Isle of the Dead - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Isle of the Dead Reviews

Page 1 of 5
Super Reviewer
½ February 18, 2011
Confused. Some nice plot kernels and plenty of great Lewton atmospherics but ... no. Too much going on here.
Super Reviewer
February 10, 2011
This one came as a complete surprise to me. Here I was expecting a schlock horror film and what do I get? A very suspenseful and thought-provoking thriller. Fantastic I say! Like most thrillers, it takes it a bit to get going, but if you perservere with a bit of patience, you'll discover your heart racing while the suspense is wound up slowly over the course of the film. You can cut the tension with a knife when the creeps start creeping in, and surprisingly, none of them from Karloff himself really. I just can't get over how effective this film was. You're bound to find this in a cheap bin at a local K-Mart or Big Lots! (which is where I found it), but it's definitely worth more than its purchase price. Pick this one up and give it a chance if you spot it.
Super Reviewer
September 5, 2010
Vampires, plague, zombies, murder? What is this movie about? And why is it so boring? Karloff is good as usual, but the story isn't up to par.
Super Reviewer
November 15, 2006
Isle of the Dead is another great movie in the Val Lewton stable of low budget but obscenely effective suspense/horror movies. It beautifully straddles paranoia, superstition and science in that trademarked Lewton wonderful world of shadows. Boris Karloff is great as a mistrusting general stuck on a Greek island to avoid a plague outbreak amonst his soldiers. The introduction of others on the island plays out almost like an Agatha Christie mystery without the conventions. The cast is great and the last 10 minutes are some of the creepiest I've seen in recent memory. Katherine Emery running around the darkness was magnificently horrifying.
Super Reviewer
October 15, 2009
Another eerie entry from the Val Lewton camp. This one stars Boris Karloff as a Greek general who takes it upon himself to police a group of people on a cemetery island after the plague breaks out among them. At the same time, he is fighting others, as well as his own, beliefs in the old ways, including one which may implicate one of the group as an evil entity. Some spooky moments, but didn't stick with me like Cat People.
December 14, 2014
One of Val Lewton's weakest works; it certainly pales in comparision to some of his other works: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher and Ghost Ship. There are, as usual for Lewton, some intriguing ideas at the core of this film, but it's weighed down by an overly wordy script and often shoddy direction, particularly in the brisk, confused pacing and jumpy editing that skips abruptly from scene to scene with a complete lack of nuance. The theme of science versus superstition - a Lewton trademark - is presented only in the most simplistic of terms without any nuance.

Boris Karloff provides a fine performance as the tortured general. Caught between the worlds of logic and superstition, in the end he is driven insane a victim of the island's gloomy death-obsession as anyone else. With the exception of Ellen Drew's conflicted young innocent and Helen Thimig's fiery-eyed old housekeeper, the rest of the cast is abysmal and the dialogue is flat and wooden.

The one thing this film gets right is the claustrophobic atmosphere which becomes more creepy until the moment of the film's memorable scene: the premature burial. As the camera pulls away from the wooden coffin with no sound other than that of dripping water, the suspense becomes almost unbearable. It is one of the most frightening moments in any Lewton film.
½ January 22, 2013
Good Lord is this movie slow and uneventful. A decent idea that's not very well handled or executed. Decent last ten minutes however.
½ March 8, 2011
Extremely boring film that squanders a potentially interesting premise. Karloff is much stiffer then in Body Snatcher, which is a shame. The film finally picks up in the final ten minute stretch, but by then my brain had checked out.
November 3, 2010
Karloff portrays a world-weary general who quarantines a small island full of people to keep them from a plague, but as the days wear on Old-World superstitions begin to weigh on those assembled until they suspect one of their number may be a vampire-like creature.

Worth a look, a nice mood piece.
½ October 31, 2010
Great mood and feel to this movie, but not a very interesting plot. The only scary moments are in the last 10 minutes.
October 30, 2010
He only guards the dead. I have to worry about the living.

A general on a Greek island discovers a strange plaque that infects the dead and can spread to the living. He quarantines the island and will not let anyone leave. As more individuals become infected with the disease, more pressure is placed on the general to let the uninfected leave the island. Will the general break or will the infection kill them all?

"Find younger ears to listen to your nonsense."

Mark Robson, director of Earthquake, Avalanche Express, Valley of the Dolls, The Harder They Fall, Bedlam, Land of the Brave, and The Ghost Ship, delivers Isle of the Dead. The storyline for this picture is solid but the pace of the film is a bit slow and methodical. The settings, the script, and the acting in this film are remarkable. The cast delivers solid performances and includes Boris Karloff in the lead role.

"Those who live by the law can be both wrong and cruel."

Isle of the Dead is the first of several Boris Karloff pictures playing on a Turner Classic Movie Marathon this Halloween season. We always DVR several Karloff pictures every Halloween. This is not one of Karloff's better movies; however, it if definitely worth watching. This is more of a drama than horror movie but Karloff does delivers a brilliant performance. This is worth one viewing.

