Flash forward to three weeks ago as I rewatched ISLE OF THE DEAD the week before Halloween. I must have had that blanket over my entire head during that terrifying scene when I was a boy as there is no such scene in the movie. It was all just my imagination. This is not to say that a woman doesn't seemingly rise from the dead because she does and there are some creepy moments in the film but I was a bit disappointed to find that the first truly cinematic fright in my life was created in my adolescent memory.
ISLE OF THE DEAD's plot is not your garden variety horror story. Set during the Greek Civil War in 1912, Boston Star newspaper reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) observes General Nikolas Pherides aka the Watchdog (Boris Karloff) bully another commanding officer into committing suicide for his failure to inspire his men into battle. Davis makes a wisecrack about Pherides wife only to be told by the general that his wife is dead. Feeling ashamed, Davis joins Pherides on a short boat trip to a Greek island to pay his respects to the dead wife. Upon arriving on the island, Davis and Pherides discover that her crypt has been desecrated and her body is gone. The two men also discover the island has some new visitors including an archaeologist named Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.); Mr. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier) from the English Consulate and his invalid wife Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery); Mrs. Aubyn's caretaker Thea (Ellen Drew); and the very superstitious peasant woman Madame Kyra (Helene Thimig).
Things begin to go awry when another guest, a salesman named Robbins (Skelton Knaggs) becomes ill and very quickly dies. A doctor is rushed to the island and the diagnosis is not good. The plague has found its way onto the isle. General Pherides orders a quarantine, forbidding the inhabitants from leaving the island as to not infect his troops back on the mainland. Madame Kyra blames the caretaker Thea for the bad luck that has befallen the island, even calling her a Vorvolaka, a nightmarish demon that punishes mortals for the Gods. The reporter Davis comes to Thea's defense but when St. Aubyn dies with Thea in his room, even Pherides believes Thea is evil. Meanwhile, Mrs. St. Aubyn's fear of premature burial comes true when she falls ill due to her condition and is "declared" dead.
Davis and Albrecht place Mrs. St. Aubyn's body in a nearby crypt. But Mrs. St. Aubyn is not dead, just in some kind of trance. Buried alive, she claws her way out of her coffin and becomes possessed by Vorvolaka, seeking revenge on General Pherides and Madame Kyra for their ill treatment of her nurse Thea.
As stated at the beginning of this blog, there is no scene of Mrs. St. Aubyn rising out of her coffin like I thought I remembered in my youth. The best sequence in the film is Mrs. St. Aubyn screaming from within her tomb and clawing her way out. As I mentioned, sound and atmosphere play a huge part in Lewton's films. THE CAT PEOPLE has an amazing sound edit involving the sound of a bus when the heroine believes she is being followed by a large cat. In ISLE OF THE DEAD, Mrs. St. Aubyn's terrifying wailing from within her tomb, the creak of the coffin being lifted, the wind blowing through the crypt, and the shadows from the blowning trees all create a chilling moment. When we finally see Mrs. St. Aubyn free from her imprisonment, she's racing around the island, her shroud-like gown blowing in the wind. She looks like a ghost.
In a way, ISLE OF THE DEAD is an early zombie movie. Mrs. St. Aubyn isn't out to eat flesh but she does return from the dead so to speak. Setting the film on an island is a nice touch, trapping the inhabitants, as the plague begins to infect each of them. ISLE OF THE DEAD is like an Agatha Christie mystery with the plague as the killer. That is until the spirit of the Vorvolaka takes over Mrs. St. Aubyn.
Although certainly B movies, Val Lewton's films gave birth to some future A list directors. ISLE OF THE DEAD director Mark Robson would go on to direct many big films including VON RYAN'S EXPRESS (1965) and EARTHQUAKE (1974). Robert Wise, who would direct Lewton's THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) and THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) is more well known for his films WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).
I cannot hide the disappointment that one of my earliest scares from a film was not quite the way I remembered it. It's a good example of why some one's favorite films from childhood, high school, any time in the past should always be revisited. New things can be discovered from repeated viewings, new treasures unearthed, new feelings attained, and sometimes, legends created in one's mind debunked.