Isle of the Dead


1h 12m 1945
Isle of the Dead

Brief Synopsis

The inhabitants of a Balkans island under quarantine fear that one of their number is a vampire.

Photos & Videos

Film Details

Also Known As
Camilla
Genre
Horror
Mystery
Thriller
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jan 1945
Premiere Information
New York opening: week of 7 Sep 1945
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 12m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
6,457ft

Synopsis

Pestilence follows the troops of Greece home from the Balkan Wars. Watching helplessly as his men are ravaged by the plague is General Ferides, who is known as the "watchdog" because of his zeal for guarding his country and its laws. Deciding to visit his wife's grave on a nearby island, the general invites journalist Oliver Davis to join him, but when they arrive at the crypt, they find it empty. Drawn by the sound of distant singing, the two men follow the tune to the house of Albrecht, a Swiss archaelogist. After explaining that the coffins were despoiled by peasants seeking antiquities, Albrecht introduces the men to Kyra, his housekeeper, and his guests: St. Aubyn, the British counsel; Mrs. St. Aubyn, the counsel's invalid wife; Thea, Mrs. St. Aubyn's companion; and Avery Robbins, a homesick British tin salesman. After Robbins, unsteady from illness, excuses himself, Thea denounces the general for his cruelty to the Greek people and refuses to pour him a glass of wine. Despite Thea's denunciation, the general and Oliver accept Albrecht's invitation to spend the night. Later that evening, Thea hears her mistress moaning and goes to fetch her medicine. In the hallway, she meets the general and upbraids him for killing his countrymen for failing to pay their taxes. The next morning, Robbins is found dead, and the general, suspecting plague, sends for Dr. Drossos. Arriving from the mainland, the doctor confirms the general's diagnosis and quarantines the island. The doctor's conclusion is disputed by Kyra, who claims that Robbins' death was caused by a "varvoloka," or evil spirit, among them. Her accusation that Thea is a varvoloka is scoffed at by the doctor, who asserts that the plague is carried by fleas and will be driven away when the South wind begins to blow. When St. Aubyn becomes the next victim, Mrs. St. Aubyn insists that her husband is still alive, but later apologizes, explaining that she has fears of premature burial because she suffers from death-like trances. After the doctor is felled, Kyra insists that the disease is a contagion of the soul, a result of Thea's evil spirit haunting the island as she sleeps. Desperate to stop the march of death, the general, who is susceptible to the ancient superstition regarding the varvoloka, tries to prevent a meeting between Thea and Oliver. After Mrs. St. Aubyn reassures Thea of her inherent goodness, however, she defies the general's orders and joins Oliver. Their embrace is interrupted by the general, who vows to destroy Thea if she is the varvoloka. The general's threat prompts Oliver to decide to take Thea off the island, but the next morning, they discover that their boat has been destroyed. After Mrs. St. Aubyn denounces the general for destroying the vessel, she collapses into a trance. That night, as Thea sits by her mistress' bedside, Kyra taunts her, calling her a varvoloka. The next morning, the general breaks down the door to Mrs. St. Aubyn's room and finds her lifeless body. Unaware that she is in a trance, they entomb her alive. Soon after, the South wind begins to blow, but it is too late for the general, for he has contracted the plague. That night, as Mrs. St. Aubyn struggles to free herself from the grave, Thea sits vigil at the general's bedside, listening in terror to the sounds of a creaking coffin. To shield Thea from the general's delirious accusations, Oliver sends her outside, and there she sees the figure of a woman wandering in the night. Entering the house, the woman, Mrs. St. Aubyn, who has been driven insane by her entombment, takes a fishing spear from Albrecht's desk and thrusts it into Kyra's body. Hearing noises, the general drags himself from his bed and discovers Kyra's dead body. Pursued by Oliver and Albrecht, Mrs. St. Aubyn flees the house and plunges to her death in the sea. Afterward, the general, still believing that Thea is an evil spirit, collapses in Albrecht's arms, ranting that the varvoloka must be destroyed. With the threat of plague ended, Oliver and Thea leave the island and return to the mainland.

