Isle of the Dead was the first of what could be considered a historical trilogy of films starring Boris Karloff. The collaboration with the horror star was a happy one, Lewton allowing Karloff to create characters of complex moral shading. The imposition of the star by RKO was not initially something about which Lewton was at all happy, however. He felt that it was an attempt to direct him towards making the more generically predictable material for which Karloff was well known. The studio bosses appeased him by promising that this would be his last horror film before he graduated to other, better funded projects. It was a promise that was never honoured, of course. But as it happened, Karloff and Lewton found themselves to be fellow spirits, both men of some cultural refinement who longed for a more nuanced approach to the tales of terror they had found themselves locked into making. Karloff was returning from a lengthy and extremely successful stage run in Arsenic and Old Lace, a play which emphasised grotesque humour over horror. So successful was his performance that he was denied leave to reprise his role in Frank Capra’s film version, his place being taken by Raymond Massey. Several in-jokes refer to Massey as looking like Boris Karloff, an indication of how well known he was for this part. In returning to the screen, he was loath to fall back into the old stereotypes of lumbering brutes or refined madmen which had previously been his lot. Lewton offered him the opportunity to develop beyond the limited range of these stock bogeymen. He might still be playing monsters; after all, his image was by now too well established to allow him to essay characters of unblemished nobility. But these monsters were deeply and understandably human, their monstrous behaviour arising from a psychology located within particular historical and social contexts. Karloff was always grateful for Lewton’s friendship and the films which allowed him to give some of the greatest performances of his career; performances which make us see into the heart of the seemingly inhuman. As he himself put it, Lewton had ‘rescued him from the dead, had restored his soul’.
The filming itself was not without problems. These chiefly centred around a serious back problem which plagued Boris Karloff. Although he gamely struggled on with filming, taking to a wheelchair in between shots, it eventually became clear that he would have to undergo surgery. This resulted in a considerable break in filming. In fact, due to difficulties in re-assembling all of the original cast, Lewton ended up shooting The Body Snatcher with Karloff before Isle of the Dead was completed, and it was that film which was released first. Whether it was this hiatus which resulted in wholesale alterations to the original script is a moot point. The film as shot varies significantly from the story as originally written, however. This not only results in some characters being superimposed over others, but in others being removed altogether. The thematic underpinning of the film is shifted by these changes and in the opinion of some critics is thereby left confused and inconsistent. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but I shall highlight some of the major points of variance along the way.
As the RKO radio mast appears, we are immediately cast into the world of the film; rather than the usual theme which accompanies the famous studio introduction with its beeping, radiating emissions, we have a dramatic and tragic piece of romantic music. This break with convention establishes a mood almost in the manner of an overture, and suggests that this will be a film of atmospheres, a mood piece. The music draws on two famous pieces which depict the passage to the isle of the dead; Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela, which depicts the black swan which patrols the waters around the isle in the Finnish mythology of the Kalevala; and Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, which is inspired by the Arnold Bocklin painting of the same name. These musical references lend the film itself the air of a tone poem, a piece which attempts to summon up a mood of sombre mystery. We are introduced to the Bocklin painting which inspired Rachmaninov in the titles. Lewton had already used the picture once before, in I Walked With A Zombie, where it hung on the wall of the undying Jessica’s room, a western counterpoint to the Caribbean isle of the dead which was the film’s setting. Lewton, as we’ve seen, was strongly influenced by the visual arts in creating the look of his films, and this influence reaches a new level here. The film’s central locale is a reproduction, in spirit if not absolutely literally, of the isle in Bocklin’s painting. Bocklin did in fact paint five versions of his most famous work, so perhaps we can regard Lewton’s isle as a composite of various common elements. The view of the painting here seems to be a close-up, focussing on the island itself and trimming away some of the surrounding sea, giving it a feeling of claustrophobia, of being a closed-off world. Boris Karloff’s name appears bold and large above the film’s title, making it clear that he is the star, the film’s main attraction. As far as the studio is concerned, this a Boris Karloff rather than a Val Lewton picture.
After the titles, we get a screenful of introductory writing, which sets what is to follow in its cultural and historical context and also, in traditional form, alerts us to the fact that this is a Historical Picture. This is at variance with Lewton’s usual practice of introducing his films with a literary quote. He did indeed have one ready for use in his original screenplay (co-written with and credited to Ardel Wray) which was taken from Herodotus: ‘when war and tumult torment the Earth, the dead are disquieted: there is frenzy in the grave’. The introductory words which are actually used are less poetic, and serve as a practical primer for the themes of the film, as well as giving us a date and a geographical location upon which to hang the events which follow. They run as follows: ‘Under conquest and oppression the people of Greece allowed their legends to degenerate into superstition; the Goddess Aphrodite giving way to the Vorvolaka. This nightmare figure was very much alive in the minds of the peasants when Greece fought the victorious war of 1912’. This is the Balkan War in which Greece and its allies established an uneasy independence after many years of occupation by the Turks. The idea of the decline of civilisation into self-devouring barbarity and the tantalising introduction of a new regional addition to the familiar gallery of monsters are quickly sketched in.
