This review is part of the Boris Karloff Blogathon; fans are invited to survey the entire series of contributions here!
“Today, there is a crying need for a new…socially conscious novel to shake up the complacent public about the high risk of an imminent, serious pandemic. And I don’t mean the much-publicized swine flu. While the world media has obsessed, and rightfully so, about this fast-spreading illness, I’m worried about the next crisis, something much deadlier and more catastrophic, indeed the kind of crisis most people wrongly believe could not happen in this day and age. If I were the author, this urgently needed novel would have to be called Plague.” –Cook, Robin. “Plague: A New Thriller of the Coming Pandemic.” Foreign Policy Nov. 2009: 62-66
Wash your face and hands,
Rid me of the problem,
Do all that you can,
Keep me in a daydream,
Keep me goin’ strong,
You don’t wanna save me,
Sad is the soul
When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way,
—“Superstitious,” Stevie Wonder
With swine flu and religious extremism (sadly) popular topics of conversation at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, few Boris Karloff films are as topical as Isle of the Dead, his first collaboration with renowned writer/producer Val Lewton (though a delay in production caused it to be released after The Body Snatcher).
Set in 1912, this subtly chilling picture offers the perfect showcase for Karloff’s much-underrated range as an actor as he essays the role of General Nikolas Pherides, a morally rigid Greek soldier fighting in the First Balkan War. Forcing a disloyal comrade to commit suicide on the battlefield is the cold act that first bonds Pherides to American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), who first condemns him, and then apologizes for making an insulting comment about Pherides being willing to sacrifice his own wife, whom the reporter doesn’t realize is already dead.
Accepting the newsman’s offer to place flowers on his wife’s grave, Pherides leads Davis across the plague-infested Greek countryside to the island where the remains of Pherides’ wife lie. When the general discovers the tomb has been violated, he and Davis are about to return to camp when the hypnotic sound of a distant voice in strange song leads them to the home of gregarious archeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.) and his guests: married couple St. Alban (Alan Napier) and his sickly wife, Mary (Katharine Emery), who travel with Mary’s beautiful young caretaker, Thea (Ellen Drew); Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), a wildly superstitious older woman; and the eccentric Andrew Robbins (Skelton Knaggs)—who dies quickly and mysteriously soon after Pherides and Davis accept Albrecht’s offer to stay for the night.
Seeking the counsel of Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) because he fears the worst, Pherides quickly has his suspicions confirmed: septicemic plague has arrived on the island and claimed its first victim. Reeling from the shock, Albrecht’s houseguests announce their intentions to make themselves scarce, only to hear a stern, and repeated, command from Pherides:
“No one may leave the island.”
Madame Kyra pulls Pherides aside, and voices her suspicions that young Thea is, in fact, to blame for visiting death upon the house. She believes Thea to be a vorvolaka, a vampire-like creature of ancient folklore that, sans fangs, nevertheless sucks the life force out of victims through an unspecified macabre power.
The remainder of Isle of the Dead, skillfully directed by Mark Robson, plays out as a literate and unnerving tale of superstition and survival. We soon learn of Mary St. Alban’s terrifying spells of catalepsy—a condition rendering the sufferer rigidly paralyzed and desensitized to pain, leading to the possibility her coma-like state could be misconstrued as death—and thus her fear of being buried alive. As each member of the quarantined group fights to avoid the ravages of the plague, Karloff’s general slowly but surely becomes convinced that he may, indeed, be in the presence of a supernatural being—and like all of the general’s enemies, Thea eventually becomes a target to be snuffed out.
Consistently undervalued as a quality Lewton picture, often taking a backseat in esteem to the much more visibly admired The Body Snatcher (one of Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s most memorable pairings) and Bedlam (Karloff in a madhouse!), Isle of the Dead is nevertheless a haunting gem, brimming with nuanced performances from its gifted ensemble cast.
Of special note is Ernst Deutsch as Drossos, the physician whose stiff military discipline is unmasked in a genuinely disconcerting and moving conversation between him and Albrecht, a deeply skeptical man who has made a wager with Pherides to trust more in prayers to Olympian god Hermes than the powers of medicine. When Drossos realizes that he has, at last, been stricken, he faces his certain fate with melancholy bravery:
“I meet my old familiar enemy, death. I have fought him before. I have won often. Now, He wins.”
The real fireworks, of course, belong to Karloff, whose journey from sanity to madness is a marvel of discretion and raw force. Early on in the film, Karloff’s first encounter with Cramer affords the horror star once again the chance to demonstrate how quickly—and effectively—he can swing from the “dark” to the “light,” his icy sentence to a condemned underling sharply dovetailing into the gentle grace with which he forgives Cramer for invoking the name of his deceased wife. Karloff is a master at these steep, difficult shifts in tone, and it is these kinds of choices that set the viewer constantly on edge and make Pherides compellingly unpredictable.
At the same time, when he turns on the menace, Karloff has few (if any) peers. It’s perhaps not as well known as it should be how much great cinematic acting depends largely on the subtle (with his performance in The Mummy often hailed as a masterwork of minimalism), but in this picture, Karloff’s fall into desperate unreason has all of the intensity—and none of the histrionics—that makes for a timeless film performance.
Not just timeless, certainly, but timely. In the midst of a long and threatening crisis, the temptation to surrender one’s reason often takes a strong hold. Threats real and imagined grip this nation. Isle of the Dead is not a bad place to start to learn some valuable lessons about what weakens humanity, and how it takes nothing more than fear to create true horrors.