Photo Collections

Isle of the Dead - Scene Stills
Here are a number of scene stills from RKO's Isle of the Dead (1945), starring Boris Karloff, directed by Mark Robson, and produced by Val Lewton.
Isle of the Dead - Lobby Card
Here is a Lobby Card from RKO's Isle of the Dead (1945), produced by Val Lewton and starring Boris Karloff..

Film Details

Also Known As
Camilla
Genre
Horror
Mystery
Thriller
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jan 1945
Premiere Information
New York opening: week of 7 Sep 1945
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 12m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
6,457ft

Articles

Isle of the Dead


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).
BW-72m.

By Rob Nixon

Isle Of The Dead

Isle of the Dead

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. KellerOriginal 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). BW-72m. By Rob Nixon

The Val Lewton Collection on DVD


I don't want to sound like a bossy second-grade teacher, but you really are going to have to get The Val Lewton Horror Collection.

It's hardly a perfect collection, especially with all the audio commentaries by film historians who wallow in minutia that gets very tiring very quickly. But these facts are clear: (1) Lewton produced some of the best B-movies ever turned out on low budgets and quickie schedules for a Hollywood studio; and, (2) Some of the set's most noteworthy content is on the two discs available only within the five-disc boxed set.

First, some background. Struggling RKO hired Russian immigrant Lewton, then a story editor at David O. Selznick's studio, to head up a unit that would make low-budget horror movies and challenge Universal's dominance in that genre. RKO would have been happy to release monster movies like Universal's, and the studio imposed monstrous-sounding titles on Lewton's movies before scripts were ever penned. But the resultant stories were much more ambitious than that. Instead of using monsters, Lewton's subtle use of the power of suggestion left much of the terror to the viewer's imagination. By withholding shots of the source of terror in favor of foreboding shadows and sounds, and offering stories that usually took place in a contemporary, realistic setting, Lewton forged a distinctive mix in his RKO chillers. (Though he rarely took a writing credit, and never under his own name, Lewton wrote the final screenplay drafts for his RKO movies.)

Lewton's 1942-46 RKO chillers fall into three groups: the first trio of movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), all directed by Jacques Tourneur; after RKO split up Lewton and Tourneur to spread their talents wider, a mid-section of Lewton movies that often stuck to the style of the Tourneur pictures (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People); and, after the so-so financial performance of the straight dramas Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the three Lewton productions starring Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam).

Because the DVDs include two movies (each averages about only 72 minutes in length), the set often mixes titles from these periods on them:

Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People: Cat People, released in late 1942, is undoubtedly the most important Lewton movie, and this disc is the best place for the uninitiated to start. It set the tone for the rest of his RKO movies and, very importantly, was a big hit. Though the producer was forever stuck with imposed titles and tight budgets, its success gave Lewton a measure of creative control over his stories.

In its tale of the ill-fated marriage between a Serbian immigrant (Simone Simon) and a boat designer (Kent Smith), Cat People blends naturalistic staging and supernatural story as Lewton so often would. Irena, Simon's title character, believes she's descended from a line of women who turn into vengeful felines when sexually or emotionally aroused, so she won't consummate the marriage, which cranks up the sexual tension to levels unheard of in 1940s Hollywood movies, especially when Smith's character turns to the chummy co-worker who loves him (Jane Randolph) for advice. The movie's archetypal moments come when Irena stalks her rival through Central Park, and the extended silence becomes broken by a braking bus that lunges into the picture (a trademark Lewton device he'd often repeat) and when the still-stalked rival gets spooked by shadows and noises as she swims alone in a pool. Paul Schrader remade Cat People in 1982, but the original is the better version.

The Curse of the Cat People, out in 1944, is indicative of how Lewton subverted his RKO bosses' orders. Told to make a Cat People sequel, Curse is instead a very involving, very sensitive portrait of a lonely child. With the Smith and Randolph characters now married, following the death of Irena in the first film, their biggest worry is their daydreaming young daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who sees a picture of Irena and conjures up her image as an imaginary friend. Though lacking the visual lyricism of its predecessor, it's one of Lewton's best. Robert Wise co-directed with Gunther V. Fritsch, the first taking over for the second, who RKO fired for finishing only half the movie during the allotted schedule.