"What must be done will be done."

Grade: C+
½ October 12, 2009
Good Lord is this movie slow and uneventful. A decent idea that's not very well handled or executed. Decent last ten minutes however.
August 14, 2009
A diverse group of people quarantine themselves on a small Greek island to prevent a suspected plague from spreading to the army camped nearby on the mainland. As they wait for the disease to run its course, a hardbitten general (Boris Karloff) comes to believe the superstitious ramblings of an old woman (Helene Thimig) that the young maid (Ellen Drew) is an undead monster who is preying on their life force.

"Isle of the Dead" is one of the last in a string of legendary horror films that producer Val Lewton made for RKO. It is also one of the weakest, with an uneven script and a cast with acting styles that conflict; Emery and Thimig are chewing up the scenery in old-fashioned monster-movie style, while Drew gives a subtle performance that belongs in a romance film, while Cramer is just bland.

Karloff gives a mostly disappointing performance, seeming as if he is sleepwalking through the picture. The only time he comes alive is when his character makes a failed attempt at self-reflection. He manages to bring a little bit of menace to his role, but that's mostly attributable to the fact that the other actors in the picture have so little presence

Worst of all, the film has a terrible script. For most of its running time, the movie simply unspools in a dull fashion. The characters are on a supposedly plague-infested island, yet their behavior feels more like they are on just another vacation. This lack of tension is augmented by one of the worst insta-romances ever put on screen when the Greek maid inexplicably falls in love with the square-jawed and utterly bland American war correspondent (Marc Cramer)over the space of a day they hardly see each other.

However, if you stay with the film, things start to get a lot more interesting in the last 20 minutes. From the kindhearted maid being tormented by the old crone through a closed door, to a mad killer stalking (and skewering) the surviving inhabitants of the island, we finally get to experience some of the dread and darkness that should have been present in at least a small degree from the very beginning of the film.
July 26, 2008
I wandered away from the Val Lewton box set over the past weeks (well, I wandered away from watching films in general, but this in particular) and I'm not sure why, considering how pleased I was with all the ones I've seen so far. Still, it's what I did and that's that. I decided to try and finish it off soon, so I grabbed one of the discs I had once purchased outside the set (but subsequently returned on discovering a film exclusive to the set) and just started it up, knowing that as per usual Lewton's films ran shy of even an hour and a half (occasionally just over an hour, usually around 70 minutes) and decided that it would be quick enough to get through even if it wasn't engaging. Somehow, I forget how charismatic its star is though--Boris Karloff. Unfortunately, Karloff is primarily known for Universal's monsters--The Mummy in 1932 and Frankenstein in 1931, the latter especially, while a fine performance, is awfully limited in terms of what skill Karloff can show--a role that would reflect his range if it were remembered alongside ones like the one in this film.

Alas, my extreme appreciation of this film was soured, not by itself, nor trivia behind it, but by the news that apparently RKO (I suppose getting reduced returns on "their" films after losing control of the library, except as regards sequels, remakes, etc) has decided to remake this film. Admittedly, I liked Paul Schrader's 1982 remake of Cat People, but I fear any modern horror remake will show that same loss of subtlety and ambiguity--but without that bloody-minded sensibility that instead pushes things to down-and-dirty horror violence, instead inserting cheap (or expensive, but cheap-looking) CGI shots of fluttering ghostly images and sledgehammer jump scares based around flash-cutting and musical stings. I'm trying to learn to reserve judgment on these things (though most recently I've not been rewarded for this). Anyway, before I derail myself on that side passion (a hatred of burying originals behind inferior remakes that fail to bring anything new to the table), let me instead address the movie actually at issue.

Like the other RKO films produced by Val Lewton, Isle of the Dead is misleadingly titled and was misleadingly marketed: Lewton always took titles given and twisted them into films that were usually at least creepy if not outright scary, thus fulfilling the horror requirements, but managing to remove any concrete ideas of the supernatural and injecting them with real pathos and realistic plotting, characters and dialogue--or at least these three things in a form that bore less resemblance to B-pictures and more to A-pictures. General Nikolas "The Watchdog" Pherides (Karloff) is a Greek general in the First Balkan War in 1912, first shown taking a hard-nosed approach to the commander of lagging troops--he hands him a gun, nods and sends him outside the tent he met him in, leading to a distant gunshot. Not the stuff of a particularly sympathetic protagonist, but, as always, we find our feelings more grey by the end of the film. Bostonian journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) is not particularly a fan of the General's methods, but is interviewing him for his paper--in the process suggesting that he believes Pherides would sacrifice wife and child for Greece, discovering his social faux pas when Pherides mentions the death of his wife, and decides to visit her grave, bringing Davis along with him. Here we find the titular island of "the dead"--a cemetery island, where his wife is entombed. They find her body missing, the trail leading them back to Swiss archaeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr., father of the more famous "Jason Robards"--technically "Junior") and his staff and guests--British Counsel St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his invalid wife (Katherine Emery), her assistant Thea (Ellen Drew), Avery Robbins (Skelton Knaggs, who narrated the earlier Lewton-produced, Robson-directed The Ghost Ship), and his housekeeper Kyra (Helen Thimig). When Robbins complains of feeling ill and collapses, dying shortly, they call in Dr. Drossos (Ernest Dorian) to determine the cause. He confirms their worst fears--septicemic plague. The General immediately quarantines the island, but is now subject to the unavoidable suspicions of superstitious local--and fellow--Greek Kyra that the real cause of their troubles is a vorvolakas, a being similar to a vampire or succubus that saps the strengths of others--and she's convinced the vorvolakas is none other than Thea.

