Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part I: Isle of the Dead

As part of this week's Boris Karloff Blogathon, I've decided to have a look at the three atmospheric chillers Karloff made with producer Val Lewton in the mid-forties. Given a collection of lurid titles by RKO, Lewton was instructed to craft low budget horror films to compete with Universal's slew of Monster Movies at the time. Lewton created subtle, provocative and tasteful films that became highly influential in the horror genre. When Karloff came on board for three of these films (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam) the two men found kindred spirits in one another and this dark union produced three highly effective pictures that proved to be the best amongst both men's work.

When Val Lewton was told that Boris Karloff had signed a 3 picture contract with RKO and he had to use the actor, Lewton was initially not best pleased. Karloff had been signed by Jack Gross, who like Karloff, was coming to the studio from Universal. According to director Mark Robson – who would direct Karloff in two films – Gross and Universal’s idea of horror was ‘A werewolf chasing a girl in a nightgown up a tree.’

Lewton feared that the heads at RKO would force him into producing films of a similar ilk, as he assumed Karloff would share their outlook on horror films, and not allow him the freedom he had had with his prior productions – a number of elegant, subtle and beautifully atmospheric pictures including Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Despite the tacky titles, these films are amongst the most effective and poetic in the genre – Lewton and his filmmakers preferred to suggest the terror, rather than show it outright. This was not only due to budgetary restraints, but also because of Lewton’s literate and intellectual approach to his subject matter – nothing could be scarier than the dark images conjured by the human imagination – his films act as triggers for the imagination and are therefore genuinely unsettling experiences. Lewton laid out all the necessary steps and allowed the minds of his audiences to do the work.

Boris Karloff and Val Lewton
Karloff had just finished a long stint on Broadway performing in Arsenic and Old Lace. He had grown weary of the shoddy, monotonous scripts and parts he was being offered. He wanted something to sink his teeth into – something substantial. Once he finished his run with Arsenic and Old lace he signed up with Universal again, only to realise they were doing the same old thing within the genre – something he grew to despise.

Finishing his 13 week contract, he was persuaded by Jack Gross to sign up with RKO. Gross realised that the studio would benefit from Karloff’s star power. On May 18, 1944, Karloff signed the deal and was immediately introduced to Val Lewton. Despite Lewton’s initial trepidation, the two men hit it off immediately. Both were literate, well read and deep thinking gentlemen who discovered they both shared similar ideas about Horror – Karloff actually referred to his films as ‘Terror’ pictures, reaffirming his belief that scary films should provoke feelings of intense fear or anxiety – and not repulsion – as the word ‘horror’ would imply. The two men instinctively knew they would work well together. Confident that Karloff shared his vision, Lewton set about crafting the first film they would collaborate on: Isle of the Dead.

Isle of the Dead
Dir. Mark Robson

Set during the Balkan War, 1912-1913, the story revolves around army General Nikolas Pherides (Karloff) as he invites budding journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to visit his wife’s grave on the titular island. Once there they realise that a deadly plague currently sweeping the land has claimed a number of victims. Pherides imposes quarantine on the island and the small group of people staying there must remain. People begin dying one by one and Madame Kyra, a fork-tongued housemaid, instigates panic when she blames the deaths on a vampiric creature called a vorvolaka. She accuses Thea (Ellen Drew) - nursemaid to the fragile Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery) - of being an evil spirit, sucking the life out of her victims as they sleep. Eventually Pherides, a man of logic and reason, begins to believe the old woman, with her stories of ancient spirits and demons. Oliver attempts to protect Thea, but with more people dying, no way off the island and Pherides becoming increasingly deranged, time is running out for the unfortunate souls marooned on the island.

Typical of Lewton’s influences, Isle of the Dead was inspired by a painting – Boecklin’s work depicting a sinister island in a dark sea - and Poe’s The Premature Burial. Indeed, aside from perhaps The Seventh Victim, no other Lewton film exudes as much of an atmosphere of gloom and preoccupation with death as Isle of the Dead.

With a small cast – including a big name star in Karloff - limited location and deeply morbid story, Lewton believed he was on to a winner with Isle of the Dead. Unfortunately the production would be plagued with re-writes and scheduling problems – not helped by the fact that Karloff had to leave the set after only 8 days of shooting to have a spinal operation. Before he began making a living from his acting, Karloff had taken many jobs as a manual labourer and had damaged his back, resulting in problems dogging him throughout his career. Realising he couldn’t do much without his star player, Lewton called a hold to shooting and began pre-production work on his next project – The Body Snatcher.

