Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Three

Isle of the Dead - Part Four

The General, looking drawn and hollow-eyed, creeps into the front room. As Thea makes her way cautiously down the stairs, the General confronts her and orders her back to her room. He reminds her of his nickname and of his pledge, now renewed, to stand guard against the plague. His moment of uncertainty and bewilderment in the bedroom is gone. Now he has fixed his sights upon her as an adversary against which to direct his force. He admits to a degree of uncertainty about her nature, whether this is a ‘contagion of the soul that you carry’. If so, it can presumably be cured or exorcised. The General hovers between the language of medicine and that of religion, but he no longer has the Doctor to hand to lend the former the weight of his authority. He vows to keep Thea away from the others, and to kill her if necessary. He preys on her insecurity, showing that he’s learnt a thing or two about suggestive psychology from Kyra. ‘Can a vorvoloka in her human form remember the evil that she did at night’. He’s almost pleading with her to accept the role into which he is attempting to cast her, to provide him with the solid manifestation of evil which he needs to provide him with a visible combatant. Again, in modern terms, he’s essentially asking her how much she really knows what goes on in her subconscious, in her dreams. As she retreats back upstairs, he hastily adds ‘I hope that I’m wrong’, as if suddenly ashamed at his bullying. Perhaps some part of him realises that he is victimising a defenceless young woman.

The spirit of life in Death's mirror
Mrs St Aubyn sits in front of her mirror, the symbol of approaching death in the film. She stares intently, as if she can see something beyond the reflected surface. She smiles as she sees Thea enter the room in the mirror. If, as suggested earlier, the mirror reflects the approach of death, then the observation of Thea’s entry in its surface suggests the confusion cast in her own mind by the General’s questioning of her level of self-awareness. Perhaps she is beginning to succumb to the insistent attempts of her fellow countrymen to literally demonise her.

Thea takes over the brushing of Mrs St Aubyn’s hair, an impromptu act which indicates the unspoken ease which they feel in each other’s company. She asks whether Mrs St Aubyn was ill before she worked for her, a clear sign that she has indeed become infected with the seeds of self-doubt which the General has sown. Mrs St Aubyn reassures her that her illness, which is degenerative, has nothing to do with her. She tells her that she is ‘good…kind and generous’ and asks ‘how can anything bad come from goodness?’ She is saying that a person should be judged by their acts. As we have seen, Thea acts out of compassion, whereas the General and Kyra act according to the dictates of law and outmoded superstition. Thea still worries about what her wandering spirit may do, speaking about it as if it were a separate entity co-habiting her body. Mrs St Aubyn re-iterates her previous point, saying ‘your spirit is yourself, Thea’. She then tells her to ‘go to the young man’. She is setting herself up as Thea’s guardian angel, in opposition to the General’s guard dog. One guards over, one against.

Putting out the light before putting out the light
With the protection of Mrs St Aubyn giving her strength, Thea comes down and leaves the house. The General watches from his room and blows out his lamp, which has been his watchlight. This has the sinister connotation of the snuffing out of a life, and the decisive way in which he does it suggests that he’d have no compunction in doing the same to Thea. The gesture brings to mind the line from Othello, ‘put out the light and then put out the light’. Davis waits for Thea by the shore. On her way to meet him, Thea pauses fearfully by the mouth of the tomb and murmurs a quick prayer before moving past its entrance. Davis watches this and smiles with vaguely patronising indulgence. They embrace, but are soon interrupted by the General, who makes it known that he will follow them wherever they go, and that ‘when I am sure, I will destroy her’. Davis tells him that they intend to leave in the morning, for the sake of Thea’s safety.

A prayer for safe passage
In the morning, we see a shot of the bird in its cage, a reminder of the varying levels of entrapment, physical, psychological and metaphysical, to which the characters are subject. Upstairs, Thea is packing, and urges Mrs St Aubyn to come with them. But she says ‘I don’t dare go with you’. She is still held in thrall by the burden of fear her illness carries with it. She says that she will explain everything to Albrecht, which shows that she hasn’t thus far. They embrace and Mrs St Aubyn says ‘God bless you’ with some authority. The blessing sounds like it has actual force.

