Isle of the Dead, a Val Lewton-produced Poverty Row programmer, is a good example of why B movies are B movies. The story could be interesting: A small group of people in an isolated setting (in this case, a small Greek island) are forced to deal with a threat to their lives (in this case, a nasty pestilence called septicemic plague). In the course of the movie some will live and some will die, some will prove brave and some will go mad, some will swear there is an evil force and some will blame things on the wind and the fleas. And yet, while Boris Karloff does a fine job as the aging General Nikolas Pherides, the rest of the cast demonstrate why they never broke out of Poverty Row.
It's 1912 and we're in the middle of the Greek wars. The General has won a victory, but there are many dead on the darkened battlefield. He is a hard man, driven by duty and patriotism, yet fair by his standards. He's not without warmth and friendliness. He and Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), an American reporter, visit a small island used for decades as a place of burial, where his dead wife lies in a crypt. The island is just off the coast where the General's army is encamped. They find the crypt has been forced open and the body missing.
On this isolated little crag of an island they find a large stone house where there lives an assortment of humanity: a Swiss archeologist; his severe Greek housekeeper from whom he bought the house; Thea (Ellen Drew), a beautiful young servant; and three guests...soon to be just two. One of the guests, in the middle of dinner, declares he feels ill and staggers to his room. He is soon dead of the plague.
The General orders an army doctor come over who confirms their worst fears. The General is determined to fight the plague and keep it from infecting his army. He takes charge of the house. He insists that no one may leave the island. They all can only wait and hope the plague strikes no more of them down.
And all this time the housekeeper whispers about death and demons. She sees the work of the dreaded vorvolaka, a wolf spirit in human form, and she insists the vorvolaka has taken the shape of the servant girl. As people die, we have noble death, madness, a live burial and, in at least one case, the triumph of superstition.
What to make of this? The first half of the movie is a taut look at people reacting under pressure, led by the excellent performance of Boris Karloff. We start out on a Greek battlefield at night, filled with the groaning wounded and the dead in carts being hauled to speedy mass burials. "The rider on the pale horse is pestilence," explains General Pherides to the reporter, "and he follows the wars."
Then we're off on a small boat to the dark, well-imagined mountainous island, full of rocky, steep paths, threatening trees, a mouldering crypt and crashing waves below a cliff. We meet the cast and, at dinner, see their tentativeness. We can take a measure of their characters.
But then the second half of the movie is upon us. We're in the middle of a corny Hollywood horror story with awkward acting (except for Karloff) and even cornier dialogue.
"The vorvolaka still lives," whispers the crone of a housekeeper, "rose-cheeked and full of blood!" We're in the poverty-row world of white gauzy gowns slipping around corners, of creaking caskets, a mad death scene, a vicious-looking trident and a leap off a cliff. Isle of the Dead has become predictable. The movie has great atmosphere and Karloff. It's enough for a strong beginning but not enough for a strong ending.
I particularly enjoyed two members of the cast, in addition to Karloff. One, Skelton Knaggs, is only on screen for a couple of minutes. Knaggs had a distinctive-looking face, weak, ugly and unhealthy. Combined with his whiny voice, he was hard to ignore. In another Val Lewton-produced movie, The Ghost Ship, he plays a deaf-mute who, it's true, narrates the story.
The other actor I liked is a woman named Katherine Emery. She plays the ill wife of a British diplomat. Emery has a cultured, precise and unhurried voice. Close your eyes and you'd swear you were listening to Mercedes McCambridge. To see her in full dominant mode, watch Eyes in the Night.