The very first image we see in the first scene is of Boris Karloff’s character General Pherides washing his hands over a bowl. This is an image which will recur throughout the film, acting as both a literal and symbolic representation of the attempt at cleansing. Here, in the interior of a military tent, the General is introduced as a modern day Pilate, unwilling to venture beyond the strict dictates of duty. This washing ritual also serves to indicate that he has just come in from some strenuous endeavour. He listens with cold indifference to the voice of a Colonel, which pleads on behalf of his troops, emphasising their human weakness and weariness. ‘It wasn’t my fault they didn’t arrive on time’, this voice concludes. The battle was won anyway. We see this voice embodied in the play of shadows against the tent wall, a makeshift screen upon which this man’s humiliation is projected as he is stripped of his marks of rank. With a shift of camera angle, we see him in the flesh, stepping out of his own shadow. Another man who is not in uniform watches from his vantage point of a bench to the rear. We will later learn that this is Oliver Davis, an American reporter from the Boston Star. His position as passive observer is essentially maintained until the end. Despite the occasional strongly asserted viewpoint, when he acts it is usually in concourse with the general or with the male authority figure on the island, Dr Albrecht.
Passive aggressive pistolThe General finishes washing his hands and dries them, an indication that he is now ready to confront the man directly. But still he doesn’t address him. His eyes pointedly fall to the revolver which lies in the middle of the table, and then are raised to look directly at the Colonel. He picks the gun up, reverses it and pushes it barrel first towards him. No words are spoken, but with a slow, grave nod of his head, a command has been made, a man condemned. The business is concluded with a cursory ‘that’s all gentlemen’, the report of the revolver sounding from outside. The General is seen as the authoritative master of fate, who determines who shall live or die. The lack of any direct order and the presentation of the revolver which makes the soldier both executioner and executed indicates the degree to which his power has become a matter of almost intuitive, reflex understanding. The Colonel’s self-execution is also an indication of the film’s preoccupation with a country’s people turning inward and devouring themselves. The central conflict in the film is between the General, Thea and Kyra, the native Greek characters. The influence of the foreign characters on the course of Greek culture and history goes unremarked by them, even when it is guiltily drawn to their attention. The presentation of the weapon is mirrored towards the end of the film with the taking up of Poseidon’s trident from Albrecht’s desk and suggests the playing out of a pattern of fate in a display of passive aggression. The weapon becomes almost an embodied agent of fate, directing the actions of those into whose hands it falls.
When all have left the tent and Davis is left alone with the General, he feels free to question what he has seen, although in far from harsh terms. He asks whether it is just ‘to condemn a man to death just because some other men happened to lag behind’. But the General’s response is without any shade of moral doubt. The fact was simply that ‘they were his troops’. His world is rigidly codified, with absolute values and unwavering consequences of actions. He himself is an unquestioning agent of powers who determine the nature of the conflicts which he conducts. Their moral underpinning or the innocence or otherwise of those who become embroiled in them is not something which he finds it necessary to contemplate. He is the classic soldier of the ‘I was only obeying orders’ variety. ‘And I’ve been wondering why they call you the watchdog’, Davis states, not entirely disapprovingly. This is the first reference to the General’s nickname, which will be a key signifier of the nature of his character. It is also a nickname which conjures up archetypes from Greece’s classical past, and the analogy with Cerberus will be underlined later. More echoes of Greek mythology will emerge as the film unfolds. Karloff’s hair in Isle of the Dead is light and curly, giving an added visual touch to his canine reputation. This is not entirely complimentary, of course, carrying with it the suggestion of subjugation to a master and the need for guidance, the inability to draw on one’s own resources in order to decide a course of action.
General Pherides tells Davis that ‘it’s my way. The only way I know’. This is the world he has been brought up in, the behaviour into which he has been trained (like a dog). He reveals that the man who he has sent to his death was a personal friend, Colonel Tolditis. Perhaps his granting him the means to end his own life was his idea of granting him an honourable death. Davis continues to question Pherides’ worldview, and it is indicative of a certain understanding between the two that he is allowed to do so. Davis is a journalist on the Boston Star, rather than the New York for which he wrote in the original script. Perhaps this migration to the cradle of the American Revolution is designed to suggest a certain sense of fellow feeling with the General and his struggle to assert his country’s independence. Nevertheless, he suggests that the General’s notion of patriotism takes it almost to the level of psychosis, both personal and national. ‘I think you’d kill your wife or child for your country’s sake – if you had a wife’. Davis voices the theme of a people turning their savagery on themselves. The latter addendum indicates how implausible Davis feels that the General could have any connection with the feminine. But he is instantly disabused of this notion. ‘I had a wife’, the General says, giving us a glimpse of a personal life beyond the fields of war. He smiles for the first time, as if to ease the journalist’s apologetic awkwardness. Again, we sense a certain flickering of friendship and fellow feeling in these exchanges. Perhaps even the sense that, given the right circumstances, Davis wouldn’t shirk from such ruthless ferocity himself. ‘You think I’m a cold man. Cold and brutal’, the General rhetorically speculates. ‘If you’d asked her, she would never have said so’. Thus he hints at a female influence in his life which has faded over the passage of the years. Perhaps the bitterness of its absence has contributed to his coldness, his ability to countenance the brutality of dispassionate justice ruthlessly meted out. He reveals that she is buried on the island off the nearby shore. It is as if the female influence on his warlike, masculine life has been isolated there, quarantined by the straits which separate it from the mainland. They both plan to go there, Davis eager to connect with the General on a personal level beyond the all-consuming arena of war.
