Isle of the Dead (film)

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Isle of the Dead
theatrical poster
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Written by Ardel Wray
Val Lewton (uncredited)
Josef Mischel (uncredited)
Starring Boris Karloff
Ellen Drew
Music by Leigh Harline
Cinematography Jack MacKenzie
Edited by Lyle Boyer
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • September 7, 1945 (1945-09-07) (U.S.)[1]
Running time 72 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $246,000
Box office $383,000

Isle of the Dead (1945) is one of producer Val Lewton's horror films made for RKO Radio Pictures. The movie had a script inspired by the painting Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, which appears behind the title credits, though the film was originally titled "Camilla" during production. (Another of Lewton's films, I Walked With a Zombie, has the painting hung in the main room of the movie.) It was written by frequent Lewton collaborator Ardel Wray; directed by Mark Robson, the fourth of five pictures he directed for Lewton; and starred Boris Karloff, the first of three pictures he made with Lewton (although the second released).[2]


After an opening that warns of the superstitious belief in a vorvolaka, a malevolent force in human form, the film begins during the Greek wars of 1912.

While his troops are burying their dead, General Pherides (Karloff) (known throughout Greece as 'The Watchdog') and American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) visit the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the grave of the general's long-dead wife. When they discover the crypt despoiled and hear a woman singing on the supposed uninhabited island, they set out to find her. They also find retired Swiss archeologist Dr Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr), his Greek housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), and four British guests – Mr St Aubyn (Alan Napier) of the British consulate, his pale and sickly wife (Katherine Emery), her youthful companion Thea (Ellen Drew), and an English tinsmith.

While Aubrecht apologizes for his part 15 years ago in inspiring local peasants into robbing graves for valuable Greek artifacts, Madame Kyra whispers to the general that a vorvolaka, in the guise of the red and rosy Thea, is in their midst. The general laughs at such superstition and accepts Aubrecht's invitation to spend the night as his guest.

The next morning, however, the tinsmith is dead. Dr Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) is summoned; he determines the cause to be septicemic plague and quarantines the island. The doctor explains how plague is passed and how it may be eradicated in one day by the hot dry sirocco winds. The archeologist says that Mme Kyra's explanation – that God sends the plague to punish them for harboring a vorvolaka – makes just as much sense. When Mr St Aubyn dies, the general demands that his body be buried immediately, to the horror of the cataleptic Mrs St Aubyn who fears premature burial.

Next to die is Dr Drossos, disproving the idea that following the advice of modern science can prevent the disease. Suspicion refocuses onto Thea, and Madame begins to harass her with taunts and threats. The general vows that he will kill Thea if evidence keeps mounting to show that she is vorvolaka. Fearing for Thea's life, Oliver plans to escape with her, but the general destroys the only boat. Mrs St Aubyn falls into a cataleptic trance; everyone (except Thea) believes her to be dead, and they entomb her. Oliver and Aubrecht believe the cause to be plague but Kyra and the general believe it to be the doing of the vorvolaka. Thea is more in danger than before, and Oliver advises her to stay away from the general.

Suddenly the winds change. The sirocco has arrived. Mrs St Aubyn awakens from her catalepsy but does not recognize anyone, as being buried alive has driven her mad. She kills Madame Kyra, stabs the general, and then runs off a nearby cliff. As the general is dying, he swears that he has seen the vorvolaka and warns that she must be killed. "It is done," says Oliver, sympathetic to the general's peculiar madness. "The general was simply a man who was trying to protect us," he says, in eulogy.


Filming began for about two weeks in July 1944 until production was suspended when Karloff required a back operation. It was completed in December 1944. In the interim, after Karloff had recovered from the surgery but before the cast of Isle of the Dead could be reassembled, he and Lewton made The Body Snatcher. The film had a troubled production, and the central female character of the original script (named "Catherine") was deleted entirely from the tale.


Leigh Harline's somber score makes use of another work inspired by Böcklin's painting, Sergei Rachmaninoff's tone poem, "Isle of the Dead". Harline borrows themes and copies their orchestration, taking about as much as he can without violating copyright. Oddly,[editorializing] he makes no use of the public-domain "Dies Irae".


The film premiered in New York City on 7 September 1945. The cost of Isle of the Dead at completion was $246,000, the highest yet for a Lewton horror film, but with domestic rentals of $266,000, and foreign rentals of $117,000, it made only $13,000 in profit for RKO. It was re-issued in 1953 on a double bill with Mighty Joe Young, and made its television debut in 1959.

Director Martin Scorsese placed Isle of the Dead on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.[3]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Back to Bataan: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2014. 
  2. ^ Stephen Jacobs, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomohawk Press 2011 p 304
  3. ^ Scorsese, Martin (October 28, 2009). "11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time". The Daily Beast. Retrieved November 15, 2009. 

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