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1945 was a particularly good year for horror movies. Not only did the year see the release of the multiple-director anthology Dead of Night (remember the creepy episode with Michael Redgrave and a homicidal ventriloquist's dummy?), the first British horror movie after a moratorium on the genre during World War II. It also ushered in some of the finest of the RKO entries under the guidance of producer Val Lewton, whose unit at the studio turned out eerie and atmospheric thrillers that depended more on dark and moody camera work and chilling suggestion than on monsters and gore. Lewton's low-budget films have become classics Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and launched the careers of many directors who went on to extensive work beyond the genre, notably Robert Wise, whose blockbuster Julie Andrews musical The Sound of Music (1965), was a horror only to some viewers. Also in 1945, RKO turned out A Game of Death (a loose remake of The Most Dangerous Game, 1932) and the superb adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher, under the direction of Wise.
Boris Karloff had a good year himself, starring first in The Body Snatcher, then in Isle of the Dead. In this one, Karloff plays a Greek general quarantined during a World War I battlefield plague with a group of people haunted by peasant superstitions of evil demons called vorvolakas. The film's terrifying set piece involves a woman subject to cataleptic trances who is presumed dead and buried alive, as a close-up of her quivering nostrils reveals. The most horrifying moment occurs as the camera tracks back from her tomb, to the single sound of dripping water, followed by a startling moment that would be a spoiler to reveal here.
The tone of the film, and the set piece in particular, is maintained by the gliding camera of Jack MacKenzie under the direction of Mark Robson, who began his career in the Lewton unit. Robson's first film was the spooky The Seventh Victim (1943). Isle of the Dead proved so successful, he was paired with Karloff again for Bedlam (1946), set in a madhouse and inspired by a plate in Hogarth's series of paintings, "The Rake's Progress." Isle of the Dead was also inspired by a painting, the eponymous 1880 work by Arnold Boeklin, depicting a boatman ferrying a shrouded figure to the afterlife. The reference gives some sense of the artistic and literary sources the Lewton unit used to create its macabre films.
Robson's career stretched into the late 1970s, producing glossy melodramas like Peyton Place (1957) and Valley of the Dolls (1967), action flicks such as Von Ryan's Express (1965), and his penultimate project, the star-studded disaster movie Earthquake (1974).
Besides Robson, Isle of the Dead also includes impressive work by Musical Director Constantin Bakaleinikoff, who supervised the music scores for nearly 300 films between 1929 and 1957, and the RKO sound department, which lent such a chilling air to the stalking scenes in Cat People. And it features in a small role famed stage actor Jason Robards, Sr., father of the Oscar-winning actor.
But it's Karloff who carries the film. Unlike his contemporary Bela Lugosi, whose career was trapped in genre typecasting and gave way to sad, often camp self-parodies, the urbane and gentle Karloff maintained a dignity and integrity in his work that made him not only a staple of the Lewton films but a legend in the horror genre.
Director: Mark Robson
Producer: Val Lewton
Screenplay: Joseph Mischel, Ardel Wray
Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie
Editing: Lyle Boyer
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Boris Karloff (General Pherides), Ellen Drew (Thea), Katherine Emery (Mary St. Aubyn), Jason Robards, Sr. (Albrecht), Alan Napier (St. Aubyn), Marc Cramer (Oliver Davis), Helen Thimig (Madame Kyra).
By Rob Nixon