I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher: Another great double feature. The first, made just after Cat People, is more evidence of Tourneur's talent as a visual storyteller. A variation on Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies, it finds a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arriving to her new post in the Caribbean, only to discover her new patient is a catatonic woman once caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Conway) and his half-brother (James Ellison), and that the island's native culture is steeped in voodoo. Like Cat People, an eerie chiller that travels far beyond the shocks we associate with horror. Meanwhile, The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's three pictures with Karloff (it was the second). Inspired by the Burke-Hare grave-robbing scandal, it's set in 1831 Edinburgh, with its main conflict pitting two former cadaver-stealing allies: a cabman (Karloff) who still digs up graves and a doctor (Henry Daniell) who's graduated to respectability and now only hires people to rob graves. The Body Snatcher, directed by Wise, is a fine example of how Lewton's movies not only avoided monsters, they also avoided outright villains and skillfully mined the moral grey zone.

Isle of the Dead and Bedlam: The first and third Lewton-Karloff collaborations, both also period pieces, are indicative of how Lewton's later RKO movies could be well-crafted, yet not as interesting as intended. The first, about a group of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague scare, and the second, centered on London's notorious insane asylum of the 18th century, used period paintings and drawing as visual inspiration, so maybe it's not surprising they feel static. They're not bad and they give Karloff roles superior to his usual characters, but they feel flat compared to Lewton's more evocative work.

The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship: the first of the two discs available only within the set offers two fine movies. The first is Tourneur's rendering of Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi, about what happens when a deadly black leopard gets loose in a New Mexico town. It's surely more uneven than Tourneur's two previous Lewton movies, yet it has great set pieces, especially when the cat stalks a teen who's been sent to the store by her mother. The Ghost Ship has been one of the most elusive Lewton movies, as it was pulled from release by RKO after a writer filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming the movie took elements from a script he had submitted to Lewton's office. Although Lewton never saw that script, RKO lost the case and pulled the movie. As with Curse of the Cat People, made just after it, Ghost Ship comes up with something much better than the mere horror film RKO wanted. Its conflict between the idealistic new third officer (Russell Wade) and the power-mad captain (Richard Dix) on a freighter doesn't just recall The Caine Mutiny, which Herman Wouk hadn't written yet, it also turns into an exploration of authority run amok, an anti-Fascist parable for its wartime audience.

The Seventh Victimand Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: the second of the boxed-set-only discs contains two essentials. The Seventh Victim,, the first non-Tourneur Lewton movie, directed by Mark Robson in keeping with Tourneur's style, may be the eeriest of the producer's movies. Kim Hunter makes her film debut as a teen who travels to New York City to look for her missing older sister (Jean Brooks), and discovers that her sister became involved with a devil-worshipping cult that now wants her dead. If Lewton's movies stew in the juices of death, grief and loneliness, The Seventh Victim may be his grimmest. It's also his most noir movie, with all of its dangers stemming from human loneliness. A beautiful piece of melancholy.

Running a little under an hour, Shadows in the Dark is literally littered with interview subjects. Do we really need five film historians, four writers and seven directors praising Lewton? An indication of how cluttered it is comes when George A. Romero who, like Lewton, knows a thing or two about movie zombies, is never heard offering his take on Lewton's kind of voodoo-based zombie, much different from Romero's Pittsburgh zombies. Still, this is a good overview of the producer's life and work, and it's hard to argue with any of the praise heaped upon Lewton's movies. They deserve it. Full of family snapshots and home movie footage, as well as the comments of Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, Shadows of the Dark offers a strong sense of how Lewton's RKO movies reflected his personality: dark, literate, competent.


Most of those film historians in the documentary handle audio commentaries on the set's movies, though there's no commentary for The Ghost Ship, which seemingly has the most interesting "back story." The most worthwhile commentary is definitely the late Robert Wise's, on . It's apparently culled from one long interview with the director, with the interviewer edited out, and it covers all of his movies with Lewton (the others being The Curse of the Cat People and Mademoiselle Fifi).

