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ISLE OF THE DEAD
DVD region 0. Odeon.

Isle of the DeadI’ve argued before that Val Lewton’s much acclaimed horror films are mostly undeserving of the praise heaped on them; that they are, in fact, horror films loved by critics who don’t like horror films and so were sympathetic to the producer’s own distain for the genre. And I’d stand by that argument, while admitting that sometimes, his movies escaped the inbuilt contempt of their producer and managed to be effective shockers. Bedlam, The Seventh Victim and today’s film for review, Isle of the Dead, are three such examples – possibly because they eschew supernatural shocks for a more down-to-Earth form of terror.

Isle of the Dead, in fact, toys with the fear of the supernatural while presenting a (relatively) plausible story. In 1912, American reporter Oliver (Marc Cramer) joins a patriotic but ruthless Greek General (Boris Karloff) on a trip away from the battle field to an island that houses the tomb of the General’s late wife. On arrival, they discover that the tomb has been ransacked years earlier by locals, and meet a disparate group of people sheltering from the nearby war. However, their sanctuary soon becomes a prison, as a guest dies of the plague and the General insists that everyone stays put until the crisis is over, to avoid infecting the mainland. But slowly, he becomes convinced that the deaths are in fact due to Thea (Ellen Drew), a servant girl who he believes is a vampire-like creature.

Isle of the Dead
doesn’t quite reach the heights it should – there’s the potential here for a story of increasing paranoia and mistrust among the island’s residents, but other than a superstitious old woman and Karloff, no-one believes Thea to be a monster, and neither does the audience – there are no ambiguities here, no suggestions that she really might be evil. And as Karloff’s character has been a rational – if somewhat cold-hearted – man through most of the film, his sudden belief in the supernatural over the more obvious reality is a little jarring.

Things get gothic at the end with a well-telegraphed premature burial and subsequent demented revival, though this too is somewhat unconvincing as a plot twist. But these problems aside, Isle of the Dead is a well-paced effort, handled in a straight-faced manner by director Mark Robson. While certainly a minor genre effort, it has plenty of entertainment value, and Karloff once again excels in a rather more multi-faceted role than he often had to deal with. His performance alone would make this worth a look..

DAVID FLINT

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