Sunday, December 30, 2012

Isle of the Dead

Val Lewton's journey through darkness and death continues in Isle of the Dead. This is one of the most unusual settings for a Lewton film: the First Balkan War of 1912-13. The Ottoman Empire was disintegrating in the face of unified attack, the last remnants of the conqueror of and successor to the Eastern Roman Empire tottering on the brink of oblivion. Fittingly, from a historical standpoint, it was falling at the hands of a culture even older than it: Greece. The film begins in the aftermath of a battle.

Greek General Pherides - played by Boris Karloff - stands in judgment of one of his officers. For failing to ensure all his troops were available when needed, the punishment is death by suicide. It matters not that this officer is an old friend; his failure brought danger to the army, and, by extension, Greece itself. For that, Pherides can grant no clemency. The safety of the army and Greece is paramount to Pherides.

An American journalist, embedded with the Greek army, has been interviewing Pherides. They tour the battlefield, taking stock of the grim results of the day's proceedings. Bodies by the cartload are dragged to mass burials to prevent the spread of plague; disease knows no boundaries, takes no sides. Such a threat to his troops and his country cannot be allowed by Pherides.

The walk by the general and the journalist takes them to a strangely serene scene. A small island stands not far from the shore, Greek buildings standing timeless and beautiful so near to such death and destruction. Pherides recalls this is where his wife was interred years ago, and the two decide to visit her grave.

Soon, though, it is obvious that death and destruction has visited this island, too, though in different form. The mausoleum that housed the body of Pherides' wife has been broken into, the coffins smashed open long ago. A brief investigation into the night-clad island reveals a house inhabited by an archeologist, Swiss now but born Greek, and his guests, a British couple, the young woman hired to help the British woman, another Englishman, and an older Greek woman who runs the household. The lone Englishman falls ill, and by morning he's dead. From then on, death looms over all - the plague that Pherides dreaded has taken hold of the island.

Pherides summons his army's doctor, who confirms the plague, and quarantines the island. The old woman suspects the young woman to be the cause of the evil, a vorvolaka, a type of vampire from Greek folklore. Some scoff, but others, including, eventually, Pherides, take her warnings more and more seriously, especially as more and more inhabitants of the house fall prey to the plague.

As with all of Lewton's films, shadows dominate both visually and narratively. There is some remarkable cinematic use of shadow and darkness in many shots, especially in the last third of the film. The depth of the darkness in which some characters are submerged is surprising, given the time period. But beyond the shadows created by the lighting, there are the shadows on the souls of the characters. Ancient superstition creeps back to life in the present, nightmares come literally true, and dark prophecies become self-fulfilling. By the end, the old gods themselves, Hermes and Poseidon, seem to make their presence felt, though that presence is much more sinister than what is found in Bulfinch.

Karloff gives a solid, effective performance. His Pherides is a war-hardened pragmatist, though he slips into superstition as the old woman's whisperings about gods of old and monsters of legend seem to come true as he watches. He is used to being in control - of himself, of his men, of destiny itself, in the form of Greece throwing off its shackles. When confronted by that which he cannot control, he strives even harder to bring order from chaos...though his efforts prove to be in vain. He is a complex character, as many of Karloff's characters are, and Karloff brings a rich texture to him.

The last twenty minutes or so of this movie creeped me out. The use of shadow is so effective that I found myself reaching to turn on lights as the darkness unsettled me. But it's not just the use of shadow and light that makes Lewton's films so powerful. This film, like his others, also makes use of sound in a very deft way. The film is quiet, with characters speaking in low tones or softly, the wind rustling subtly, the dripping of water sounding like a metronome. As horror descends, this quiet causes the viewer to brace for what seems the inevitability of loudness. When that loudness comes, it is stark and tearing, slashing across the sensibilities of the viewer, so that when the quietness returns, it is no comfort.

This is unequivocally a masterwork by Lewton. The storyline is simple on the face of it, but complex with the mixture of characters who all have their own motives, the grim setting, and the ambiguity of what really happened. Lewton's films always leave it up to the viewer to decide if the supernatural was present, or if everything had a rational explanation. In this movie, in particular, this ambiguity lends the ending a certain frisson of horror that lingers long after the movie is over.

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