From the first moment the unmistakable Boris Karloff appears on-screen in “The Isle of the Dead” you immediately feel a sense of unease. The English horror movie icon was known for his distinct voice and menacing, expressive face. In fact it was 1931’s “Frankenstein” and 1932’s “The Mummy” that made Karloff a star. “Isle of the Dead” certainly isn’t considered among those classics, but it’s an underrated and overlooked part of his fun and impressive filmography.
This 1945 horror thriller was actually inspired by an Arnold Böcklin painting. It takes place in 1912 during the Balkan Wars. Karloff plays General Pherides who takes an American war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to visit the Isle of the Dead, a remote island cemetery where Pherides’ wife is entombed. Once there they find the wife’s grave vandalized while hearing the haunting voice of a woman. As they search out the voice they come across a home place housing a Swiss archeologist, a British dignitary and his sickly wife, a tinsmith, a housekeeper, and a beautiful young Greek woman.
As night falls the archeologist (played by Jason Robards, Sr.) convinces Pherides and Davis to stay. The next morning one of them is found dead and a doctor is summoned. He determines that the death is the result of a rare plague and quarantines the island forbidding anyone from leaving. The rest of the film follows the group as the plague or possibly something much more sinister claims one victim after another.
The bulk of the story focuses on the cause of the mounting death toll. Concern takes over with some searching for answers in modern medicine and others in superstition. Some attribute the death to a supernatural force known as Vorvolaka. But once paranoia sets in different theories arise and suspicions lead to accusations. The movie builds on the fear and confusion of its characters which inevitably leads to division. It could be said the film is more interested in exploring these interactions than actual delivering horror. But that’s not to say it doesn’t give us some eerie moments particularly in the second half.
I can see some people having lukewarm reactions to “Isle of the Dead”. It doesn’t go all-out horror and its focus on suspense sometimes misses the mark. But ultimately it succeeds in being a compelling horror thriller with a fun Boris Karloff performance at its center. It has its share of creepy scenes and while some of its elements are absurd, the story plays out neatly and in a way I found to be quite fun.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS