Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone. Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed. In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.
Despite its morbidity, it used to be super-popular, to the point where you’d be as likely to see a print of Isle of the Dead in a German parlor as you would be to see a poster of Bob Marley or John Belushi in a college dorm room today. Even Hitler (yes, that Hitler) hung an original Isle of the Dead in his office. (It is not known whether Böcklin owned any of Hitler’s paintings, but it is unlikely because Hitler was a shitty painter and an asshole.) Part of the appeal of the painting is its vivid symbolism. It evokes a mood; it tells a story. It’s hiding something. It has an awe-inducing stillness, a serene, perfect, beautiful gloom. There’s a movie, also titled Isle of the Dead, and it takes place in that painting, and all of the same descriptors apply. Scroll up and look at it again. What do you think happens on this island? Did you say, “a small group of people combat superstitious paranoia and a plague outbreak during the Balkan Wars?” No? Well, it’s open to interpretation.
Isle of the Dead—I’m talking about the movie now—is one hell of a scary story. It doesn’t jump out at you and make you scream, but instead it aims to unnerve you, to creep into your thoughts and stay with you all day, like a bad dream. The setting itself is a cramped, confusing mess of mausoleums. Outdoors, the shadows hang heavy and thick, and indoors, the walls and ceilings do the same. In the beginning, when director Mark Robson frames his actors, he doesn’t allot any extra space. His cast fills the screen to the edges. There’s nowhere for them to go. Later, as the plague begins picking off the characters one by one, he allows more negative space, and the island, by contrast, begins to feel very empty indeed, but no less claustrophobic.
But what really anchors the terror here is the irreplaceable Boris Karloff. Karloff is best remembered as the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein, a performance which made him a cultural icon overnight. The blessing of such a role is that it will be remembered forever, and the curse is that it continues to overshadow the rest of his body of work. Karloff starred in 14 other films… in 1931 alone. He acted in about 160 films throughout his career, many of which cast him as some variation of ghoul, mummy, or warlock. In Isle of the Dead he plays a general in the Hellenic army. He’s even more terrifying without monster make-up.
In the opening scene, Karloff is washing his hands. Across the room, one of his errant colonels begs for mercy as he’s stripped of rank. Without a single word, Karloff hands him a gun and sends him outside the tent. We hear a gunshot, and Karloff nods approvingly where a compassionate man would have flinched. So intimidating is General Karloff that he can spook his troops into shooting themselves with a stern glance.
Oh, and the colonel’s crime? Tardiness.
But Karloff’s general isn’t merely a single-minded tyrant. On the contrary, the fact that he can also laugh and enjoy a glass of wine only makes his menace more unsettling. The trait that makes him a good general also makes him an evil person. He can commit atrocities, and justify them, and still love life and sleep well at night. He isn’t heartless. The whole reason he’s on the island is to visit his wife’s grave. When he arrives he finds that all the tombs have been picked clean by robbers since his last trip. Fittingly, they’re refilled by the end of the film. Because while he’s touring scenic Cemetery Island, plague strikes, and Karloff intends to fight it off the same way he fought off the… who did they fight off in the Balkan War? The Ottomans? I think it was the Ottomans.
Unfortunately, Karloff doesn’t have his army with him. He’s used to commanding people, not cajoling them. And even when these civilians obey him, they still end up dead.
A major theme of the film is that evil thoughts and emotions have a will of their own. Helene Thimig, the resident old peasant woman claims that an evil spirit is to blame, and that Ellen Drew is possessed by this spirit, and after all of the really sane people die, Karloff starts to believe her. He slowly transforms from a practical, tactical atheist into a Greek Van Helsing. It makes sense contextually. In this movie we never get a sense of where off-screen characters might be, or where they might come from, or what they might be up to while we’re not looking at them. The uncertainty breeds suspicion, and Karloff, desperate for a solution, starts thinking, “Could Ellen Drew really be a Greek vampire? Well, I don’t know for sure, but not killing her hasn’t stopped anyone from dying…” These pernicious ideas spread faster than any plague, and are more damaging than an actual vampire spree.
Of course, there’s no real monster on the island. The humans fulfill that role well enough. But it’s not just a pissing-contest or a blame-game that gets out of hand. What’s really scary is that everybody’s on their best behavior, doing their utmost to be rational adults in a time of crisis, and they still end up burying each other alive.