"God Bless You"
Down by the shore, Thea finds the boat smashed, however, and returns to the house to be confronted with the quietly self-satisfied Kyra, who sits in a chair in the front room like some malignant presiding spirit. It’s as if she has regained her ascendancy in the house. She knits, an image which provides a counterpoint to Mrs St Aubyn’s needlework earlier. She is the third of the Fates, and undoubtedly the one who cuts the thread. The General comes back in, and Kyra indicates with a nod of the head that Thea has gone back upstairs. The General looks very weary. It is as if Kyra is draining the life force from him. If there is anyone analogous to a vorvoloka in the house, it is her. She is a psychic vampire.

Malevolent Fate
Thea goes to Mrs St Aubyn, who immediately confronts the General; another woman standing up to him. She berates him for ‘terrorizing her with ugly, savage superstitions’, and becomes visibly upset, finally saying ‘I will not have it’. She is becoming a commanding voice to set against the General’s naturally assumed authority. She turns away, as if shaken by the violence of her own feelings. As the middle aspect of the triple goddess, she is used to being a balancing force, a negotiator and peacemaker. This display of forcefulness goes counter to her nature. The General is forcing her away from her accustomed state of equilibrium, setting off processes which he may be unable to control. As Davis enters, the General says in somnambulistic tones that ‘what must be done I will do’. His will no longer seems to be his own; it’s as if he regards himself as an instrument of fate. Davis’ angry upbrading over the destruction of the boat has little impact.

The anger of the meek
Upstairs, it is Thea who now stares into the mirror, as if something might reveal itself to her in time. Mrs St Aubyn staggers in, and Thea attempts to help her to the bed, but she collapses on the floor. Thea closes the door and prepares for a vigil. There is the sense that a series of pre-arranged actions is being put into action. Downstairs, at the table, Kyra makes insinuating remarks about the absence of the two other women. The birdcage is now ominously covered with a black cloth. Observations are made on the wind direction and a tense suspension of time hangs over everything. Everyone is waiting for something to happen.

The veil of night
Kyra keeps her vigil over Mrs St Aubyn through the night, plagued by Kyra, who observes a parallel anti-vigil outside her door. Repeatedly whispering vorvoloka, she comes out with a litany of superstitious wards against evil. The passing of time is marked by the shifting patterns of moonlight and shadow over Mrs St Aubyn’s body, the shadows once more serving to suggest a world just beyond the threshold of this one. As the shadows shift, so does the constant stream of whispered words which come from Kyra beyond the door. Thea paces and wrings her hands, assailed by the doubts which are being placed in her mind. She pleads with Kyra to stop, and then begins to question herself, and perhaps also the prone form of her guardian angel. ‘Is it my fault?’ But there’s no answer now, no compassionate voice to tell her that her that she is good, and therefore her spirit is good too. Just as the General need the balancing voice of reason which the Doctor provided, so Thea needs the blessings of Mrs St Aubyn. Without them, she is vulnerable to the mental poisons of Kyra’s dark arts.

No more words of comfort
In the morning light, we see Kyra at the window with the bird. She looks very restless and is wringing her hands in a manner similar to Thea the previous night. This has taken a lot out of her too, and she is uncertain of the impact her psychological warfare has had. When the General emerges, she immediately latches on to him, saying ‘I’ve been waiting’. They go upstairs. Downstairs, Davis and Albrecht hear a crash from above and rush to investigate.

A recurring image - wringing/washing hands
We see a tableau of the General facing Thea with Mrs St Aubyn’s body lying prone at her feet. This is all the proof he needs. Davis and Albrecht burst in and restrain him before he has the opportunity to do his duty, and Thea is ushered away to safety. Albrecht goes through the standard tests, holding the mirror up to Mrs St Aubyn’s lips. They discuss bringing up a box to serve as her coffin. Eventually, Mrs St Aubyn is left alone in the room. The camera focuses in on her face, and we see a momentary twitch of her lips.

