“It is done. She has gone back to endless night.”
During the first Balkan War of 1912 General Pherides (Boris Karloff), whose nickname is “The Watchdog” and an American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) visit an island off shore. The island is called the Isle of the Dead. On it is a cemetery. The General’s wife is buried there. The men go to pay their respects. Once there the General discovers that the coffin has been broken into.
They hear a woman singing. When they follow the sound they come upon a caretaker’s house. The owner is a Swiss archeologist, Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.). He lives there with his German housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig). Staying with him are a British diplomat St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his sickly wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her companion Thea (Ellen Drew) and an English tinsmith Andrew Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).
Kyra is superstitious and tells the General that Thea is a vorvolaka. An undead creature from Greek mythology that sucks the life out of people during the night. The General scoffs at her superstitions. Mrs. St. Aubyn has been ill since she was a child. She suffers from catalepsy and has a fear of being buried alive. There's a lot of that going around in horror movies.
Aubrecht invites the two men to spend the night. The next morning, Robbins is dead. The General suspects plague and summons Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch). The doctor determines that it is indeed plague and quarantines the island. He says everyone is at risk until the dry winds come. Mr. At. Aubyn is the next to get the plague. Kyra keeps up her prattle about Thea being a vorvolaka. She harasses Thea. The General begins to change his thoughts. Each time someone dies Kyra gets nastier and the General gets crazier.
Oliver plans to leave the island with Thea to save her but the General scuttles the boat. When Mrs. St. Aubyn falls into a cataleptic trance Thea is the only one who believes she may still be alive. Mrs. St. Aubyn is put into a coffin and entombed. When she comes out of her trance she breaks out of her coffin. Driven mad by her worst fear she stalks those she blames.
“Isle of the Dead” was released in 1945 and was directed by Mark Robson. It was the 10th collaboration between Val Lewton and RKO studios. It was also the second of three movies he did that featured Boris Karloff.
Val Lewton uses a lot of symbolic statuary in his movies. The three headed dog that guards the cemetery is Cerberus. In Greek mythology Cerberus guarded the entrance to the underworld.
“Isle of the Dead” doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Val Lewton’s movies in general are not so much horror movies as they are studies of the psychosis of the human mind. In “Isle” Kyra’s superstitions are ingrained in her being. Her obsession with them gets transferred to General Pherides where it smolders until he believes them too. Her delusions become his delusions. The General even begins to make Thea believe that she could be responsible for Mrs. Aubyn’s illness. If you don’t want to call it a horror movie than Gothic Thriller will do nicely. Either way it deserves more credit than it usually gets.