‘Will keep you screaming!’
Isle of the Dead is a 1944 [released 1945] American horror film and one of producer Val Lewton’s horror films made for RKO Radio Pictures. The movie had a script inspired by the painting Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, which appears behind the title credits, though the film was originally titled “Camilla” during production.
Another of Lewton’s films, I Walked With a Zombie, has the painting hung in the main room of the movie. It was written by frequent Lewton collaborator Ardel Wray; directed by Mark Robson, the fourth of five pictures he directed for Lewton; and stars Boris Karloff, the first of three pictures he made with Lewton (although the second released).
On a lonely Greek island, a disparate group of people are in fear. Plague has come to the island making them virtual prisoners and then there is talk of the vorvolakas, a vampire-like creature that preys on the living.
Among those trapped there is General Nikolas Pherides (Karloff), nicknamed the Watchdog, who is taken aback when he is visits his wife’s mausoleum only to find her grave empty. As several of those quarantined die from the plague, paranoia sets in creating a tense, fear-filled atmosphere…
Filming began for about two weeks in July 1944 until production was suspended when Karloff required a back operation. It was completed in December 1944. In the interim, after Karloff had recovered from the surgery but before the cast of Isle of the Dead could be reassembled, he and Lewton made The Body Snatcher. The film had a troubled production, and the central female character of the original script (named “Catherine”) was deleted entirely from the tale.
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“But it’s in the final third that the film really delivers on the promise of its build-up, as Mary’s catalepsy and terror of being buried alive collide with Pherides’ conviction that she has been infected by Thea, providing a couple of spectacularly effective sound-driven jolts and the single biggest fright I’ve had from a movie all year. It’s the handling of these scenes that prompted Martin Scorsese to select Isle of the Dead as one of the eleven scariest horror films he’s ever seen.” Cine Outsider
“In the end, I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be scared of boogiemen or appalled at humanity. I didn’t know whether the film was creating a surrealistic fantasy world or was firmly set in reality. As it stands, Isle of the Dead is an ill-formed slog through a garden of little seeds that might have blossomed into horror had they been nurtured.” Rob Lineberger, DVD Verdict
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