Circumstantial proof

Thea wanders in the cypress glade, the ambient noise of the wind which is everpresent now punctuated by the hammering of nails into the makeshift coffin. She shivers, as if at the very notion of death, of the cold stone passages of the tombs. There is a dissolve, and she is waiting at the shore by the statue of Cerberus. This is the boundary zone, the debarkation point from a place which she longs to leave.

Looking out to the land of the living
Albrecht, Davis and the General pass, carrying the coffin back inward to the tombs. Thea faces the land of the living, but they still have business with the dead. Their footsteps develop an echo as they enter the empty space of the catacombs. The coffin is placed on a stand, and they pause for a moment before leaving, as if there is something more that they feel should be said or done. But no words come. But we remain as the camera slowly moves in on the coffin, which is fashioned from an old antiquities crate. We hear a slight murmur from within, amplified by the tombs resonant acoustic.

What to say?

Out on the ledge, Davis comments to the General that the wind has changed. But the General displays no delight at this news of their turning fortune. ‘I shall never leave the island’, he blankly declares, and when he gets up it is with a stagger. Davis understands that he has the plague, and helps him through the passage of the tomb towards the house as if he has now become his guide to the underworld.

A change in the wind
Back in the darkness of the tomb, the camera now glides slowly out from the coffin, and then cuts to a close up of the lid. There is a loud and terrified scream and the sound of scrabbling and then hammering. In the original screenplay, the horror of Mrs St Aubyn’s (or her counterpart Miss Wollsten’s) confinement is much more graphically portrayed, with shots from the interior of her panicked attempts to break out. This more subtle approach leaves us to imagine her terror.

Back in the house, Davis helps the General into his bed, where he is left with Kyra. She immediately adduces a supernatural import to his sickness. She has a comfortless bedside manner. ‘Soldier, you stayed your hand. Now the plague punishes you. The vorvoloka still lives, rose-cheeked and full of blood’. The plague is a vector of moral retribution in her mind, and the rosy cheeked health of Thea is an affront to her in the face of death and her own old age. But she utters a fearful ‘I am alone with her’ which displays genuine belief in the demons with which she tries to infect others. The General is given fresh purpose. ‘I am not dead yet. She shall not harm you’. Perhaps Kyra is cunning enough to manipulate the General’s emotional responses thus, refusing to let him rest and prepare for his own death.

Amplified raindrop
Outside, we see the flag visualising the winds’ currents before retreating once more to the tomb, which is all the more claustrophobic in contrast. Whereas the wind moves freely through wide open space, inside the tomb, the water drips on the coffin lid with a steady and repetitive rhythm. Thus, the elements delineate the difference between the kinetic dance of the world of the living and the dull heaviness and gravity of the chthonic underworld. In the original script, the dripping of the water spells out the syllables of the world in Miss Wollsten’s mind, effecting her subjective transformation into the creature. This corresponds to the nightlong attempt at suggestion to which Kyra subjects Thea. We cut back to Kyra and the General. Kyra is again voicing her fears, and now speaks of the other one, for ‘who dies by a vorvoloka becomes a vorvoloka’. This creature seems to be a regional variant of both werewolf and vampire, then.

Expressionist sounds - fear in the night
The rhythm of the film is speeding up as it reaches its climax, with a faster intercutting between scenes. From the tomb, the sounds of dripping water are joined by the creaking of wood. The use of sound here is brilliantly used to create a sense of anticipatory tension. Kyra and the General wait fearfully, perceiving the sounds of the tomb as if they are in the room itself. The wood splinters and cracks with a preternatural loudness. These are sounds amplified within the subconscious underworld of their own minds. This is an expressionistic use of noise as a manifestation of their own sense of guilt. They know it is coming for them.

