Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: ‘Isle of the Dead’ (1945)

Isle of the Dead was the last psychological horror film Val Lewton produced for RKO (Bedlam was more macabre period piece than pure horror). The film displays Lewton’s weakest and strongest tendencies bolder than any of his earlier pictures. Boris Karloff stars as General Nikolas Pherides, a wicked officer who sojourns on a spooky Greek isle to visit his wife’s grave. At an inn on the isle, he discovers another guest has died of what he believes to be the plague and enforces quarantine. A superstitious woman, however, accuses a pretty sleepwalker of not only being the killer but a mythical vampiric creature called a vovolakas.

Anyone who has seen a Lewton movie will suss that Isle of the Dead isn’t going to play out like the typical supernatural horror film. The opening hour of the film draws its chills not from fangy monsters but from Pherides’s cruelty and the slowly building tension of his prisoners. As is often Lewton’s way, this portion of the film also suffers from its somnolence. Fortunately, director Mark Robson also delivers what may be his most genuinely frightening sequence in a Lewton production when one of the victims rises from her coffin for a last-minute vengeance spree. This finale is a mini- masterpiece of ghostly eeriness, dense shadows, and surprisingly explicit violence for a Lewton film. Feel free to let your mind wander during that opening hour, but be sure to set your alarm clock to goose you awake in time for the last ten minutes of Isle of the Dead.

Read more about Val Lewton in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies Part 3: The 1940s next week...
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