, Robson’s cinematic sequencing and editing in Isle of the Dead cannot measure up to Tourneur’s work in I Walked With a Zombie. Isle of the Dead has frequent mildly jarring straight-on-axis cuts to medium shots and close-ups. There are also a number of repetitive front-facing followed by back-view shots of people walking. This is somewhat surprising, given Robson’s role as film editor in I Walked With a Zombie.
- The plot structure in Isle of the Dead is not well motivated. Why would Mrs. Aubyn not inform others about her cataleptic tendencies after the death of Drossos, given the proclivity of people on the island to bury anyone who appears to be dead? How did she get out of that casket so quickly? Granted such an entombing experience might drive one mad, why did she suddenly become a homicidal maniac? Why does Thea wander over to the crypt when she was waiting outside the house? And the act of Mrs. Aubyn jumping off the terrace is a much too tidy way to finish off the loose ends.
- The island black people in I Walked With a Zombie are treated with some sympathy and depth, and their world-view is given some weight that balances that of the Western European view. In Isle of the Dead, on the other hand, the superstitious beliefs in the Greek demoness Vorvolaka seem absurdly backward. This reduces the tension between the two perspectives and deflates one’s interest.
- Despite the superb performance by Karloff, who manages to present the character of a fanatic autocrat with some degree of sympathy and believability, the performances of Jason Robards Sr. (as Albrecht) and Marc Cramer (as Oliver Davis) are completely unconvincing. Robards, who was an established stage-actor, is much too jovial and avuncular for the circumstances of this story. Cramer is so casual it's as if he has jumped into this film from another film set. It seems like everything is a joke to him.