Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
This April is Reaper Madness Month here at Nightmare on Film Street so we’re going to look at a unique take on death incarnate in classic horror cinema. Isle of the Dead (1945) is a lesser-known Boris Karloff horror film, a timely pandemic thriller, a vampire film, and another slow-burn masterwork from Val Lewton with a dash of folk horror and Edgar Allan Poe mixed in. Somehow all these elements blend together into a unique and cohesive film full of moral ambiguity, a bleak world view, and some serious scares.
Master of Hidden Gem Horror
Val Lewton is something of an unofficial mascot for Silver Screams. I’m obsessed with everything classic horror but Lewton’s films will always be my personal favorites. His complex and ambiguous stories stand out among other horror films of the era and lend a timeless quality to his films. They are the hidden gems of classic horror, but Isle of the Dead is well buried in his oeuvre. It’s a later Lewton production and not as well known as Cat People (1942) or even I Walked With A Zombie (1943). Yet Isle of the Dead is one of Lewton’s best. Paranoid and unnervingly timely, it’s a prime example of Lewton’s innovative and ageless approach to horror.
A writer and former assistant to a David O. Selznick, Val Lewton was appointed head of RKO’s horror unit in 1942 to produce low-budget competition directed at Universal Studio’s horror hits. Lewton was to follow RKO’s strict guidelines, which stipulated that each film cost under $150,000 and be based on studio-provided, focus group chosen titles. Yet even within these restrictions, Lewton produced some of the best horror films of the 1940s.
Despite the fact that he never directed any of these films, his creative signature is present on every frame of them. He always wrote the final screenplay draft (although he used a pseudonym in the credits) and he hand-picked directors who matched his creative vision. Jacque Tourneur is the most famous, as Lewton’s earliest horror collaborator, Tourneur carried the Lewton style into his post-RKO career with Night of the Demon (1957).
“Isle of the Dead […] is a lesser-known Boris Karloff horror film, a timely pandemic thriller, a vampire film, and another slow-burn masterwork from Val Lewton with a dash of folk horror and Edgar Allan Poe mixed in.“
But by 1945, Tourneur was promoted to the A list projects at RKO, a category that did not include horror. Lewton sought out new directing partners in Mark Robson and Robert Wise. Both had worked as editors on Citizen Kane (1941), preparing them for Lewton’s shadowy and subtly noirish visual style. Robson’s first film with Lewton was the brilliant, deeply nihilistic Satanic horror The Seventh Victim (1943).
After The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Robert Wise), Lewton took a break from horror with the dramas Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) and Youth Runs Wild (1944), also with Wise and Robson. But by 1944 RKO was eager to have him back at horror, and they offered him a chance to work with Boris Karloff to sweeten the deal. Lewton and Karloff had a great creative relationship, with Lewton giving the horror icon complex roles while Karloff later credited Lewton for saving him from a lifetime of typecasting.
Islands and Underworlds
Isle of the Dead was inspired by the famous 1880 painting of the same name by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin. The mysterious picture depicts a rocky island covered in shadowy cypress trees and cliffs lined with sepulchers. A lone boat approaches bearing an oarsman, a shrowded figure, and a coffin. These are commonly interpreted as depictions of Charon, the Ancient Greek ferryman who guided souls into the afterlife, and a newly deceased soul. The painting appears behind the film’s title credits, and the production design of the film’s island is based on the work as well. Like all of Lewton’s previous horror films, the base title and inspiration are expanded into complex and existential directions that speak to true creative innovation.
Inspired by the Greek mythology aspects of the painting, screenwriter Ardell Wray and Lewton set the film in Greece during the Balkan wars and used Greek mythology and folk beliefs as a background to the horror. They also used war and plague as a vehicle to explore the concept of death itself, how different people face it or resist it, and what the fear of death can push people to do. They also dove into Greek folklore to feature a representation of Death incarnate, the vampire-like creature vorvolaka.
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“[…] the tone of [Val] Lewton’s penultimate horror film seems to sense an end in sight.“
The film would have a rocky production, with Karloff suffering a back injury mid-shoot that froze the filming. After his recovery, some of the original cast couldn’t be reassembled, requiring a rewrite of the story. In the interim Lewton and Karloff made The Body Snatcher (1945) with Bela Lugosi, an early serial killer horror. But despite the interruption, Isle of the Dead is a cohesive and powerful film with no evidence on the screen to speak of for its troubled history. In fact, it’s one of Lewton’s most refined and frightening works.