Goya - The Disasters of War: Bury Them and Keep Quiet
To reach the island, they must first cross the battlefield, however. Davis leads with a lantern, which is a tiny beacon of light in the darkness. Lanterns are a recurrent motif throughout the film, and suggest the journey of the living into the underworld, into the nightlands to which they are not acclimatised. This is a journey across the land of the dead. It is a landscape in which the dead outnumber the living. It presents us with an inverted order in which the isle of the dead provides a refuge for the living beyond the waste land which the world has become. It is reminiscent of the trajectory of George Romero’s zombie films, which culminates in the world of Land of the Dead, in which the living are reduced to small survivalist enclaves. In that film, the dead wade across a Styx-like river to re-enter the land of the living, with no Cerberus on the shore to deter them.
Goya - The Disasters of War: Cartloads for the Cemetery
The blasted plain across which they travel is again influenced by the visual arts, this time by the black and white prints of Goya which fall under the title The Disasters of War. These were inspired by and were perhaps even direct representations of the Peninsula War which followed the invasion of Spain by Napoleon in 1808. They depict war in a very unheroic manner, and emphasise its devastating effects on ordinary people. The prints all focus on the aftermath of battle, and these scenes of a landscape strewn with corpses, often with a dead tree acting as an impromptu gallows in the centre, are perhaps still the definitive images of the sickening reality of war. They remained unpublished until many years after Goya’s death and even now evoke strong reactions. Sadly, they were recently subject to a ‘re-interpretation’ by the Chapman brothers, which reduced them to the level of jeering adolescent heavy metal cover art, draining them of any of their poignancy or stark horror. Lewton clearly had to tone down their graphic content, but retained the sense of a devastated landscape with people reduced to an animalistic essence, their outer layers of humanity eroded away. When Davis sees a group of men dragging a cart loaded with dead bodies, and is appalled by their exhausted exertions, he asks why horses can’t be used. He is told that ‘horses cannot understand why they have to work beyond endurance for their country’. But there is little sense of noble purpose behind their reduction to beasts of burden.
Goya - The Disasters of War: They Don't Know the Way
The soundtrack is full of the subdued groans and moans of the dying and the weary labouring at the limits of their ebbing strength. There is the mournful sound of a trumpet in the score, which evokes the sounding of the last post. The whole blasted landscape looks forward to the devastation of nature seen in World War 1, only two years away from the events of the film. Perhaps Lewton and his art director were also influenced by the pictures which Paul Nash painted during this conflict, particularly his famous paintings ‘We are Making a New World’ and ‘The Menin Road’. The world has become an open graveyard. In the middle of the battlefield, Davis and the General meet the masked figure of Doctor Drossos, who is to become a central character later in the film. Removing his mask, he explains the threat of the typhus and the septicimic plague, which necessitates the swift clearing of the corpses from the area. The General intones, in a portentous oracular voice, ‘the horseman on the pale horse is pestilence. He follows the wars’. This is a reference to the fourth horseman of the apocalypse as outlined in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible. This is the horseman specifically referred to as Death, and it is he, as a personalised and mythological embodiment of the invisible ‘enemy’ of the plague, who will be faced on the island.
Paul Nash - We Are Building a New World
We fade from the battlefield to a point of view shot over the shoulders of the General and Davis of the shore, with its boats and the island beyond. This is, if not a direct reproduction of one of Bocklin’s paintings, an assemblage of the elements which go to make up his isle of the dead. There are the tall cypruses in the centre, and rocky outcrops to either side with the black holes of tombs carved into them. There are also the ruined columns of a classical Greek temple, a reminder that civilisations fade and die just as people do. The view of the island in the near distance introduces us to the landscape elements amongst which the rest of the film will take place; rocks, trees and ruins. It is also a landscape which reminds of the New Mexican cemetery in the Leopard Man, which was also dominated by cedar trees, classical statuary and the graves of the dead, all enclosed and shut off from the outside wall by its high stone walls.
To the Island
Davis leaves his lighted lamp on the shore to act as a guiding beacon from the island, both of them intending to return as soon as the General has visited his wife’s tomb. This is the light of the land of the living, the spirit of life which can’t be carried over into the underworld. As they reach the further shore, Davis looks back and sees this light blink out. The untended lamp soon gutters and dies. This could also be read as a symbolic indication that the mainland which they have left behind is now the land of the dead. As previously mentioned, the isle of the dead has, in the inversion of wartime, become a refuge of the living. There is also a sense, which Davis automatically shrugs off, that their return passage has been shut off.
The light of the land of the living in its last glimmering