It is an image with startling but subtle power. A boat approaches, carrying a single figure clad in white. The island in view contains dark trees surrounded on all sides but one with wall-like rocks. Above we see sky swirling with clouds. The painting, by Swiss Symbolist Arnold Brocklin, produced five different versions. Freud, Lenin and Clemenceau all owned prints of the work. One novelist even had someone recreate the island to the last detail. Interestingly, the artist himself never explained what the painting was supposed to nor gave it a title.
But it inspired the best vampire movie without a vampire ever.
Val Lewton was something a visionary producer of horror films. Among his movies were “Cat People” and “The Body Snatcher.” But this one–“Isle of the Dead”–was among his last, released in 1945 and starring Boris Karloff as a misguided vampire hunter. His character, General Nikolas Pherides, is in the midst of what to American viewers is an obscure European conflict, the First Balkan War of 1912-13. This was one of the many tiny but intense flare-ups which ultimately led to the vast horror that was the First World War. The General is a tough man, ordering a friend executed without blinking an eye. Why? Because the battle was lost, pretty much. Not that he wanted to do it, but this General has a rigid and sometimes bloody sense of duty. He doesn’t think much of giving interviews to an American Journalist, but is willing because those are his orders. He even takes the journalist (named Davis–played by Marc Cramer) to the nearby island to visit the General’s wife’s grave.
The island is an absolute twin of the painting.
Here Davis and the General become quarantined, from fear of plague. Amid others caught on the island is an older couple, the St. Aubyns (including Alan Napier, destined to play Batman’s butler on t.v. more than twenty years later) and a young woman named Thea (Ellen Drew), hired as nurse/companion to the ailing Mrs. St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery). Perhaps more importantly, we meet Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig) who sees a weak older woman and a vibrant younger one, then interprets this as a case of vampirism. Specifically, she speaks of the vorvolakas (ver-VO-luh-kuh)–a spreader of plague and devourer of life. Madame and General are in their own ways two of a kind, even as the latter scoffs at talk of vorvolakas. But he remembers those words. As days and nights go by without relief (if the wind changes direction, we’re told, the fleas cannot survive and they can leave), doubts and fears worm their way into human hearts. The General’s eyes (those of Boris Karloff, mind you!) follow Thea with suspicion. Here is a man who killed a friend out of duty. What might he do to a stranger?
When Mrs. St. Aubyn seems to die, the proverbial stuff hits the fan, not least because the woman suffers from catelepsy. She isn’t really dead, but comatose. When she awakes, driven mad by her ordeal, neither the General nor Madame can see her as anything but a walking creature from legend risen from her grave to drink living blood. More, they see Thea as the source of contagion.
Martin Scorcese called this one of the most frightening films ever made. Most horror films in which the monster is proven to be nothing of the kind feel like a disappointment. Not “Isle of the Dead.” Here are not one but two monsters, one a pale echo of the other. To some, the monster is a woman risen from the grave, powered by bloodlust. But we know from early in the film the truth–she is no vorvolakas but a sick woman unlucky enough to be buried alive. At the end of “Mark of the Vampire” the audience learns it has been tricked. In this film, we watch the real monsters trick themselves, and reveal their own darkness in that they look upon someone young, beautiful and healthy, yet see in that something unnatural, something evil.
Yet even at the end, we’re encouraged to remember these monsters are just people. Madame Kyra, meeting what she thinks is a vampire alone at night, is genuinely pitiable in her terror. Just as the General, even at his most murderous, was actually trying to protect everyone else.
But is there a vampire? Yes. And no. And maybe yes. Yes, in that a vampire clearly existed in the imagination of some characters, was so vivid in their minds they died as a result of this belief. No, because there is no real supernatural creature at all. And yet, yes–because what really took away life drop by drop in this story is certainly real. It was fear–for this film the only ‘real’ vampire that exists, and which turns men into the walking dead, devoid of feeling or love or pity.