Wise's first-hand anecdotes are much more interesting than the historians' micro-observations and rabid research, which is often along the lines of "This scene was filmed on October 13, but this insert within it was filmed on November 4." Sorry, stuff like that is just not that interesting. The historians are all well-prepared and speak well, but when I cautiously popped in director William Friedkin's commentary for The Leopard Man—cautiously because Friedkin's The Narrow Margin commentary had some dubious observations — it was really refreshing to hear him say, "Frankly, the movie speaks for itself" in the first minute. Greg Mank's commentaries on Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People also include snippets of his phone interview with the late Simone Simon. For some reason, though, these snippets are often semi-arbitrarily dropped in with no set-up and, like most of the historians commenting, Mank doesn't even open by telling us his qualifications to do a commentary for a Val Lewton movie. When that happens, I just want to ask, "Dude, where's your credibility?"

For more information about The Val Lewton Horror Collection, visit Warner Video. To order The Val Lewton Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman

The Val Lewton Collection on DVD

I don't want to sound like a bossy second-grade teacher, but you really are going to have to get The Val Lewton Horror Collection. It's hardly a perfect collection, especially with all the audio commentaries by film historians who wallow in minutia that gets very tiring very quickly. But these facts are clear: (1) Lewton produced some of the best B-movies ever turned out on low budgets and quickie schedules for a Hollywood studio; and, (2) Some of the set's most noteworthy content is on the two discs available only within the five-disc boxed set. First, some background. Struggling RKO hired Russian immigrant Lewton, then a story editor at David O. Selznick's studio, to head up a unit that would make low-budget horror movies and challenge Universal's dominance in that genre. RKO would have been happy to release monster movies like Universal's, and the studio imposed monstrous-sounding titles on Lewton's movies before scripts were ever penned. But the resultant stories were much more ambitious than that. Instead of using monsters, Lewton's subtle use of the power of suggestion left much of the terror to the viewer's imagination. By withholding shots of the source of terror in favor of foreboding shadows and sounds, and offering stories that usually took place in a contemporary, realistic setting, Lewton forged a distinctive mix in his RKO chillers. (Though he rarely took a writing credit, and never under his own name, Lewton wrote the final screenplay drafts for his RKO movies.) Lewton's 1942-46 RKO chillers fall into three groups: the first trio of movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), all directed by Jacques Tourneur; after RKO split up Lewton and Tourneur to spread their talents wider, a mid-section of Lewton movies that often stuck to the style of the Tourneur pictures (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People); and, after the so-so financial performance of the straight dramas Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the three Lewton productions starring Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam). Because the DVDs include two movies (each averages about only 72 minutes in length), the set often mixes titles from these periods on them: Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People: Cat People, released in late 1942, is undoubtedly the most important Lewton movie, and this disc is the best place for the uninitiated to start. It set the tone for the rest of his RKO movies and, very importantly, was a big hit. Though the producer was forever stuck with imposed titles and tight budgets, its success gave Lewton a measure of creative control over his stories. In its tale of the ill-fated marriage between a Serbian immigrant (Simone Simon) and a boat designer (Kent Smith), Cat People blends naturalistic staging and supernatural story as Lewton so often would. Irena, Simon's title character, believes she's descended from a line of women who turn into vengeful felines when sexually or emotionally aroused, so she won't consummate the marriage, which cranks up the sexual tension to levels unheard of in 1940s Hollywood movies, especially when Smith's character turns to the chummy co-worker who loves him (Jane Randolph) for advice. The movie's archetypal moments come when Irena stalks her rival through Central Park, and the extended silence becomes broken by a braking bus that lunges into the picture (a trademark Lewton device he'd often repeat) and when the still-stalked rival gets spooked by shadows and noises as she swims alone in a pool. Paul Schrader remade Cat People in 1982, but the original is the better version. The Curse of the Cat People, out in 1944, is indicative of how Lewton subverted his RKO bosses' orders. Told to make a Cat People sequel, Curse is instead a very involving, very sensitive portrait of a lonely child. With the Smith and Randolph characters now married, following the death of Irena in the first film, their biggest worry is their daydreaming young daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who sees a picture of Irena and conjures up her image as an imaginary friend. Though lacking the visual lyricism of its predecessor, it's one of Lewton's best. Robert Wise co-directed with Gunther V. Fritsch, the first taking over for the second, who RKO fired for finishing only half the movie during the allotted