Saturday, October 27, 2012

Isle of the Dead



I think Isle of the Dead often gets the shaft because, as part of the masterful Val Lewton series, it suffers from how incredibly reputed such films as I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, and The Body Snatcher are. Even Karloff’s films with Lewton, Isle of the Dead has a hard time competing with even Bedlam which offers one of his most cruelest characters (while evil, there’s at least early signs that Karloff’s character in The Body Snatcher has some humanity).

I do think Isle of the Dead will perhaps surprise newcomers to the Lewton canon as I’m sure after moving through the films featured (already mentioned, including The Leopard Man (a film I think is flawed but had some great moments for sure) and The Ghost Ship), this one will impress because it doesn’t necessarily loom large over the more highly treasured, well-revered classics, but I think deserves to be mentioned in the same breath…there, I said it, yes, Isle of the Dead has a right to mentioned alongside Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Maybe (I hope) I’m not alone in that sentiment because I think Isle of the Dead is an exceptional look at the dangers of obsessive superstition, the stubbornness of a war mentality that never wavers even “on civilian land”, and the horrors of being trapped on an island with a power-hungry general with a reputation for treating soldiers and his own Greek people alike with too cruel and harsh a hand.

General Pherides (Karloff) and a journalist for a Boston newspaper go to a Greek island just away from the battlefield and sweeping across their part of the country is a septicemic plague. It makes its way to the island where Pherides was visiting his wife’s tomb, noticing it defiled and despoiled (as other graves of their antiques and buried treasures), hearing a voice, finding a group lodging at the abode of an archeologist and the woman he bought it from (a major believer in Greek mythology and suffering a delusional paranoia, her ravings even eventually overtaking Pherides himself), along with tourists stopping by, not knowing what waited them.

Forced to remain on the island through Pherides own quarantine, we watch as plague and superstition, along with illness and psychological warfare, fracture this group. Vorvolaka, “an old peasant superstition”, soon becomes very real to Pherides, who dismisses the old Kyra’s warnings of her evil spiritual power at first, but the longer he’s on the island the more this creature becomes authentic to him. An “elemental wolf-spirit” said to “drain people of their strength and vitality until they die”. Karloff’s abilities as a performer are to show how Pherides succumbs to the superstition, showing us through his face and demeanor, and eventually in word, how this Vorvolaka is convincing to him. I like when his doctor, Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) and the archeologist, Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.) discuss the Vorvolaka as you see Pherides steadily fall under the spell of this while the previous night he scoffed at such an old myth. Kyra considers Thea (Ellen Drew), the friend tagging along with a couple (the husband, St. Aubyn (Alan Napier) tending to his invalid wife, Mrs. Mary St Aubyn (Katherine Emery), both very hospitable and mannered but Kyra’s intense belief that Thea is the Vorvolaka bringing evil upon them on the island is testing their patience and resolve), the reason all is befalling the island, soon talking Pherides into considering such a preposterous notion as valid.
The dynamic I find fascinating and thrilling is how Pherides responds to Thea who defies him. Pherides, here, accustomed to soldiers literally committing suicide for not leading their men into battle without an imperfection, so when a woman will not heed to his every command it is a jolt he’s unprepared for. In fact, he’s pissed when she stands in defiance and such a stance will place her in constant peril as his mental state deteriorates.

What is there to say? I’ll meet my old familiar enemy, death. I have fought him before. I’ve won often. Now he wins. Let him come for me.


Besides the physical plague that is taking members of the island party, another plague grows, spread by Kyra (Helene Thimig), encouraging Pherides to take actions that endanger others. I love how this film shows Pherides at war with himself. A man steeped in reality, what he can see, feel, sense, trying to ward away the thoughts attributed to his mental plight thanks to Kyra who sells him a bill of goods any other time would have been meaningless, but after losing his medical doctor to the plague (his faith in this man knows no bounds, even wagering with the archeologist that his doc’s science will *outwit* the superstitious prayers to the mythological son of Zeus, Hermes), and death now preying on his very life, her nonsense has merit.


I don’t know that this is a contagion of the soul that you carry..a contagion bred of evil, nameless, unearthly. But until I do know, I must keep you away from the others..and if necessary..I will make an end in the only way that we know that a Vorvolaka can be killed.


What I found equally as intriguing as Pherides’ descent was how even Thea started to believe that perhaps she was responsible for her friend’s weakening, pale condition..as she seems to remain positively healthy her friend is more drained of life, the legend of the Vorvolaka seems to be that her evil spirit can descend upon those she attends, taking their energy, their source of life, constantly refreshing and reviving herself. I think this was perhaps not even part of the legend but maybe details added progressively, brought about by those wholly attached and compelled to some form of terror that can be a fictional (but to them real) face of a very real and physical plague.

This is still visually as much a Val Lewton as the greats. It’s as rich with dark and foreboding, that expected moody nourish lighting and brooding sinister atmosphere so prevalent of those ominous street corners in New York City or the Voodoo environs of I Walked with a Zombie. When Mrs. De Aybun, her lone ally along with romantic love interest, Oliver, becomes so ill she can barely stand, Thea could be in deep trouble as Pherides has vocally established that he will destroy her if convinced she is the infamous Vorvolaka. To me, there’s nothing like shadows of the restless branches from dead (or dying) trees cast upon the crypt that holds the coffin of the dead, or the wind breezing through the gowns of the ladies who walk across the isle as the night takes hold of the day. That looming doom that seems to prevail over the characters who try to make the most of their time left unless the sirocco warm winds carry away the plague is also a heavy asset that aids and abets the climate of discord and unease.

The film produces Kyra as the villain, a cipher, her insidious, prolonging rhetoric so degrading to Thea (the way she constantly repeats Vorvolaka to Thea as she waits over Mrs. St Aubyn, now fallen into a cataleptic state, but not dead, just in a deep trance that appears to be death due to a lack of breath and heartbeat) that it affects the beautiful young woman. Kyra is her own worst enemy, however, as she believes in the Vorvolaka wholeheartedly, and the fear of staying alive, trying to provoke an ill (both mentally and physically) Pherides to act on her and his behalf, will come back to haunt her. Symbolic touches galore, too, as “Poseidon’s Spear”, an artifact owned by Albrecht, is chosen by a mad Mrs. St Aubyn, having escaped her coffin (a nice touch has rain drops tapping on her coffin, just furthering her madness), as the device appropriate for Kyra’s demise. But Pherides will fall in a shambling wreckage of the plague and a minor stab from the spear, deep within his mind was a goal to protect those he felt obligated from a fictional creature of myth when in fact he could not save himself from what it truly was..mortality.


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