After several weeks of rest, Karloff was able to return to recommence filming what Lewton often denounced as ‘a terrible mess of a film.’ While nowhere near as effective as his earlier output such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Curse of the Cat People, Isle of the Dead is still a thoroughly moody film with an undeniably creepy atmosphere and a pace so languid it resembles a floating wraith.
The mood of death and despair is eminent from the outset – the opening scenes depict a dank battlefield where the moans of the dying rise out from under a weightily grim atmosphere. We first encounter Pherides as he is left no choice but to force one of his men to shoot himself for failing to carry out a mission successfully. He explains to war correspondent Oliver that he had no choice – he was merely following the laws and regulations of such matters. From the beginning, Pherides is presented as a logical man who keeps his emotions separate from his obligations to follow the law. During one of his many confrontations with Thea, the feisty maid declares ‘Laws can be wrong and laws can be cruel, and that people who only live by the law are both wrong and cruel.’

The look of Isle of the Dead is slightly akin to I Walked with a Zombie – particularly the interior scenes with cinematographer Jack MacKenzie’s subtle use of a chiaroscuro lighting effect; the bars of moonlight on the walls of the bedrooms are especially remarkable.

With the central theme of death and a character who believes she is a monster, parallels can arguably be drawn between Isle of the Dead, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim. Attempts at a certain degree of ambiguity stalk the film – is it really a plague offing all the characters – or something more sinister? Debates about reason and logic, folklore and superstition pepper the already wordy script. Pherides, Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) and Mr Albrecht (Jason Robards) discuss medicine versus religion and faith, with Pherides and Dr. Drossos eventually succumbing to Albrecht’s notion that superstition is no less believable than the doctor’s belief in ‘good winds and bad winds’ – he had previously believed that if the winds were of the right kind, the air carrying the pestilence couldn’t reach the island.

More people die and we eventually come to the film’s central set piece – the premature burial. Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn confided in the doctor that she suffered from extreme catalepsy and feared being buried alive. Sure enough, something triggers a particularly bad attack and she falls into a deep swoon – believed dead by the doctor. She is buried in the tomb as the eerily gliding camera roams through the set like the last breath expelled by the dying. What happens next unfolds as such a memorable scene it should be considered among the best in Lewton’s films – it’s up there with the pool scene in Cat People and the ‘blood under the door’ scene in The Leopard Man. Coming to rest on the recently sealed coffin, the camera pauses long enough for us to hear scratching from inside it… The unfortunate woman eventually breaks out of the coffin, driven mad by her experience she stalks the island in a series of beautifully haunting shots – wafting through the trees in her flowing burial robes, accompanied only by the howling wind of the soundtrack – she eventually ends her life over the side of a cliff: but not before paying a visit to the wretched general first.

Karloff provides a fine performance as the tortured general, caught between the worlds of logic and superstition; he torments himself trying to work out what the best course of action to take is. In the end, he is driven insane – but his intentions did not go unnoticed, as Oliver states: ‘In the back of his madness was something simple, something good. He wanted to protect us all.’ Though he does become a madman, thanks to Karloff’s masterful performance, Pherides’ transistion is a starkly tragic one, and he is as much a victim of the island’s gloomy death-obsession as anyone else. It would be with his next role for Lewton however, that Karloff would deliver what many people (including myself) believe to be his best performance - that of Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher...

Follow the links to read more about Karloff's collaborations with Lewton.
Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part II: The Body Snatcher

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part III: Bedlam


Ed Howard said…
Great writeup of a flawed, messy film. It's definitely wayyyy too wordy and its script is at times torturous in trying to shoehorn in Lewton's meditations on religion, superstition, war and compassion. At times Lewton is too preachy for his own good, and his literary sensibilities work against his more visual ideas. This is one of his worst offenders in that respect.

Still, as you point out, there are some wonderful scenes and creepy atmospheres here, especially towards the end. Any Lewton film is worth seeing, but this is far from one of his best.
panavia999 said…
I'm really enjoying your Karloff posts this week. Many thanks for your great commentaries.
James Gracey said…
Thanks for your comments guys.
Ed, I agree, this isn't amongst Lewton's finest, but it still holds a special place in my heart. There are a few moments in it that remain as vivid for me today, as when I first watched it many years ago.
This is one of my faves... when I first watched it as a kid the ending really terrified me...

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