Vladimir Nabokov noted in his novel Despair that all pre–World War II homes in Berlin displayed a print of Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead. Böcklin created several different versions of it, but all of them show a rowboat coming in to a severe-looking islet in the middle of dark water. It’s an ominous image and it has a certain grandeur, and it so impressed Adolf Hitler that he bought one of them for himself and later hung it in the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
Producer Val Lewton was inspired by Isle of the Dead, and he evoked it in certain shots in I Walked with a Zombie (1943). That famous painting would continue to provide visual inspiration in the 1945 film that shared its name. The second of three movies that Boris Karloff made for Lewton, it is a particularly beguiling, glinting jewel of the horror genre in which Lewton, director Mark Robson, and scriptwriters Ardel Wray and the uncredited Josef Mischel created a tale about a group of people quarantined on a small island during the Balkan Wars of 1912.
Isle of the Dead begins with a shot of Karloff’s Greek General Pherides carefully lathering his dirty hands with soap, and hand-washing imagery will recur throughout this measured, subtle, dread-filled picture. General Pherides has been relentlessly overseeing the burial of his dead. When a reporter (Marc Cramer) apologizes after asking a harsh question, the General smiles quickly at him with a surprising kind of warmth.
Karloff wears white, curly hair here, and it gives him a slightly less sinister look than usual. After a successful run of films that included Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), he had been trapped for years in substandard projects that only asked for his air of menace, but in The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam (1946), Lewton allows Karloff to play faceted human beings and gives him room for character details that his programmers never had time for, like that smile General Pherides bestows on the reporter.
The General has been fighting a long time. He once had a wife, and when he goes to visit her grave he finds that it has been robbed. Anyone who has seen a number of Karloff movies knows that grave-robbing is often a plot point in them, and this emphasized his eerie suspension between life and death, between stillness and reanimation, and what these things might look like or mean.
Isle of the Dead runs for just seventy-two minutes, but it has a rather complex plot and many characters who are stuck with General Pherides after a wave of septicemic plague sequesters them together. There is a Swiss archeologist (Jason Robards, Sr.), a Greek housekeeper (Helen Thimig), an English tinsmith (Skelton Knaggs), and a diplomat (Alan Napier) and his ill wife (Katherine Emery). It is made clear that a change in the wind can move the disease away, and so we wait to see wind rustle in the trees or in the fabric of the Grecian gown worn by the servant Thea (Ellen Drew), who first materializes at the top of a staircase after we hear a thudding noise that is followed by a very fast cut away from the General and the other characters.
The editing in Isle of the Dead can be so abrupt as to feel disorienting, and this seems deliberate, but it also might have something to do with the fact that Karloff had to stop shooting after two weeks in order to get an operation on his back. (As a young actor, Karloff took work as a laborer in between acting jobs, and this physical strain gave him problems with his back for the rest of his life.) The Body Snatcher was shot before the cast and crew of Isle of the Dead could be reassembled to finish the film, and there is a kind of interrupted quality to the narrative that Lewton somehow manages to make a poetic asset. Turning limitations to advantage was his specialty in this period.
Drew’s Thea dislikes General Pherides, and she won’t serve him wine. “I don’t know what she thinks . . . I don’t care,” Pherides says, and Karloff makes this sound very sincere. This is a man past caring what people think of him, and Isle of the Dead plays on our ambivalence about Karloff and whether we should consider his character very bad, very good, or somewhere in between. It turns out that Thea is angry at the General not because he has done something really luridly villainous, as we might expect, but because he was unyielding when he was collecting taxes from her people before the war.
Drew has the sort of eyes that look distant, preoccupied, and always mildly disgusted about something, and so it makes sense when the script asks us to consider whether or not Thea might be the personification of the Vorvolaka, an undead woman who does mischief at night. As in other Lewton films like Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943), the menace here is often unseen, lurking in the dark.
There is an elaborate montage of hands washing, washing, washing away in a cistern, but no amount of washing can seem to fully rid them of evil and the embodiment of evil, disease. Isle of the Dead is a film that is predicated on the fear of disease, the fear of the dark, and a fear of being buried alive when the living cannot tell the difference between the dead and the undead—and of course Karloff is the figurehead for this particular fear, with his staring eyes and gaunt looks and his voice that can sometimes linger on words and sing them like John Gielgud did in Shakespearean roles.
In this film, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam, Karloff reached his full potential as a man of both good and evil, a man of mystery. Humankind is an experiment, just as Karloff’s dug-up and reactivated creature in Frankenstein is an experiment, a sort of void in which good and evil fight with each other. Karloff’s General Pherides is clearly a man with a long past behind him. Karloff lets us know in the layered way he behaves that there have been many different versions of the General before he got to the hard and self-sufficient figure we see.
But that warm smile the General gives the reporter in the first scene of this movie is the key to Karloff’s performance here. It’s like a little flower in the mud, and it proves Karloff’s artistry just as General Pherides eventually proves his own need to fight for goodness in the violent and very frightening climax of Isle of the Dead, where people jump to their death and knives flash in the night.
Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher are available on FilmStruck.