As per usual, Lewton's crew, here headed by director Mark Robson, who already directed The Ghost Ship and The 7th Victim for Lewton, and writer Ardel Wray who worked with Lewton on the prior screenplays for The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie, manages to come down on not only avoiding the supernatural, but in fact using the unfounded fear of it to promote terror. Factions form, but not in the barely contained fear and arrogance of Romero's Night of the Living Dead, but rather on calmer, more restrained lines--Albrecht sarcastically prays to Hermes while the relentlessly pragmatic General takes up with Drossos' science and medicine. Kyra clings tenaciously to her superstition about evil spirits, and Davis resigns himself to the seeming inevitability of death. The General's commanding nature leaves him most at a loss, though, when even Drosses winds up taking ill, as he has no definitive basis for his views other than experience, and when that dries up with Drossos, he leaps around to find some rock with which he can take up his fight with death, in contrast to the resigned nature of the rest of the characters. He begins to believe Kyra may be right, even. In all of this we begin to see something of the General as a human being rather than just a cold, ruthless commander. He fears death almost more than those around him, yet at the same time wishes even more to protect them--earning his nickname quite rightfully, even if his methods and logic are questionable. The extreme fear Kyra begins to show when she fears that Thea has finally claimed her mistress' life and in the process created yet another vorvolakas is almost palpable, leading to a grudging respect of her reasons for her beliefs--mortal fear.

I'm not someone easily scared by film anymore--in my extreme youth nearly anything would scare me out of my wits, but these days it takes a good creep to really get under my skin (disturbing is another matter, and oddly less difficult, though still relatively so). This film manages it. I imagine it is only with an eye 65 years experientially (if, obviously, limited in the scope and coverage of those years) the senior of this movie that I heard Mrs. St. Aubyn speak of cataleptic fits--when first brought up, it would seem a ludicrous explanation, but for the cleverly written screenplay that makes it clear this is a desperate attempt by a wife to cling to the though of her husband's survival based on esoteric knowledge--and her admittance of suffering them, that I began to knowingly dread exactly what she feared: premature burial. I don't think it's ruinous to anyone in the modern age who gets to that point in the film to know that that cannot come up without being later relevant. Of course, perhaps Lewton simply wants to instill that primal fear of asphyxiation and paralysis when she finds herself in a coffin--but the image is absolutely chilling and induces a crawling-skin that was not easy to shake off, kicking the entire film into overdrive on such factors, the brilliant composition managing to perfectly emulate the fleeting shapes in the dark anyone remotely nichtophobic is familiar with.

It's quite a loss how forgotten Lewton's films are by the public at large, but even then a loss that this one tends to be lesser thought of, or even known, even amongst those familiar with him. I am extremely pleased with anyone film that can successfully give me the heeby-jeebies, and one that stars the wonderful Boris Karloff, in one of his great performances (and with a nice head of strange curly grey hair, no less!) can only near perfection. Give this a shot if it ever wanders near you.
½ July 20, 2008
Perhaps both Karloff's and Lewton's most underrated film, Isle of The Dead managed to creep me out! A fun plot, that I was confused with in the middle, good acting (one of Karloff's best performances), good lighting and cinematography, and some highly creepy moments are the highlights in this movie.
May 21, 2008
Iteresting characterization of the vampire of lore. It this film the object of fear is a female "vorvolakes" of Greek & Serbian myth. The claustrophobia in the story fuel the myth and soon paranoia spreads. Another jewel from producer Val Lewton.
½ January 22, 2008
Other than Karloff running around looking like a 70 year old Justin Timberlake, this was one of his better performances. Worth a watch for horror and Karloff fans.

Favorite Scene: Don't bury the living.
½ June 13, 2007
Karloff gives a good performance as always but the film is very slow and nothing of interest really occurs... that is, until the last act where it became genuinely creepy and suspenseful.
November 23, 2006
Not a bad film, but very slow moving and anti climactic. Worth a view if you're into the Karloff/Lewton films.
Page 1 of 5