When war and tumult torment the Earth,
the Dead are disquieted;
there is frenzy in the grave.
The Isle of the Dead is another of the classic suspense/horror films that producer Val Lewton made for RKO. It was inspired by the painting of the same title by the Swiss symbolist Arnold Bocklin, which appears behind the title credits and the above quotation from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. The painting also appeared on the wall of one of the main sets in the Lewton movie I Walked With a Zombie. The imaginary scene must have been important to Bocklin since hepainted it five times. The paintings depict a boat rowed by a figure in uniform, carrying a white-robed female figure and a flower-decked coffin to an island studded with classical ruins. Both Lenin and Freud hung copies on their office wall, while Hitler owned one of the five originals, taking it with him into the bunker where he ended his life. After Hitler's death, his copy apparently passed into Stalin's hands.
Originally, this film was apparently planned as a adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu's vampiric novel, Camilla. While still in production, it was known by the title Camilla but the final screenplay bears little relationship to the novel..
Produced by Val Lewton
Directed by Mark Robson
Screenplay by Ardel Wray and Val Lewton (uncredited)
Music by Leigh Hurline
Starring Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Oliver Davis and Jason Robards (Sr.)
Following the epigram from Herodotus, the story opens in Greece in 1912 on the evening after a major battle in the 1912-1913 Balkan War between Greece and Ottoman Turkey. The Greeks have won a costly and bloody victory when we are introduced to three of the film's characters: General Nikolas Pherides (Boris Karloff), commander of the Greek Third Army, nicknamed "The Watchdog"; Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), an American war correspondent; and Dr. Alexander Drossos (Ernst Dorian), army physician and old friend of the general.
Gen. Pherides plans to take advantage of the lull following the battle to visit his wife's grave on an island off the nearby coast. He is accompanied by the young American reporter, first on a nightmarish walk across the battlefield littered with the dead and dying, then on a trip to the island cemetery.
Arriving on the island, they find that the crypts have been looted and the body of the General's wife is missing. Following the sound of a woman singing, they discover that the previously unoccupied island is now the home of Swiss antiquarian Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.), who is currently sheltering several refugees from the fighting -- St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), a British diplomat, his wife Mary (Katherine Emery), St. Aubyn's young Greek maid Thea (Ellen Drew), and Henry Robbins (Skelton Knaggs), an English businessman with a drinking problem. Also in the household is Albrecht's housekeeper, Madame Kyra (Helene Thimig).
Pherides and Davis accept Albrecht's invitation to spend the night. The death that night of Robbins faces them with a new crisis. Dr. Drossos, summoned to the island by Gen. Pherides, diagnoses septicemic plague. The general, unwilling to risk an epidemic among his troops, orders the island quaruntined. Madame Kyra warns that it is not plague but the depredations of a Vrykolaka -- a mythical wolf spirit that preys on its victims vampirelike, but instead of drinking their victim's blood, they "drain all the life and joy from those who want to live".
The remainder of the film is a metaphoric battle of rationality and science (represented by Dr. Drossos) versus irrationality and superstition (represented by Madam Kyra). Gen. Pherides initially responds to Madam Kyra's warnings by calling her "an old fool" but he is won over to her view. Events quickly spin out of control with suspicion, deaths, and a premature burial. The film provides the palpable aura of dread and several truly horrific scenes so typical of a Lewton film, plus a superb performance by Boris Karloff.
I know that many regard this as a "lesser" Lewton film, but I think it is one of his best. I would rank it with I Walked With a Zombie, The Seventh Victim, and The Body Snatcher as Lewton at his best. Like the other three it is an outstanding demonstration of the power of psychological suspense.