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July 2011

Isle Of The Dead

cast: Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Katherine Emery, and Ernst Dorian

director: Mark Robson

72 minutes (15) 1945
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by James A. Stewart

Isle Of The Dead

Each civilisation has its own take on the vampire legend it seems. In the case of the Greeks the vorvolaka, half vampire - half werewolf, was a revenant that was very real to the peoples of the Greek islands especially, with vorvolaka graves dotted around places like Lesbos and Mykonos. Whilst not as prevalent as the Slavic vampire in popular folklore, there are many similarities between its vampires and those pesky vorvolaka.

In RKO's 1945 release, Isle Of The Dead, directed by Mark Robson, and produced by the horror legend Val Newton, Boris Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, an intense man who finds himself and his overworked troops quarantined on a small Greek island following an unsettling visit his wife's disturbed grave. Set in 1912 amidst the tribulations of the Balkan War, Isle Of The Dead shows that a plague has descended on the island, and no one can explain what it is. What then happens, propelled by the aforementioned isolation, is that we start to see personalities sway, sweep and fall apart as the psychological torture of the isolation cuts to the very core of the characters' fears.

The doctor's (Ernst Dorian) science is first seen as the great saviour but quickly, as the plague descends, the lack of reassurance from the doctor starts to give way to hysteria. Greek peasants pray to millennia old gods, heaping their hopes on far off deities. Rationality loses and Karloff comes into his own as the command and control general who succumbs to the need to find an explanation, any explanation. He starts to suspect the vorvolaka is at work. What else could it be?

The sense of claustrophobia is intense at times; each character has their own foible that is exaggerated by the forced seclusion. Particularly poignant is the use of near and far normality as a weapon to show the segregation to which they are obliged to live within. The mainland is in plain view yet might as well be the other side of the world. The person next door cannot be communicated with; you must not leave your room. It is like solitary confinement with the added spice of unexplained death just waiting to visit.

Karloff, most famous for his roles as monsters, is wonderful in his part as a tormented tormentor. At the outset he is the patriotic General, working his troops to the bone for their country, then as the intangible foreboding of the isolation, plague and vorvolaka becomes something else, Karloff shows remarkable flexibility in making his character the core around which the creepiness of Isle Of The Dead becomes material.

Lewton and Karloff went on to collaborate on two further movies, The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946), and it is a measure of both men's dedication to their craft that their work is still popular and marketable almost 70 years on.



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