The Greek anti-defamation league, if it existed, mustn’t have had much power when Isle of the Dead came out. It’s a quarantine drama, a genre I’m unfamiliar with but certainly has a lot of potential, set on a small Greek island. There’s nothing on the island besides an amateur Swiss archeologist (Jason Robards Sr.) and a graveyard. Boris Karloff plays a Greek general (the film’s set during the First Balkan War) who heads over to visit his wife’s tomb, dragging along American war correspondent Marc Cramer.
Karloff and Cramer find some mild mystery before ending up in Robards’s home, where he’s entertaining multiple guests–temporary refuges from Karloff’s latest battle.
The plague makes an appearance, forcing everyone to stay on the small island. Karloff and fellow Greek Helene Thimig start thinking its an evil spirit and plot murder.
While Thimig is over the top, Karloff’s descent into madness is wonderful. Even when he ignores fact, his conviction remains reasonable. It’s a quiet, unassuming performance from him–costar Cramer appears to be taller even; he transfixes.
Director Robson handles the cast and their subplots well, with Ardel Wray’s script weaving the subplots across each other, fueling the main thrust of the picture. It’s a brilliant, unpredictable script.
Besides Karloff, the best performances are from Ellen Drew (as a Greek peasant who suffered at the military’s hand) and Katherine Emery (as her ill friend). The only other iffy performance is Ernst Deutsch.
Isle resists most formula (there’s romance); it’s rather good.
Directed by Mark Robson; written by Ardel Wray; director of photography, Jack MacKenzie; edited by Lyle Boyer; music by Leigh Harline; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Boris Karloff (Gen. Nikolas Pherides), Marc Cramer (Oliver Davis), Ellen Drew (Thea), Katherine Emery (Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn), Alan Napier (St. Aubyn), Jason Robards Sr. (Albrecht), Skelton Knaggs (Andrew Robbins), Ernst Deutsch (Dr. Drossos) and Helene Thimig (Madame Kyra).