Tuesday, April 25, 2006

isle of the dead - review


Director – Mark Robson

Release date: 1945

Contains spoilers

“Isle of the Dead”, I have to admit, is one of my favourite movies. I remember seeing it as a kid, although for years I couldn’t remember the name of it, and being moved by it even then. Years on I rediscovered the movie and was just as impressed as I was as a child.

The movie is a vampire movie that does not contain a vampire; instead it concentrates on the peasant level superstition that blames the supernatural – in this case the vorvolaka – on natural disasters such as plague.

The movie begins in the tent of General Pherides (Boris Karloff), known to his troops as the Watchdog. He is having a tardy officer stripped of his rank. He passes the officer a gun and waits as the officer leaves and a shot is fired. All this is witnessed by Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), an American journalist. Pherides’ wife is buried on an island near-by and the General and Oliver cross through the battlefield to travel to her crypt. Davis wonders why the General has his exhausted men still working, so soon after the battle, and the General informs him that the dead must be buried. This is confirmed by Doctor Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) who tells Oliver that they have had cases of septicemic plague.

At the island, guarded by a statue of Cerberus, the General discovers that all the coffins in the crypt have been opened. They are going to leave when they hear singing. Following the singing they find the house of Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr) a Swiss archaeologist. He has several guests, sheltering on the island to avoid the fighting. There is Madam Kyra (Helen Thimig), the housekeeper. St Aubyn (Alan Napier) a British consul and his wife Mary (Katherine Emery). Mary’s maid Thea (Ellen Drew) and travelling salesman Robbins (Skelton Knaggs). The General is known by Thea and there is some tension there, but Oliver and the General eventually stay the night. Robbins seems drunk and staggers as he retires to bed, falling at Thea’s feet. Meanwhile the general is informed that the crypts were grave robbed for antiquities some 15 years earlier, but then Kyra says that the bodies had to be destroyed as one amongst them was evil.

In the morning Robbins is dead. The General sends for Drossos who confirms that it is the plague. The General quarantines the island and they will all have to stay there until the wind changes. Essentially the plague is carried by fleas and the warm sirocco winds will kill the flea population off in around 24 hours. Kyra has a different explanation, she believes that the plague is being caused by a vorvolaka and even knows who it is – Thea. Thea is young and healthy, whilst her mistress (who suffers from a debilitating illness) is pale and wan.

The vorvolaka is the vampire of the tale, though it is kind of a hybrid of the vampire and werewolf myths. It is the spirit of a wolf which inhabits a human host and, often astrally, drains the vitality of its victims. There is also some indication that it might feed on blood. Sometimes known as a vrykolakas there is a fantastic discourse on the creature here (EDIT 23/10/12, link removed as site gone).

As more and more victims succumb to the plague, rationality begins to be lost on the General. We discover that Mary suffers from catalepsy and she makes Drossos promise that he will not bury her until he is absolutely sure she is not in a trance. Unfortunately he is a victim of the plague and so when Mary falls into a trance she is buried alive. The wind changes but by then the General has contracted the plague and, in his delirium, he is told by Kyra that Mary will rise from her grave, the victim of a vorvolaka will become a vorvolaka. Of course, as she has been interned alive she does rise, but the time in her coffin has broken her mind.

The stand out scene, to me, is when Thea has locked herself in Mary’s room, after Mary has fallen into catalepsy. Unsure of what to do she stands vigil whilst Kyra taunts her through the door, accusing her of being the vorvolaka. The scene is heavy with atmosphere.

All the cast are excellent and the direction is top notch.

Incidentally one of the inspirations for the film was the picture “Isle of the Dead” by Böcklin (pictured). The painting is the background to the opening credits and the island in the film is designed to look much like that in the painting.

This film is one of the prime examples of how a film can be a vampire genre movie, without actually having a vampire in it. It is also one of the few (if any) movies that features the particular breed of vampire, the vorvolaka. It is also interesting that, as well as the characters relying on superstition as science seems to fail them (or at least not provide them with an immediate solution) they also turn to the old pagan Gods. Beyond anything else it is a great piece of cinema and I give it 10 out of 10 and recommend you try and watch it if you have never seen it.

The imdb page is here.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another great review.

I saw this movie for the first time about a month ago. I'm so thankful the Val Lewton Collection has been released on DVD!

Like you say, an excellent film. I've been watching all of the Lewton classics lately. Such an impressive filmography!

Mark said...

Oh, I didn't mean to be anonymous. It's me, Exclamation Mark.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Mark. Can't disagree with your comment! As I said in the review, one of my favourites.

Margaret said...

I've been thinking for a while about what I wanted to say about this film.

It is often difficult to be objective about films which are favorites, as you have mentioned before, and this is often compounded when a film was a favorite since childhood, as there is often a tendency to overlook the faults because of how much it has already endeared itself to the viewer. I know I have this problem when watching certain films. (I consider Fright Night to be almost above reproach due to this, but I am sure some people might find some of its more campy moments to be absurd.)

That being said, I personally would not have scored this film as highly as you, but I can understand why you did. Some of the dialogue and acting seemed a bit odd to me at the beginning of the film. This problem disappeared in the second half of the film though, and I have to say that the women in the film were all fantastic in their performances.

Even so, I am glad you have recommended this film so highly because I found it to be a fascinating sociological film and one of the most original vampire films I have ever seen. Everything is set up perfectly and plays out just as perfectly to create a story that could actually happen and suggests a possible scenario where spiritual fears could lead to the development of myth.

A really great film! Thanks for recommending it!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

My pleasure Margaret, I have actually introduced this to a couple of people now and am glad that it is getting a wider audience.

Not quite as realistic but the vampire panic aspect is why I like the vampire bat also - and Dwight Fry being manic, of course.

Margaret said...

Ah yes! The Vampire Bat was another one that you recommended that I was also pretty impressed with, although it didn't really have the sheer moments of horror that Isle of the Dead had, it did have that shared social hysteria aspect which I thoroughly enjoyed, and of course Dwight Fry as a manic is always enjoyable and made for an interesting red herring.

Another good film suggestion!