Isle of the Dead (1945)

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*. All of Val Lewton’s RKO features were minor films, but some were more minor than others. I believe this one actually had a relatively large budget, but it was perhaps the least significant of them all.
*. There are lots of recognizable Lewton elements, most notably the legendary evil that comes between a pair of lovers (the myth of the Vorvolaka is quite similar to the curse of the cat people in this regard), and the casting throughout of a latticework of shadows.
*. The big problem, as I see it, or hear it, is in the stiffness of the dialogue. This is excessively formal, and delivered out of synch and at a deadly pace. But then who could do anything with lines like “How can anything bad come from goodness?,” “General Pherides, this self-appointed tyranny of yours cannot be tolerated!” and, my favourite, “Who is against the laws of Greece is not a Greek.”
*. Martin Scorsese put this one on his list of the eleven scariest movies of all time. He might have had a thing about stories involving premature burial, but even so it’s hard to figure. This is not a scary movie, though contemporary audiences might have found it shocking. The business of using Neptune’s trident to do away with Pherides and Kyra takes us into slasher territory, well avant la lettre.

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*. Can we talk about Boris Karloff’s curly coiffure? Because we really should.
*. I’m not sure what’s going on with Mrs. St. Aubyn at the end. Is she possessed? In some kind of dissociated mental state? I understand that she’s got this thing about being buried alive, but why does she go on a homicidal rampage once she escapes?
*. OK, sure, it’s better than most low-budget films from this period. But I can’t help feeling it could have been something more. I like the idea of the characters being in quarantine on the island, and it certainly doesn’t pull any punches at the end. But the background mythology of the Vorvolaka is left too obscure (is it a vampire? a werewolf?), the romance isn’t very compelling (since Thea and Oliver, the two lovers, aren’t the stars, and aren’t even very interesting), and the direction by Mark Robson (whose filmography would go on to include Von Ryan’s Express, Peyton Place, and Valley of the Dolls) just seems to be going through the motions.

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