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Movies E.C. McMullen Jr. Review by
E.C.McMullen Jr.
Isle of the Dead
SHOULD YOU?
TIP JAR
ISLE OF THE DEAD - 1945
RKO Pictures
Rating: N/A

It's 'Tommy this and Tommy that' and 'Chuck him out, the Brute!'
Then a savior to his country when the guns begin to shoot.
- Rudyard Kipling

The opening title card of the movie reads,

Under conquest and oppression the people of Greece allowed their legends to degenerate into superstition, the Goddess Aphrodite giving way to the Vorvolaka. This nightmare figure was very much alive in the minds of the peasants when Greece fought the victorious war of 1912.

The title card fades up to a man thoroughly washing his hands in a basin. This is General Pherides (Boris Karloff: FRANKENSTEIN, BEDLAM, BLACK SABBATH) He does this as the disgraced Colonel Tolditis confesses to cowardice. In his rush to save himself, he abandoned some of his men on the battlefield to certain death. As he speaks, other soldiers strip his emblems of rank until his uniform is bare. His confession over, The General looks at him meaningfully and pushes a loaded revolver toward the now ex-Colonel. The confessor takes the gun, goes outside the tent and kills himself. The General smiles grimly at the one final act of nobility from the man.

An American reporter, Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer: THE CANTERVILLE GHOST), planted with the company, haughtily upbraids the General, comparing his superior civility to what he perceives as Pherides cold brutality. He ignorantly makes assumptions about the character of the General for having forced the Colonel to kill himself. After making a few cheap and vicious insults toward Pherides, he is brought up short when he learns the tragic human history of the General, nicknamed The Watchdog for his devout protection of his men and people.

This place and this night is a rare opportunity for The General. He is close to the river island where they bury the dead in this locale: The place where his wife died and he plans to visit her grave. Only now does the reporter appreciate that The General has been fighting in his own backyard, defending the ruins of his hometown. Appropriately contrite, Davis offers to go with the General and lay some flowers on the grave by way of apology.

As they walk to the river, they pass by the dying and dead bodies of the soldiers who were in battle that day. Those who survived are working hard as draft animals to collect and bury the dead. Davis, still fishing for a story that will please his editor back home, and knowing little about the realities of war, begins his ignorant accusations anew: accusations phrased as questions, insulting, condemning The General for forcing his men to work so hard. Once again he is brought up short when faced with the bitter reality of why soldiers who fought so long during the day, must work hard through the night.

The army doctor, Drossos (Ernst Deutsch: THE GOLEM, THE THIRD MAN), sets him straight.

There is Septicemic plague in the land; Typhus. If the dead aren't buried quickly, their rotting bodies will attract parasites, flies, fleas, and disease which spreads on the winds and infects the living.

"The horseman on the pale horse is pestilence. He follows the wars."
- General Pherides

Yet again, the American reporter is humiliated by his own self-righteous prejudice.

Soon after arriving on the island, The General makes a morbid discovery: his wife's crypt has been defiled; her body missing.

Unable to do anything about it, they return to their small rowboat when they hear singing.

Who would sing in a long abandoned cemetery, at night, in a country long ravaged by war and recent battle?

The General and Mr. Davis discover that people live on the island, in a house built there after the death of the General's wife.

Most of the people on the island are travelers, trapped when the battle surrounded them on the shore. One of them, a young woman named Thea (Ellen Drew: NIGHT OF MYSTERY, THE MAD DOCTOR, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, NIGHT OF JANUARY 16TH), takes exception to The General and refuses to serve him wine. She makes her animosity plain, basing her open contempt for no other reason than his very name.

General Pherides wants to return to his men, but Oliver explains how much more efficient it would be for the General if he stayed overnight, and inspected the abandoned enemy batteries by the light of day before his troops awake. The general agrees with this plan as it will give his men a little more time to rest and recover.

Meanwhile, the old woman of the house, Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig: STRANGERS IN TE NIGHT, CRY WOLF [1947]), furtively spreads her superstitious fears about Thea to the General. She suspects Thea of being a type of elemental wolf-spirit: A Vorvolaka. And now she has a battle-hardened soldier to fight her battles for her.

Yet the atheist Pherides has seen and experienced too much to believe in old superstitions. Then a guest dies. The General, suspecting the plague sweeping the land, sends for Doctor Drossos. The Doctor determines that it is indeed Typhus and quarantines the island. The General enforces it.

While Pherides doesn't believe in superstitions he does believe in the evil of humanity. His protective, innate Watchdog sensibility focuses on Thea as the plague takes its toll. And though The General wants to protect the people on the island, Thea seems intent on disobeying his orders at the risk of the others lives. Cornering her in the hall at night, he reveals that, as a child, she witnessed him come to her village with soldiers to force his fellow Greeks to pay their taxes (historically, a reoccurring issue in Greece).

General Pherides, a widower having sacrificed his entire adulthood serving and protecting his people, is taken aback at the open mockery and contempt his fellow Greeks have for him: Him and his ridiculous concept of science and the laws of nature over the open-minded, and more socially acceptable superstition. The travelers believe there are no laws but what we choose to make. Why go through the drudgery of safety precautions, constant washing, and a quarantine, when merely all one has to do is pray to Hermes, or whatever god you please, for protection?

The owner of the house, Albrecht (Jason Robards [Sr.]: CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON, TE DEVIL'S MATE, BEDLAM, DESPERATE) a former antiquities dealer, can barely disguise his ridicule of Pherides and his laughably quaint notions of "science". Affecting a tone of jovial friendliness, Albrecht even makes a wager with Pherides on which course of action will win: The soldier's science or the civilian's superstition? While Doctor Drossos is appalled at the man making a game out of human life, the general cannot refuse a challenge and accepts.

Naturally those on the side of science are most likely to die, as they have to constantly put themselves in harm's way to protect the superstitious from their own ignorance. When someone dies from the deadly contagion, the first thing the superstitious civilians want to do is go to the bedside of the diseased corpse and offer prayers. Doctor Drossos and General Pherides have to make themselves human shields between the living and the dead to stop the spread of infection.

Oh, I'll be fine. I built a nice little fire to the god Hermes! You know, Hermes loves a nice little fire!

Produced by the late great Val Lewton (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE GHOST SHIP [1943], THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, BEDLAM), ISLE OF THE DEAD is masterfully directed by Lewton's goto guy, Mark Robson (THE GHOST SHIP [1943], BEDLAM, DADDY'S GONE A-HUNTING, EARTHQUAKE, AVALANCHE EXPRESS). Writer Ardel Wray (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN) helmed the script, though Val was known to make major re-writes and revisions under the table.

The absurdly breathless movie poster must have sent more than a few in the audience in for the wrong reasons. ISLE OF THE DEAD is not a movie that "will keep you screaming!" and Boris Karloff isn't playing a monster. I can imagine how this film must have disappointed many, whose expectations were misdirected, by RKO Pictures crippled marketing and advertising.

Past marketing and advertising doesn't change the movie itself.

It's rare that a Mystery Thriller revolves so powerfully on the strength of its simple, yet fully fleshed out characters. That's how the screenplay by Ardel Wray and Josef Mischel played in in 1945, making ISLE OF THE DEAD one of Boris Karloff's finest performances.

4 Shriek Girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2012 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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