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.