Well, here we are once again, diving headlong into the effervescent month of October. This can only mean one thing and one thing only: The Protestant Reformation! That’s right, I’m going to take a probing examination into the European world of the mid-1400s through the 1600s with a detailed analysis of Martin Luther and his contemporaries who all helped to bring about changes that are still felt some 500 years later!
Oh, wait. Hm. That sounds rather involved doesn’t it? I’ve nowhere near the research background for this. Hm. Well then, let’s get back to the original plan and kick off with my 1940s Boris Karloff movie choice!
Whew! Now this is much easier! I get to drone on about a movie and not have to explain a complex theological concept such as why justification by faith alone is the cornerstone of Christianity. This is all well and good, but ultimately how does Boris Karloff fit in? Oddly enough, via my unsophisticated methods, faith does play into the movie I’m looking at this week.
During the 1940s, Karloff was an established genre star. Given his excellent 1930s track record, he could afford to be. The man did not rest on his laurels either, keeping himself busy for the entire decade. (Karloff was in eight movies that were released in 1940 alone.) There was some horror fare from Universal such as Black Friday and House of Frankenstein. He did turns for Columbia in The Devil Commands and The Man with Nine Lives. There were two more Mr. Wong pictures and an Abbott and Costello movie. He was also in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome and while I know that I’m risking spoilers, I just wanted to share that Karloff didn’t play Dick Tracy.
Somehow at the same time, Karloff also found the time to star in the play Arsenic and Old Lace, which was a terrific hit. Karloff was the draw, but the play also benefitted from having a great script and brilliant supporting character actors. At one point in the story someone has a line saying that Karloff’s character looks like Boris Karloff. Upon hearing this, Karloff provided a delightful meta moment where his character would get enraged at the suggestion that he resembled himself!
Frank Capra made the film adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, and…not Boris Karloff. Sadly, Karloff was not permitted a leave of absence from the stage production to film the movie. Raymond Massey was cast instead. Massey did an admirable job, but obviously the Karloff line certainly didn’t have the same impact as it did with the stage version. While Karloff was a good cheerleader in later promoting the film, he was rather irked about not being able to be in it.
Meanwhile RKO, seeing as how other studios were reaping in the benefits that came via the horror genre, decided that they wanted a ghoulish piece of the horror pie. However, RKO had two drawbacks: 1) they didn’t have any established genre properties and 2) they didn’t want to risk extravagant budgets on these films. Despite these hurdles, RKO still wanted to get their legendary radio antenna in the door, so they hired producer Val Lewton to focus on horror. Given meager budgets, a mandate that the movies couldn’t be over 75 minutes long, and an array of pre-determined titles to use, Lewton got right to work.
Despite these restrictions, or perhaps because of them, Lewton succeeded in making something out of the nothing that RKO gave him. Starting with Cat People in 1942, Lewton produced some wonderful horror movies that tended to be creepier and more atmospheric than what the competition was releasing. Even saddled with outlandish titles like The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton put out well-made, reliable films that had healthy box office returns. Lewton also managed to do this without having a major star attached. Of course, that was about to change…
Boris Karloff by the mid-1940s was looking for something different. Karloff thought the horror pictures that he was doing were getting repetitive. He was feeling unchallenged as an actor. Fortuitously, Lewton came along at that time, offering Karloff a three-picture deal. When he saw that Lewton’s productions offered an opportunity to expand his horizons, Karloff signed right up. Karloff never regretted the decision. In fact, Karloff always had kind words to say about Lewton and the films they did together. Those three films were The Body Snatcher, Bedlam, and the movie that I’m going to look at today: 1945’s Isle of the Dead.
When one thinks of stereotypical horror films, one doesn’t first turn to Lewton and when one thinks of the Karloff/Lewton movies, one doesn’t first turn to Isle of the Dead. That’s how not well-known this movie is! The Body Snatcher usually gets the most attention, as it not only stars Bela Lugosi and was directed by the great Robert Wise. Bedlam usually gets recognition as being the last of the classic run of Lewton’s horror movies, so there’s more of a retrospective feel about it. But Isle of the Dead mostly gets the “Oh, that’s right, there was another one of those, wasn’t there!” kind of treatment, if it is remembered at all.
