Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson / U.S., 1945):

Boecklin’s painting is readily noted, though the Ibsen of The Lady from the Sea seems to loom just as significantly in Val Lewton’s Nordic influences. The theme is pestilence in the time of militarism, which, according to Boris Karloff, rides a pale horse: "He follows the wars." Greece during the Balkan War of 1912 is an endless night, soldiers work overtime to bury contaminated corpses; the General (Karloff) is a rigid officer, a widower, and a staunch nonbeliever. He and an American journalist (Marc Cramer) row to the cemetery island, where tombs are being plundered and a statue of Cerberus receives visitors ("He only guards the dead, I have to worry about the living," the General says). An antiquarian’s (Jason Robards, Sr.) house by the cliff becomes the stage for the morbid intrigue, a cast-whittling surge of plague triggers the debate between science (Ernst Deutsch as the weary physician) and superstition and mysticism (the threat of "Vorvoloka," a lupine mutation of ancient mythology). Of all the Lewton works, this one frustrates the most because its many tantalizing thematic strands are so stiffly handled. The elemental presences (flag in wind, sacramental fire for Hermes, purifying swirls of water), the way the comfort of faith translates into madness for Karloff, the battlefield imagery’s links to the final days of WWII... So evocative in The Seventh Victim, Mark Robson’s direction here reduces a country’s political/spiritual unrest to pronouncements by pinned-down actors about "uneasy conscience" and "fool’s courage." A page from Poe livens up the proceedings, with the British diplomat’s ailing wife (Katherine Emery) being wrongly entombed and stepping out of the coffin in flowing white sheets and a stabbing mood; the ingénue (Ellen Drew) follows a bird’s call into the woods and ends up inside the stony crypt, where Emery skulks in the shadows before availing herself of the host’s trident. With Helen Thimig, Alan Napier, Sherry Hall, and Skelton Knaggs. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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