Laughing at the 'bus'
The camera glides towards the entrance of the tomb, as if carried on a gust of wind. A distracted voice from inside mutters ‘shut me in the dark, shut me in again’. Mrs St Aubyn emerges from the shadows. She has been reborn. Inside, Davis and Thea watch Albrecht as he polishes a trident. Albrecht explains its providence: ‘Poseidon didn’t use it for fishing’ but for stirring the waves. In other words, this is not a weapon. The General is mumbling about the vorvoloka, so Davis sends Thea out to get away from him. Thus begins this film’s nightwalk sequence, a key component of Lewton’s films up until this point. She is drawn by the song of a bird in much the same way as Davis and the General were drawn by her siren song at the start of the film. Down in the glades, the bird’s song is suddenly overlaid by the discordant skronk of another creature, presumably an owl. This is the ‘bus’ moment familiar from Cat People and subsequent films. Here, it is inserted almost as an afterthought. Thea, after her initial jolt of fear, smiles at herself in self-mockery at her jumpy reaction. It is almost as if Lewton is giving us a nod and a wink at what he realises has now become something of a well-worn convention.

Wind elemental
In the house, Albrecht, a neglectful watchdog, is dozing off. With the General also asleep, Davis goes out to find Thea. She is still trying to locate the songbird, but its call is now joined by cracked and broken fragments of a troubled song. This stands in direct contrast to her own siren song, which was a seductive stream of sound. We see Mrs St Aubyn drifting through the glade, the white veils of her dress floating freely behind her. She looks as if she is being carried along by the wind, or has been reborn as some kind of wind elemental. Having emerged from the clammy rock and earth of the tomb, with its deadly rhythm of dripping water, she is enjoying the free flow of the air once more.

At the mouth of darkness
Thea is back at the shore debarkation point once more. Retracing the steps of the General and Davis at the start of the film, she follows this broken song up the rocky path into the dark passage of the tombs. The shadows of bare branches shivering in the wind are cast upon her face and look like long raking fingers. The choked syllables of the singer’s song bear the echo distortions of the tomb’s interior. Whatever is making these sounds is here with Thea. She tremulously asks if it is Kyra, a logical deduction since she is the only other living woman on the island. The uttering of this name is like a trigger. The name is thrown back as a yell of anger, and Mrs St Aubyn emerges from the shadows and flows out of the opposite exit. Thea runs back down the stone steps where she meets Davis.

The night's raking fingers
Mrs St Aubyn enters the house and sweeps past the sleeping Albrecht, instinctively picking up the trident from where he left it lying on his desk. She ascends the stairs, past the now veiled bird. The bird has its black night-time cloth to cover its cage, a presentiment of death as well as a blinker to shut out the world, to retreat into the shadows of limited vision. Kyra is awake and grasping her sheets with white-knucked terror, awaiting her fate. Mrs St Aubyn delivers it with a fatal stab of the trident to the neck. Kyra’s fears of being prey to a devilish creature which slowly drains away her life are belied by the swift expediency of her dispatch. There is no malice here, just a sure and efficient carrying out of justice. This is the destruction she willed the General to mete out on Thea. Effectively, she has been identified as the vorvoloka-like source of psychic infection, the ‘pale, half-dead thing that drains all the life and joy from those who want to live’ as Miss Wollsten put it in the original script, referring to Cathy. As such, she has been removed in order to disinfect the island.

Resurrected Fury!
The trident is a weapon which is not a weapon, a distinction carefully pointed out by Albrecht. It resembles the gun which the General pushes towards his disgraced colonel at the start of the film. This was also presented by someone from behind a table, designed, with conscious intent in this case, to be picked up by someone on the other side. Mrs St Aubyn picks up the trident which Albrecht has carelessly left lying on his desk without pause in her progress. It is in exactly the right place for her as she passes, and thus almost seems a tool of providence. It is the sacred object through which the agency of the gods is channelled, an agent of fate and an object which carries the symbolic weight of old beliefs. It is a tool turned to violent purpose in much the same way as the tools turned weapons in The Ghost Ship embody labour turned against itself. Here, Kyra is the subject of greater forces than the demons which she has feared and who she herself has referred to as the agents of the gods.

