The second of the three films Boris Karloff would do with producer Val Lewton was actually going to be the first. Isle of the Dead (1945) started its’ troubled production in July 1944 but was halted when Boris Karloff suffered a back injury. Karloff’s back problems date back to the original Frankenstein (1931) when he was forced to carry Colin Clive for hours while also wearing those heavy boots. This was the first real sign of the serious problems that would plague him throughout his career and would eventually leave him wheelchair bound.
The film was inspired by a painting entitled Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin. It appears behind the opening credits and would be a strong influence in the script written by Ardel Wray with the usual contributions from Val Lewton, who remains uncredited this time. The film is set during the Greek wars of 1912. This was an important part of Greek history and one of the very few attempts on film to recognize it.
Karloff plays General Pherides, a stern commander who orders one of his men to commit suicide in his very first scene. Along with an American reporter named Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), he travels to the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the general’s wife who had died many years earlier. Upon their arrival, they discover the graves have been robbed. They soon meet a group of individuals all displaced from the savages of war, waiting for a lull in the fighting so that they may return home. But they are soon warned by an old housekeeper that vorvolaka is there as well, an evil creature who sucks the life out of human beings. When a fear arises that septicemic plague is on the island after one of the guests dies, they are all quarantined until it runs its course. Is the vorvolaka real and will they survive until they can leave the island?
I first discovered this film on a summer afternoon in 1991. A local television station was airing movies in the late afternoon and many of them were from RKO Pictures. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere that is so typical of Lewton films but I must admit, it’s not one of my favorites. Perhaps it’s because the movie suffered an odd production and appears disjointed at times. After it was suspended to allow Karloff to have back surgery, Lewton went on to film The Body Snatcher while waiting with Karloff while waiting for the rest of the cast to reunite. The film was one of the most expensive Lewton ever made and, subsequently, barely turned a profit. I think Karloff gives a good performance here but not up to the level he did in The Body Snatcher nor his next film with Lewton, Bedlam (1946).
That said, Isle of the Dead is still entertaining and well worth a viewing. Catch the trailer and, if you’ve been smart and purchased the Val Lewton Collection, you already own the film.