Within a year of Isle of the Dead, Lewton’s tenure as horror head at RKO would come to an end. Upheaval after the death of studio head Charles Koerner was to blame, but the tone of Lewton’s penultimate horror film seems to sense an end in sight. It’s profoundly melancholy, with a mournful approach to themes of leadership and experience. Nearly all of Lewton’s films were complex, philosophical horrors but Isle of the Dead might beat out all but The Seventh Victim in terms of its nihilism. It’s no surprise that both films were directed by Robson. It’s almost as if Lewton intuitively knew his tenure at RKO was coming to a close, despite the surprise nature of his ouster.
War and Pestilence
Isle of the Dead is set in Greece during the Balkan Wars of 1912. It begins with a brief written prologue describing the Greek folk belief in the vorvolaka, a sort of flesh-eating and blood-drinking revenant that occupies the space of vampires and werewolves in the Greek tradition. We next meet the Greek General Pherides (Boris Karloff) and Oliver (Marc Cramer), an American journalist covering his campaign. They take a brief battlefield side trip to a nearby island used as a burial site. The goal is to lay flowers on the grave of the General’s late wife, yet Pherides is dismayed to find his wife’s tomb defiled.
Attracted by the haunting sound of a woman singing, the pair discover a small house on the supposedly uninhabited island. It’s the home of the former Swiss archaeologist, Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards), who blames himself for the desecration of the island’s graves. He believes that his archeological interest in the site drove greedy peasants to plunder the tombs for artifacts. Now he has retired on the isolated spot to keep watch over what remains. Yet Aubrecht’s Greek housekeeper, Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig) offers a different explanation to what happened. She tells Pherides that the villagers were acting against the presence of vorvolaka on the island. She also warns that one of the guests in the house is a vorvolaka.
“Inspired by the Greek mythology aspects of the painting, screenwriter Ardell Wray and Lewton set the film in Greece during the Balkan wars and used Greek mythology and folk beliefs as a background to the horror.”
Also staying in the house to weather the nearby fighting are the British Diplomat Mr. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his chronically ill wife (Katherine Emery), her beautiful Greek caretaker Thea (Ellen Drew), and the alcoholic British traveler Andrew Robbins (Skelton Knaggs). Pherides and Oliver decide to stay the night, but by morning Robbins is dead. The army doctor (Ernst Deutsch) arrives and determines that he has succumbed to septicemic plague. He orders the island to be quarantined.
As each individual copes with the fear of death and the isolation of quarantine, their previously hidden natures emerge. Pherides is a ruthless commander who will stop at nothing to keep the quarantine and protect his troops from infection. Thea is a strong-willed woman who despises Pherides for atrocities he committed against her village, and she makes no show of hiding her distaste for him. Mrs. St. Aubyn is terrified of being buried alive due to her condition, which frequently manifests as temporary deathlike comas. Meanwhile, Kyra is convinced that Thea is a vorvolaka and the true cause of the plague.
Over the course of a brief hour and twelve minutes, Isle of the Dead dives into the horrors at the heart of war, superstition, misogyny, disease, and militarism without ever losing its focus or ability to disturb. From the outset, the audience is introduced to a unique semi-villain in General Pherides. There are no cut and dry villains in Isle of the Dead, a continuation of Lewton’s ongoing themes of moral ambiguity in his films. Yet Pherides is presented as a man so utterly devoted to patriotism that he orders a commander who has bungled a retreat to shoot himself. Oliver is only mildly disturbed, a foreshadowing of his blandness, his journalistic opportunism, or perhaps a hint at the way Americans had already been numbed to patriotic violence by 1912.
Pherides is unnaturally insulted by Thea’s disdain for him, suggesting narcissistic and misogynistic traits that contradict the respect he enjoys from the other characters who surround him. During their first night on the island, he corners Thea alone in a dark hallway to ask her why she insulted him, and it’s a creepy moment of male intimidation that is unfortunately familiar to any woman who has stood up to a toxic male bully with an easily bruised ego. He even brags to Oliver later that he successfully frightened the young woman as if that makes him impressive rather than pathetic.