The weapon which isn't a weapon
Davis bursts into the house with Thea at this point, waking Albrecht up and explaining about Mrs St Aubyn’s trances. Thinking she is still outside, they go to search for her, whilst Thea goes up to her room. The General sees her ascend, and staggers out of his bed to follow. Thea goes to her bed, not seeing Mrs St Aubyn, who waits in the shadows, guarding over her with her trident. The General emerges from the top of the stairs, and we see a blurred point of view shot of the corridor. He is now half-blind, his distorted vision symbolic of the way his view of the world has been warped, the truth veiled. He is like the bird at the foot of the stairs, covered in its night-time cloth. He stumbles into Thea’s room, moving with the energy of will alone, already half-dead. Finding Kyra’s body with blood on its neck, he understands that he has failed in his pledge to guard her, and that Thea, in vorvoloka form, must be in the room. He blindly feels around for her, and when she makes a sound, fixes on her position and moves forward. Having waited until he presents a genuine threat, Mrs St Aubyn now emerges from the shadows and stabs him with her trident. Unlike her killing of Kyra, which was done in the guise of a cleansing Fury, acting to destroy an infectious soul, the General is put down like a dog which has become out of control, no longer responding to orders. Her work done, Mrs St Aubyn flows downstairs and out of the door. She seems almost to glide, an elemental of the scirroco wind, which has also come to burn away the disease.

The pitiful guard dog
Davis and Albrecht see her outside as she passes through the grove and the temple of Hermes before finally throwing herself off the cliff and into the sea. Hers has been a temporary resurrection for a specific purpose, just as the reawakening of ancient forces has been momentary and ruthlessly effective. Back in the bedroom, Thea has pressed herself into a corner as the General drags himself towards her. With his face looking up at her with hungry eyes, he really does resemble a pitiful guard dog, lame and powerless but refusing to give up its post. Davis and Albrecht come in, and Albrecht cradles the dying soldier.

Comforting lies
‘I saw the vorvoloka’, the General says. ‘The grave clothes, wings…eyes of death and evil’. ‘Yes, yes’, Albrecht replies, allowing him the comfort of his illusion. ‘She came out of the darkness…she must be destroyed’, he says, still feebly issuing orders. ‘It is done’, Albrecht assures him. ‘She has gone back to endless night’. Hearing this, the General allows himself to die. Davis immediately offers eulogising words; ‘he wanted to protect us’. This is a very generous summation of his motives, given that he was using the last ounce of his strength to try to kill Thea. It is a select ‘us’ which Davis refers to, and his blindness to the destruction the General has wreaked, both here and on his own people, demonstrates his own affinity with his journalistic subject. There is a sense in which the General’s attempt to kill Thea is an attempt to silence her opposition to his authority, her objection to his moral ruthlessness in pursuing any means to achieve an end which he has been ordered to effect. This is not something which Davis necessarily disagrees with, and his final apologetic could extend to the General’s wider actions. In the original script, Davis reveals to the dying General that Thea is his daughter, and there is a final reconciliation. Here, he dies with his illusions intact, and indeed fed.

Debarcation from the Isle of the Dead
The following day, Davis and Thea climb into the boat which will take them from the island, and the last shot of the film is of the statue of Cerberus. The General is left on the island to guard the dead from his grave, finally finding a role to match that of his analogous mythic beast. In the original script it is Albrecht, not Davis, who gives the summary line of the film. He blesses Davis and Thea, saying ‘may life be good to you both. As for the others, they will be quiet here, and I will be with them’.

Next, Karloff returns in Lewton's adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher

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