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Isle of the Dead

Posted by martinteller on December 22, 2012

After a battle in 1912 Greece, General Pherides (Boris Karloff) takes the American journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to visit a tiny nearby island, where his wife was buried many years ago.  Upon arriving, they discover all the coffins have been emptied.  Investigating the sound of singing, they come across a house.  They find an unusual assortment of occupants there.  Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.) is the Swiss man who owns the house, an archaeologist who claims responsibility for spurring the locals to rob graves.  Madame Kyra (Helene Thimig), the previous owner, is an intense woman who believes in the old superstitions.  St. Aubyn and his invalid wife (Alan Napier, Katherine Emery) are visiting with their lovely assistant Thea (Ellen Drew).  And there is another visitor, an Englishman named Robinson (Skelton Knaggs) who appears drunk.  But the next morning, Robinson is found dead, a victim of a plague that has been threatening the area.  Pherides enforces a quarantine, and as people start dropping off, tensions mount within the house… with some believing that the evil spirit of the Vorvolaka is at work.

Mark Robson also directed The Seventh Victim, my favorite of the Val Lewton productions I’ve seen so far.  But as of now, this stands as my least favorite.  There are spooky moments, and the last 10-15 minutes are quite masterful in building dread, playing on primal fears.  But the buildup is scattered and flat.  The graverobbing that seems like it might be an early omen or something to set the tone is simply brushed aside.  The performances are inconsistent and clash with each other, leaving the film struggling to establish a mood.  Even Karloff is something of a disappointment, although Thimig almost makes up for it with a campy performance that made me think of Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein.

There is potential in its themes of cabin fever suspicion, and raising the possibility that old lady Kyra may be right in her accusations.  But the film just stumbles around too much, never catches hold until the end.  There are some beautifully lit scenes that add some eeriness, but they’re more the exception than the rule and are easily forgotten when muddling through the lackluster script.  The film doesn’t deliver the horror that its title promises… nor enough of anything else.  Rating: Poor (57)


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