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If you like your horror movies nuanced and moody, cue up “Isle of the Dead”

Updated: Jun 5, 2022


The great Boris Karloff, right, gives a memorable performance as the tragic Greek Gen. Nikolas Pherides, who goes mad when he and American journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) go to an island gripped by the plague to visit his wife’s tomb.

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Blu-ray, 1945, unrated, themes

Best extra: The commentary with screenwriter/film historian Dr. Steve Haberman

VAL LEWTON was skeptical when the great Boris Karloff signed a contract to make two moves for RKO Pictures.

The producer of “Cat People” (1942) and “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943), among others, his movies were built around atmosphere, not scream-out-loud scares. Moreover, his favorite theme was the confrontation between science and superstition and what becomes of rational men when they face the workings of a mysterious other-world that exists beside their own, screenwriter/film historian Dr. Steve Haberman says in a commentary included on this addition to the Warner Archive catalog.

In other words, he wasn’t interested in replicating the monster movies at Universal. As it turns out, neither was Karloff, who set the template in 1931 with “Frankenstein.” The two became friends.

“Isle of the Dead,” which sits at No. 2 on Martin Scorsese’s list of scariest movies (there’s one scene in particular, but if you’re looking for spoilers, forget it), checks all the boxes.

(1) “Isle of the Dead” premiered in New York City on Sept. 7, 1945. (2) Karloff, who set the template for horror films at Universal, had signed a two-movie contract with RKO. (3) Pherides is briefed after a bloody battle during the First Balkan War. (4&5) A shot tracking Pherides and Davis across a battlefield strewn with corpses, likely inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya, sets the foreboding tone of the movie.


Karloff is superb as Greek Gen. Nikolas Pherides, who has led his men to a bloody island victory in the First Balkan World (1912-13). When he takes American journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer, “Little Iodine”) to the island to visit the tomb of his late wife, they find that it’s empty. Their search for the corpse leads them to the home of the Swiss archaeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr., “Burn Em Up Barnes”). He tells them that looters ransacked all the graves 15 years earlier and invites them to stay for the night. There are other guests: the British diplomat St. Aubyn (Alan Napier, “Marnie”), his sick wife Mary (Katherine Emery, “Strange Bargain”), her companion/servant Thea (Ellen Drew, “Christmas in July”), and an English businessman who soon dies from a deadly plague gripping the island.

As the plague claims more victims, including the Greek military doctor Drossos (Ernst Deutsch, “The Third Man”), Pherides tries to stay rational, even when he gets sick. But having been warned by the housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helene Thimig, “Cloak and Dagger”) that Thea is a vorvolaka, a vampire who is preying on the household, he goes mad and gives in to “his long-buried superstitions as he confronts the realities of death,” Haberman says.


Director Mark Robson (“The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”) and cinematographer Jack MacKenzie (“The Return of Dracula”) set the tone from the outset, tracking Pherides and Davis across a battlefield strewn with corpses that Haberman says was inspired by the paintings of the Spanish master Francisco Goya (1746-1828). The sense of dread and inevitable doom are palpable, thanks to another bang-up restoration courtesy of Warner Archive.

Sourced from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, the 1080p transfer (1.37:1 aspect ratio) delivers, as one review put it, “ultra-moody visuals [that] convey a ghostly unease.” Black levels are deep, contrasts are sharp, and detail is good in the close-ups. The grain, though, isn’t as consistent as other Warner Archive titles. No matter – you may well get lost in the gloom.

(1) Ellen Drew, left, plays Thea, the companion of Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery). (2) Helene Thimig is the superstitious housekeeper Madame Kyra. (3) Thea cares for Mrs. St. Aubyn when she falls ill. (4) Having found his wife’s tomb empty, Pherides is told by the Swiss archaeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr., left) that all the graves on the island were looted 15 years earlier.


The remastered DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio mix is surprisingly deep and lively. Dialogue is crystal-clear and you can almost feel the coming wind. The pervasive stillness leaves plenty of room for the distinctive, moody score by Leigh Harline, an Oscar winner for “Pinocchio” (1940) and the music for the iconic song “When You Wish Upon a Star.”


Haberman’s screenwriting credits include “Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy (2005),” so it’s no surprise that he knows “Isle of the Dead,” which he calls an “underrated masterpiece [and the] most subtle and philosophic of all vampire films,” inside and out. He talks about the original artwork by Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin used in the opening credits, supernatural mythology, Lewton’s other RKO films, the careers, spouses and deaths of the supporting cast and a lot more. Engaging, informative, and accessible, the track is well worth the time.

Good thing, too. The only other extra is a trailer.

Craig Shapiro

(1-3) When the British diplomat St Aubyn (Alan Napier) succumbs to the plague, the survivors pray for him. (4) Davis and Thea are drawn to each other.


(1&2) Madame Kyra believes that Thea is a vorvolaka, a vampire who is preying on the household. (3) Pherides’ rationality gives way to madness as he confronts the realities of death. (4) With its pervasive sense of dread, “Isle of the Dead” sits at No. 2 on director Martin Scorsese’s list of scariest movies.




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