And that’s a shame, as Karloff gives quite a good performance in Isle of the Dead. The plot revolves around a group of people trapped on a tiny island because they must quarantine due to a plague outbreak. (Hmmm…eerily timely…) Karloff plays a general whose wife was buried on the same island years ago. He’s a hardened cynic whose faith has left him. But when members of the group start dying, Karloff starts to believe that he cannot fight this battle conventionally. He then turns to the unconventional, embracing some misguided philosophies from a zealot in the group. The zealot believes that an evil force has possessed a woman in their group and if she is eliminated, then all will be well.
Karloff’s work in Isle of the Dead is measured and builds up rather nicely. He starts out as a hardened military man who reveals a tender side to a reporter that is travelling with him. But then Karloff becomes increasingly susceptible to the zealot’s suggestion once more deaths begin to happen. When even his own army surgeon succumbs, you can see in Karloff’s eyes that he’s a believer, desperate enough to try anything to survive. If Karloff must kill this woman to make the evil plague go away, so be it; he will certainly follow this newfound faith.
The use of shadows in the Lewton-produced horror movies is well documented and not without reason. Lewton had directors that believed in lighting a scene correctly, constructing a mood, developing an atmosphere. Shadows were also an effective way to cover up a multitude of budget shortcomings. Director Mark Robson certainly did a fine job here. The lighting or lack thereof is executed rather well throughout Isle of the Dead. Everything is touched by shadow, just like everyone is touched either physically or mentally by the plague creeping in from all angles.
The rest of the cast is nothing to get too excited about, although they do their parts well enough. Jason Robards, Jr.’s father, Jason Robards Sr., is in this movie, so that’s something. Beyond Karloff and Robards, the next recognizable name in the cast would have to be Alan Napier, who later portrayed stately Wayne Manor’s loyal butler Alfred on the 1960s Batman TV show.
Which reminds me: Karloff was never on Batman! How did this opportunity get missed?! He could have even played Clayface, an established Batman villain who was an actor named…Basil Karlo! C’mon, it was right there in front of you! Was it more important to make sure that Van Johnson or Shelley Winters got to be villains but not Boris? He wasn’t even a window cameo when the Caped Crusaders would scale a building’s wall. And yet Jerry Lewis did do a cameo?! Life is just beyond sad.
I must make special mention of Helene Thimig who played Kyra, the superstitious zealot that gets Karloff started on his path. She manages to manipulate Karloff in such an understated and powerful way, resulting in Thimig standing out amongst an otherwise ho-hum cast. But that’s okay, as we came to see Karloff, who certainly delivers.
What emerged from Isle of the Dead’s humble low-budget production was an interesting turn for Karloff. He slowly and methodically descends into desperate madness. He doesn’t engage in an easier path of overacting either. If Karloff overacted, it would pull one right out of the movie. Instead, he moves deliberately with subtle moments. Sometimes you even want Karloff’s faith to be justified that this woman is indeed housing an evil spirit within herself. This is a testimony to Boris Karloff’s skill and mastery of his craft that he could garner such sympathetic reactions from the audience.
Well, that 72 minutes just breezed right on by! Say what you want about the Val Lewton horror movies, but they certainly won’t eat up enormous parts of your day. The bottom line is that Isle of the Dead isn’t a landmark film by any stretch of the imagination. Yet at the same time, there is nice suspense and Boris Karloff certainly gives a satisfying performance. Isle of the Dead is an atmospheric movie that clips along relatively smoothly, showing the perils of how a false faith can lead one astray.
And if that doesn’t somehow swing everything back into my Reformation-related opening paragraph in a forced and ham-fisted manner, then I don’t know anything.
(Well, I do know that if I was producer on Batman back in the day, I sure as hell would have called up Karloff before getting Colonel Klink for a window cameo!)