Death casts a large shadow in all of Val Lewton’s RKO horror productions, but never larger than in Isle of the Dead. Characters drop like flies as both science and superstition prove inept against the advances of the Grim Reaper in this foreboding tale set amid war, disease and encroaching madness.
Even the most casual fan knows about the Unholy Trinity from the Universal monster series of the 1930s: Dracula, portrayed by Bela Lugosi; The Wolfman, portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr.; and the Frankenstein monster, as brought to life by Boris Karloff. Universal was (and largely still is) synonymous with Horror, but as the 30s ended and the 40s rolled along, their claim to the title as “the Horror movie studio” waned, and a challenger, RKO Pictures, rose to take up the slack. Under the leadership of Producer extraordinaire Val Lewton, RKO cranked out some films that, if not as well known as Universal’s, are equal in terms of quality. CAT PEOPLE, NIGHT OF THE DEMON, and THE LEOPARD MAN, just to name a few. Tonight’s recommendation is the B&W vampire flick ISLE OF THE DEAD, starring the aforementioned Karloff.
Interesting not just as an entertaining vintage production, ISLE OF THE DEAD should appeal to vampire enthusiasts in that it presents an alternate take on the legend. In fact the word “vampire” is never uttered, and a real vampire is never . . . ah, but that would be giving away too much. Suffice it to say the film, steeped in Greek folklore and anchored by Karloff’s performance, delivers the grave goods.