The quarantine framework of the story is tense and stressful to a modern viewer. The film even features a handwashing montage and characters avoiding handshakes. In a pandemic weary world, I can only describe Isle of the Dead as terrifyingly timely. The characters are forced together into a situation of constantly impending death, where superstition, infighting, paranoia, and extremism are primed to bubble up in response.
“Over the course of a brief hour and twelve minutes, Isle of the Dead dives into the horrors at the heart of war, superstition, misogyny, disease, and militarism without ever losing its focus or ability to disturb.“
The early death of Mr. St. Aubyn reignites his wife’s crippling fear of premature burial. The Doctor succumbs to plague early in the quarantine, removing the scientific influence on the group and fueling superstition. Kyra escalates her harassment of Thea and Pherides begins to be taken in by the belief that Thea is a vorvolaka as a desperate manifestation of his resentment toward the young woman. Each thread of fear weaves together in a unique slow-burn storyline as modern and timeless as any of Lewton’s films.
Lewton was famous for the unseen monsters of his films. He worked within his shoestring budgets to innovate the genre and prove that anything within a viewer’s imagination is more terrifying than what could be shown on screen. And while this technique would go on to be the foundation of modern horror, Lewton extended the concept into the themes of his films. Isle of the Dead is a prime example of plot and character ambiguity in Lewton’s films. Karloff’s Pherides is alternately despicable and sympathetic, with his descent into violent superstition frightening but also shown as an understandable reaction to extreme patriotism meeting desperate fear. And the film’s final, surprise killer is a shocking example of what happens when a kind, protective mind is warped by madness and terror.
Death Walks in Folklore
In the same manner that Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie is a unique and more authentic take on zombie folklore than is typically seen in horror film, Isle of the Dead is a standout version of a vampire film that harkens back to a more primal interpretation of the creature. Lewton had a knack for adapting folk beliefs in much of his work, making him a contender for an unrecognized folk horror pioneer. By entering a plague story around a vorvolaka, Lewton brings back the old origins of vampire beliefs as explanations for deadly epidemics.
In Eastern Europe, vampires were invoked as explanations for how a single household succumbed so quickly to disease. Without germ theory to explain pandemics, people believed a family member was returning as a vampire to drain the life of their living relatives one by one. In our current era of Dracula mythology and the suave, sexy vampires we know today, this intrinsic link between folk beliefs and disease has been largely lost. Yet the vorvolaka had not lost its original identity by the time Lewton made Isle of the Dead, offering a ripe opportunity to bring the mythology back to its roots.
In a unique twist on the genre, the stress of quarantine compels Thea to question if she might indeed be a vorvolaka and not realize it. While her companions die around her, her survivor’s guilt makes her fear she could be responsible. It’s an evolution of the reluctant, unsure monster themes that Lewton introduced in Cat People, but with even greater ambiguity. It adds a humanizing and ambiguous layer to vampires that could use to be explored more frequently in horror.
“[…] Isle of the Dead is a standout version of a vampire film that harkens back to a more primal interpretation of the creature.“
Much of Isle of the Dead can be viewed as the maturation of Lewton’s techniques since Cat People. While his first film for RKO is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece, Isle of the Dead employs much of that film’s techniques to an even more frightening effect. The first forty minutes of the film is more of an uncomfortable slow-burn story, weighed down by an unshakable sense of impending doom. Yet the final fifteen minutes are edge-of-your-seat terrifying.
Lewton employs every trick he innovated in Cat People — the shadowy lighting, brief glimpses of something just out of sight, impeccable sound design mixed with silence, and extended shots staring into the darkness. There’s even a highly effective false jump scare to rival the original “Lewton bus” moment that created the horror trope. Lewton’s films are infamous for unnerving modern viewers to an extent not usually seen in 1940s horror. Isle of the Dead is a prime exercise in timeless terror.
But don’t just take my word for it, Isle of the Dead is currently streaming on Shudder alongside some other Lewton classics. Give it a watch and prepare for some disturbing plague-themed horror with serious scares and ideas that will haunt you long after the credits roll.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on Isle of the Dead and Val Lewton with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!