I'm not very familiar with Val Lewton. Some years ago I watched Cat People on the recommendation of Stephen King, but until recently I wouldn't even have recognised Lewton's name. He's neither an actor or director, but an American writer and producer who became head of RKO's horror unit in 1942 and is best known today for the films he made for them over the following few years. Apparently he always wrote the final draft, albeit usually uncredited. It's a particular shame that he died in 1951 at only the age of 46, since it would have been wonderful to have seen him working as a grand old man in the 1970s. What's interesting about his horror films is that they're anti-schlock. Obviously they're of their time and having to work within the Hollywood Code, but you'd expect him to be trashier. These two films of his that I've seen so far have gone for atmosphere and understatement, allowing scenes to unfold more naturally than you'd expect given their lurid content.
The counter-intuitive effect of this is that Val Lewton's films can be scary. It's only in patches, of course, but it might not occur to a fan of the Universal classics that horror should be frightening. Lewton's other credits include a bestselling pulp novel which became a film called No Man of Her Own with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, although the original title said "Bed" rather than "Man". His RKO films are:
- Cat People (1942)
- I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
- The Leopard Man (1943)
- The Seventh Victim (1943)
- The Ghost Ship (1943)
- The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
- Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)
- Youth Runs Wild (1944)
- The Body Snatcher (1945)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- Bedlam (1946)
Isle of the Dead was inspired by an Arnold Bocklin painting of all things. You can see it under the title credits. Today the film seems like a historical, set in Greece during the First Balkan War of 1912-13. Impressively it's also going to some lengths to immerse itself a Greek worldview and setting. The actors aren't trying to do the accent, but their characters are proud of who they are and the script is rich in the history and culture of the time. Look out for the wacky Greek handshake in which the hands don't grip anything but instead stay flat and vertical. This is also the only movie I know of to talk about the vorvolaka, an undead creature from Greek folklore that you can think of as second cousin to a vampire, although it doesn't usually drink blood and its name comes from a Slavic term for werewolf. My favourite vorvolaka legend is the one that they can only be destroyed on Saturdays, which sadly isn't mentioned here but could be good for big laughs if inflicted on an AD&D role-playing group.
So we've got a film called Isle of the Dead, starring Boris Karloff and probably the undead. You can imagine how that would turn out if you gave it to anyone else. Not here, though. We start with an old Greek soldier (Karloff) commanding one of his subordinates to commit suicide. He doesn't even say a word to him in doing so. He just does it with a nod.. The war is raging and Karloff's men are on the point of collapse, carrying great mounds of dead bodies from the battlefield as a precaution against plague. An American journalist is here, but that's the only concession you'll find here to the home audience. The natives are fiercely Greek, talking about how many of his fellow countrymen Karloff's killed and what it means to defend your home. Later on the film throws in a few British characters and a Swiss, but you've got to admire the wholeheartedness with which the film recreates its era.
Even the title is more literal than you'd think. It's an island cemetery. Obviously our characters will end up dying off there one by one, but basically this is another location-title like Castrovalva or Casablanca. Karloff and his pet journalist go there and then can't leave again, but what's interesting is how ambiguous the film keeps everything. You've got a harsh old woman who won't shut up about the vorvolaka and has even identified another of her party as one of the creatures, but Karloff's army doctor identifies the plague and has a list of precautions that everyone needs to follow if they want to stay alive. The reason no one can leave the island is that Karloff's put them under quarantine. What's the real danger, then? Undead monsters? Disease? Superstition? That last one is particularly interesting, since normally a mad old woman in these horror films is the script's way of info-dumping all we need to know. In this film, it's just as likely that she's accusing an innocent woman and trying to stir up the others to murder.
The story stays relatively low-key despite the potentially gothic material, but then suddenly something out of Edgar Allen Poe happens and the film becomes scary. That crypt scene got to me. They don't maintain this right until the end, but for a while all I knew was that something horrendous had just happened and that I was expecting consequences.
The only thing I dislike about the film is its last thirty seconds. It's so nearly great, but Lewton and/or his director Mark Robson kill the mood by filming in long shot. Coupled with a slightly patronising snippet of voice-over, one gets the impression that they're trying to force the film into a conventional kind of happy ending. You could have made it a thousand times better without changing a word, just by bringing the camera up close to the survivors as they row away. Are they unwitting carriers of plague? Is one of them undead? Show us their faces and we'll be able to ask ourselves these questions, but the shot as it stands feels like a perfunctory attempt at a "happy ever after". I didn't buy it.
The film shows its budget in little ways, although in fact it was relatively expensive for a Lewton horror film and didn't do that well for RKO, making only $130,000 profit. There are spots of under-acting and a daft medical plot point. Apparently the only cure for the disease is a south wind. Germs don't like good weather. Surprisingly this is a clever plot device because it underlines the powerless of the characters and the hopelessness of their situation, but obviously it's laughable if you think about it for a picosecond. It's ingenious while the wind hasn't yet arrived, but afterwards I didn't believe for a moment that the plague might be no longer a danger and thus became mildly irritated with the film and its characters for ignoring the doctor's earlier ban on physical contact. It feels as if the script's breaking its own rules, while in fact I have a feeling that it's merely remembering a plot point I'd overlooked. However in fairness I should admit that I didn't consider any of this implausible while I was watching and instead believed every word I was being told. That's quite a trick, now I come to think about it.
Apparently this was a troubled production. Production was suspended when Karloff needed a back operation, after which Lewton and Karloff managed to shoot The Body Snatcher in the time it took to get the cast of Isle of the Dead together again. There was apparently also a central female character called Catherine, but she was cut.
This was an odd little film. It needs a little more patience to watch than Universal's classics and to be honest feels less commercial than they do. Lewton's films certainly made money, but they don't feel perfect for children as do Chaney's Wolf Man or Karloff's Frankenstein movies. However I like its integrity and the way it'll come out with imaginative angles like the notion that the vorvolaka might not be aware that they're a vorvolaka. You don't often see someone investigating themselves. This is one of those intelligent movies that gives the impression that it'll unfold even further on repeat viewings. I'll be buying more Lewton, that's for sure.