Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Who's In It: Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Ellen Drew (The Mad Doctor, The Monster and the Girl), and Alan Napier (Batman).

What It's About: A ruthless general (Karloff) becomes increasingly suspicious that a young woman (Drew) on a quarantined island is a vampire-like creature.

How It Is: I need to see more of producer Val Lewton films. It's been years since I've seen The Body Snatcher, but Cat People is one of my favorite horror movies and I also enjoyed its less spooky sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. On of my favorite things about Cat People is something it shares in common with Isle of the Dead, so I'm curious to see if it pops up in more of Lewton's films.

Cat People and Isle of the Dead would make a great triple feature with Night of the Demon, which wasn't produced by Lewton, but was directed by sometimes Lewton collaborator Jacques Tourneur (who made Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man for Lewton, as well as the less frightening Tale of Two Cities). What Cat People, Night of the Demon, and Isle of the Dead really have in common though is the theme of skepticism vs belief. All three films have characters claiming that something supernatural is occurring while other characters disbelieve. But better than just that, all three movies also wait until the very end to reveal who's right.

In Isle of the Dead, Karloff is the skeptic. He's trapped on a quarantined island with a varied group of people that includes a British consul named St Aubyn (Napier), his wife, and the wife's paid companion Thea. There's also a superstitious housekeeper who sees how ill Mrs St Aubyn is, how vibrant Thea is, and concludes that Thea is a supernatural creature draining the life from her mistress. Karloff's General Pherides scoffs at first, but the more he observes, the more he becomes convinced that there may be something to the housekeeper's tale.

I won't reveal whether or not Thea actually is some sort of life-sucking demon, but it's not spoiling anything to say that since Isle of the Dead is coy about the revelation for most of its run time, it progresses more like a thriller than a horror story. There are a couple of levels of danger going on: the danger that Mrs St Aubyn is in if Thea is a monster, and the danger that Thea is in from Pherides if she isn't.

It's a cool set up and the script adds another layer by having these conversations about skepticism and belief spill over into discussions of religion. At the beginning of the movie, Pherides doesn't just laugh at the housekeeper's theories, he's also an atheist. But as the story progresses, his openness towards the idea of a life-sucking monster is also reflected in his softening about religion. That raises all kinds of interesting questions about the connection between faith and imagination. Isle of the Dead doesn't attempt to answer these deeper questions, but I love that it makes me think about them.

Rating: Four out of five obsessed officers.

1 comment:

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I guess I have this one mixed up with Bedlam, which is also stars Boris Karloff and is the only other Val Lewton film besides this that I haven't seen. So I may have to get back to you on that later.


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