schedule. I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher: Another great double feature. The first, made just after Cat People, is more evidence of Tourneur's talent as a visual storyteller. A variation on Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies, it finds a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arriving to her new post in the Caribbean, only to discover her new patient is a catatonic woman once caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Conway) and his half-brother (James Ellison), and that the island's native culture is steeped in voodoo. Like Cat People, an eerie chiller that travels far beyond the shocks we associate with horror. Meanwhile, The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's three pictures with Karloff (it was the second). Inspired by the Burke-Hare grave-robbing scandal, it's set in 1831 Edinburgh, with its main conflict pitting two former cadaver-stealing allies: a cabman (Karloff) who still digs up graves and a doctor (Henry Daniell) who's graduated to respectability and now only hires people to rob graves. The Body Snatcher, directed by Wise, is a fine example of how Lewton's movies not only avoided monsters, they also avoided outright villains and skillfully mined the moral grey zone. Isle of the Dead and Bedlam: The first and third Lewton-Karloff collaborations, both also period pieces, are indicative of how Lewton's later RKO movies could be well-crafted, yet not as interesting as intended. The first, about a group of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague scare, and the second, centered on London's notorious insane asylum of the 18th century, used period paintings and drawing as visual inspiration, so maybe it's not surprising they feel static. They're not bad and they give Karloff roles superior to his usual characters, but they feel flat compared to Lewton's more evocative work. The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship: the first of the two discs available only within the set offers two fine movies. The first is Tourneur's rendering of Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi, about what happens when a deadly black leopard gets loose in a New Mexico town. It's surely more uneven than Tourneur's two previous Lewton movies, yet it has great set pieces, especially when the cat stalks a teen who's been sent to the store by her mother. The Ghost Ship has been one of the most elusive Lewton movies, as it was pulled from release by RKO after a writer filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming the movie took elements from a script he had submitted to Lewton's office. Although Lewton never saw that script, RKO lost the case and pulled the movie. As with Curse of the Cat People, made just after it, Ghost Ship comes up with something much better than the mere horror film RKO wanted. Its conflict between the idealistic new third officer (Russell Wade) and the power-mad captain (Richard Dix) on a freighter doesn't just recall The Caine Mutiny, which Herman Wouk hadn't written yet, it also turns into an exploration of authority run amok, an anti-Fascist parable for its wartime audience. The Seventh Victimand Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: the second of the boxed-set-only discs contains two essentials. The Seventh Victim,, the first non-Tourneur Lewton movie, directed by Mark Robson in keeping with Tourneur's style, may be the eeriest of the producer's movies. Kim Hunter makes her film debut as a teen who travels to New York City to look for her missing older sister (Jean Brooks), and discovers that her sister became involved with a devil-worshipping cult that now wants her dead. If Lewton's movies stew in the juices of death, grief and loneliness, The Seventh Victim may be his grimmest. It's also his most noir movie, with all of its dangers stemming from human loneliness. A beautiful piece of melancholy. Running a little under an hour, Shadows in the Dark is literally littered with interview subjects. Do we really need five film historians, four writers and seven directors praising Lewton? An indication of how cluttered it is comes when George A. Romero who, like Lewton, knows a thing or two about movie zombies, is never heard offering his take on Lewton's kind of voodoo-based zombie, much different from Romero's Pittsburgh zombies. Still, this is a good overview of the producer's life and work, and it's hard to argue with any of the praise heaped upon Lewton's movies. They deserve it. Full of family snapshots and home movie footage, as well as the comments of Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, Shadows of the Dark offers a strong sense of how Lewton's RKO movies reflected his personality: dark, literate, competent. Most of those film historians in the documentary handle audio commentaries on the set's movies, though there's no commentary for The Ghost Ship, which seemingly has the most interesting "back story." The most worthwhile commentary is definitely the late Robert Wise's, on

Ellen Drew, 1914-2003


Ellen Drew, a talented leading lady who was adept at handling light comedy or noirish thrillers, died of liver failure at her home on December 3rd in Palm Desert, California. She was 89.

She was born Esther Loretta "Terry" Ray on November 23, 1914, in Kansas City, Missouri. The daughter of a barber, her family moved to Chicago when she was still an infant and she lived a very quiet childhood far removed from the glamour of Hollywood. She was encouraged by some friends to enter a beauty contest when she was just 17. After winning, she tried her luck in Hollywood, but found that they were no immediate offers for her particular talents.

