Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 22, 2021)
Despite its title, 1945’s Isle of the Dead doesn’t offer a look at Jerry Garcia’s tropical vacation. Instead, it delivers a horror tale from producer Val Lewton.
Set in 1912 during the First Balkan War, hard-edged General Nikolas Pherides (Boris Karloff) goes to a small island off the coast of Greece to visit his wife’s grave. American journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) accompanies him, but when they arrive, they discover that his wife’s corpse has gone missing.
Pherides and Davis soon learn that a plague stalks the land. Some fear the presence of an evil creature called a “vorvolaka”, and these concerns eventually impact the visitors while all remain quarantined.
On the cover of this Blu-ray, a tag line promises that the film “will keep you screaming”. This feels like an unrepresentative claim, as it implies a much more overt horror tale from Isle than what we get.
Rather than go for an in-your-face frightfest, Isle prefers a low-key sense of dread and creepiness, though even there, it seems untraditional. While the notion of the vorvolaka implies supernatural creatures and the resultant scares, nothing of that sort occurs.
Which might lead some to view Isle as a bait-and-switch situation. Although the promo materials promise a big old monster movie, instead we find a flick that emphasizes psychological chills.
And it does fairly well in that regard, especially from the perspective of the year 2021. As I write this, the COVID-19 pandemic “lockdown” started exactly one year ago, so we certainly have a different view of how a plague can impact cultures and sanity.
That becomes the most interesting aspect of Isle, as we greet the possibility that the vorvoloka represents a scapegoat. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal whether or not the vorvoloka actually exists in the film, but the story engages in the possibility the other characters simply see this creature as an easy explanation for the woes that befall them.
We’ve certainly encountered a lot of that sort of demonization since COVID hit – and we still do, as some cynical politicians use the non-existent threat of contaminated, unwashed “foreign masses” for their own ends. Whenever society hits a difficult situation, many will choose to find an easy target to blame, and the vorvoloka represents that here.
Some viewers may deem the psychological leanings of Isle as insufficient to provide the desired scares, and I can understand that. Despite its lean 72-minute running time, the film takes its own sweet time in terms of development and movement.
Don’t expect a rapid-fire affair here, as we get a surprisingly languid tale despite the movie’s brevity. This approach works, though, as we invest in the small cast of characters while we follow their journeys.
While we may find ourselves a little impatient to get to the “scary stuff”, the film builds in a way that allows us to better get to know the participants. A more fear-focused flick might lose the build-up that this one provides.
Also, this approach leads to an effective sense of claustrophobia. Sure, the titular island isn’t horribly dinky, but the characters become trapped there and the film creates an impression of the walls as they close in around the people.
A few elements misfire – like a gratuitous romantic subplot – but most of Isle works well. This becomes a taut, gripping little thriller.