ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) B/W 72m dir: Mark Robson
w/Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Alan Napier, Katherine Emery, Helene Thimig, Jason Robards Sr., Ernst Dorian
A Greek general on a small island is enmeshed with vampires and witchcraft. Eerie thriller has some good effects.
From Joel Siegel's book on Lewton's production unit, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror :
"Isle of the Dead is not Lewton's worst RKO production but it is probably his most confused and surely his most disappointing. A study of the behaviour of a group of people stranded on a Greek island and threatened by plague, it is potentially a great Lewton subject. One might expect an equally bleak and even more abstract The Seventh Victim , but no such luck. After an hour of tiresome exposition, the film comes to life for a premature burial sequence, only to collapse again into a series of oddly unaffecting, conventional horror movie murders. Isle of the Dead is so ineffective, so lacking in Lewton's customary complexity and finish that one is forced to conclude that something went wrong with the film, something beyond the producer's control.
"A reading of the screenplay pinpoints the problem. The shooting script, which carries a credit to Josef Mischel as well as Ardel Wray, has very little to do with the produced film. Cathy, the screenplay's pivotal character, never appears or is even mentioned in the film. Several other major characters have been eliminated or unrecognisably altered, and perhaps half a dozen resonant themes and subplots have been hacked away. Presumably the shooting script was abandoned at the last minute and a new one was slapped together which attemped to replace Lewton's melancholy poetry with conventional notions of plotting and action. The Lewton-prepared and approved screenplay approaches The Seventh Victim in its formal and thematic compression, but the realised Isle of the Dead lacks purpose and direction. Stripped of its resonance, its carefully rhymed elements of superstition and enlightenment, its dramatic paralleling of Greek and English illegitimate children, the film's central situation is hopelessly sadistic and hardly lends itself to the kind of Universal-style horror-chills which, one guesses, RKO tried to force Lewton to produce. Mark Robson's direction is without distinction, as is the D'Agostino-Keller art direction, surprisingly tatty for a Lewton production. There is a good performance by Boris Karloff [as the General] and a beautifully controlled one by Katherine Emery [Mrs. St. Aubyn], one of Lewton's favourite actresses. But Ellen Drew [Thea] and Marc Cramer [Oliver] are scarcely more than attractive juveniles, and Jason Robards Sr [Albrecht], barely able to stammer out his lines, gives what must surely be the worst performance in a Lewton movie.
"There are a few Lewton touches which somehow managed to survive the ravaging of the screenplay --- the use of a statue of Cerberus as a transitional image, some folklore about 'vorvolakas', half-dead, vampirish things which 'drain all the life and joy from those who want to live', and various bits of arcane information. (Plague is transmitted by fleas, the bodies of which are eighty per cent moisture. When a sirocco or hot south wind blows, it literally burns away the fleas and with them the danger of infection.) In the film's only arresting sequence, Katherine Emery, a cataleptic, is prematurely buried by the others who assume she has died of plague. The camera moves in on her face to show us what everybody else has missed --- the quiver of her nostrils. Once in the crypt, she gives out with all sorts of dreadful howls while water droplets beat an agonizing tattoo on her coffin top. Unfortunately, when Miss Emery escapes the coffin, she is forced to romp about the isle stabbing most of the cast with a trident before tossing herself off a cliff.
"I have been unable to discover why Lewton's interesting screenplay was junked. The tale of how this potentially fascinating movie was sabotaged would probably be more intriguing than what was ultimately filmed."