She eventually took a waitressing job at C.C. Brown's, a famed Hollywood Boulevard soda fountain, and had virtually abandoned her dreams as a starlet when William Demarest, a popular actor's agent and well-known character actor, spotted her. Demarest arranged a screen test for her at Paramount, and she was promptly placed under contract for $50 a week.

For the first few years, (1936-38), Drew got only bit parts, and was often uncredited. When she finally got prominent billing in the Bing Crosby musical Sing You Sinners (1938), she decided to change her name, from Terry Ray to Ellen Drew. She earned her first major role in Frank Lloyd's If I Were King (1938) opposite Ronald Colman, yet for the most part of her career, rarely rose above "B" material and second leads. Still, she had some fine exceptions: Preston Sturges' enchanting comedy Christmas in July (1940), with Dick Powell; Tay Garnett's lighthearted war romp My Favorite Spy (1942) co-starring Kay Kyser; Julien Duvivier's taut The Imposter (1944), holding her own with a brooding Jean Gabin; and Mark Robson's chilling low-budget chiller Isle of the Dead (1945) opposite Boris Karloff. Drew made some notable television appearances in the late '50s including Perry Mason and The Barbara Stanwyck Show, before retiring from the entertainment industry. She is survived by her son David; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

by Michael T. Toole

Ellen Drew, 1914-2003

Ellen Drew, a talented leading lady who was adept at handling light comedy or noirish thrillers, died of liver failure at her home on December 3rd in Palm Desert, California. She was 89. She was born Esther Loretta "Terry" Ray on November 23, 1914, in Kansas City, Missouri. The daughter of a barber, her family moved to Chicago when she was still an infant and she lived a very quiet childhood far removed from the glamour of Hollywood. She was encouraged by some friends to enter a beauty contest when she was just 17. After winning, she tried her luck in Hollywood, but found that they were no immediate offers for her particular talents. She eventually took a waitressing job at C.C. Brown's, a famed Hollywood Boulevard soda fountain, and had virtually abandoned her dreams as a starlet when William Demarest, a popular actor's agent and well-known character actor, spotted her. Demarest arranged a screen test for her at Paramount, and she was promptly placed under contract for $50 a week. For the first few years, (1936-38), Drew got only bit parts, and was often uncredited. When she finally got prominent billing in the Bing Crosby musical Sing You Sinners (1938), she decided to change her name, from Terry Ray to Ellen Drew. She earned her first major role in Frank Lloyd's If I Were King (1938) opposite Ronald Colman, yet for the most part of her career, rarely rose above "B" material and second leads. Still, she had some fine exceptions: Preston Sturges' enchanting comedy Christmas in July (1940), with Dick Powell; Tay Garnett's lighthearted war romp My Favorite Spy (1942) co-starring Kay Kyser; Julien Duvivier's taut The Imposter (1944), holding her own with a brooding Jean Gabin; and Mark Robson's chilling low-budget chiller Isle of the Dead (1945) opposite Boris Karloff. Drew made some notable television appearances in the late '50s including Perry Mason and The Barbara Stanwyck Show, before retiring from the entertainment industry. She is survived by her son David; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. by Michael T. Toole

Quotes

Trivia

The 19th century artist, Bocklin, painted "The Isle of the Dead." It appears in the credits of this film and is recreated in the sets.

Notes

The working title of this film was Camilla. The picture opens with the following prologue: "Under conquest and oppression, the people of Greece allowed their legends to degenerate into superstition, the Goddess Aphrodite giving way to the Varvoloka. The nightmare figure was very much alive in the minds of the peasants when Greece fought the victorious War of 1912." According to a memo written by Val Lewton and contained in the RKO Legal Files, the story for this film was inspired by Arnold Boecklin's painting "The Isle of the Dead." This was the first of three Lewton pictures to be supervised by Jack Gross and star Boris Karloff. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, production was suspended in late July 1944 after Karloff was hospitalized for a spinal operation. By the time Karloff had recuperated, the other cast members were busy working on other projects, and consequently, the studio decided to film Body Snatcher with Karloff before completing this picture in December 1944. The 1913 Danish film Isle of the Dead was also inspired by Boecklin's painting.