Isle of the Dead (film)

Isle of the Dead

theatrical poster
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Written by Ardel Wray
Val Lewton (uncredited)
Josef Mischel (uncredited)
Starring Boris Karloff
Ellen Drew
Music by Leigh Harline
Cinematography Jack MacKenzie
Edited by Lyle Boyer
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • September 7, 1945 (1945-09-07) (U.S.)[1]
Running time
72 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $246,000
Box office $383,000

Isle of the Dead (1945) is a horror film made for RKO Radio Pictures by producer Val Lewton. The movie had a script inspired by the painting Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, which appears behind the title credits, though the film was originally titled "Camilla" during production. (Another of Lewton's films, I Walked With a Zombie, has the painting hung in the main room of the movie.) It was written by frequent Lewton collaborator Ardel Wray and directed by Mark Robson. It was the fourth of five pictures Robson directed for Lewton and starred Boris Karloff. Karloff would work on two other pictures with Lewton, although the Isle of the Dead came out of second.[2]


An onscreen text warns of the superstitious belief in a vorvolaka, a malevolent force in human form. The film proper begins during the Balkan Wars of 1912. While his troops are burying their dead, General Pherides (Karloff) and American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) visit the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the General's long-dead wife. They discover the crypt despoiled; hearing a woman singing on the supposedly uninhabited island, they set out to find her. They also find retired Swiss archeologist Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), his Greek housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), British diplomat Mr. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier) and his pale and sickly wife (Katherine Emery), her youthful Greek companion Thea (Ellen Drew), and an English tinsmith.

While Aubrecht apologizes for his part 15 years ago in inspiring local peasants to rob graves for valuable Greek artifacts, Kyra whispers to the General that a vorvolaka, in the guise of the red and rosy Thea, is in their midst. The General laughs at such superstition and accepts Aubrecht's invitation to spend the night as his guest.

The next morning, the tinsmith is dead. Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) is summoned; he determines the cause to be septicemic plague and quarantines the island. The Doctor explains how plague is passed and how it may be eradicated in one day if the hot, dry sirocco winds arrive. The archeologist says that Mme. Kyra's explanation – that God sends the plague to punish them for harboring a vorvolaka – makes just as much sense. When Mr. St. Aubyn dies, the General demands that his body be buried immediately, to the horror of the cataleptic Mrs. St. Aubyn, who fears premature burial.

Next to die is Dr. Drossos, proving that the advice of modern science does not guarantee victory over the disease. Suspicion returns to Thea, and Kyra harasses her with taunts and threats. The General vows that he will kill Thea if evidence appears that she is vorvolaka. Fearing for Thea's life, Oliver plans to escape with her, but the general destroys the only boat. Mrs. St. Aubyn falls into a cataleptic trance; everyone (except Thea) believes her to be dead, and they entomb her. Oliver and Aubrecht believe the cause to be plague but Kyra and the General believe it to be the doing of the vorvolaka. Oliver advises Thea to stay away from the General.

The winds change and the sirocco has arrived; it is too late for Pherides, who exhibits symptoms of the plague. Mrs. St. Aubyn awakens from her catalepsy but has been driven insane by being buried alive. Escaping the tomb, she kills Kyra, stabs the General as he attempts to kill Thea, and then leaps off a cliff to her death. As the General is dying, he swears that he has seen the vorvolaka and warns that she must be killed. "It is done," says Dr. Aubrecht, sympathetic to the general's peculiar madness. "The general was simply a man who was trying to protect us," he offers as eulogy.



Filming began for about two weeks in July 1944 until production was suspended when Karloff required a back operation. It was completed in December 1944. In the interim, after Karloff had recovered from the surgery but before the cast of Isle of the Dead could be reassembled, he and Lewton made The Body Snatcher. The film had a troubled production, and the central female character of the original script (named "Catherine") was deleted entirely from the tale.


Leigh Harline's somber score makes use of another work inspired by Böcklin's painting, Sergei Rachmaninoff's tone poem, "Isle of the Dead". Harline borrows themes and copies their orchestration, without violating copyright. He made no use of the public-domain "Dies Irae".


The film premiered in New York City on 7 September 1945. The cost of Isle of the Dead at completion was $246,000, the highest yet for a Lewton horror film, but with domestic rentals of $266,000, and foreign rentals of $117,000, it made only $13,000 in profit for RKO. It was re-issued in 1953 on a double bill with Mighty Joe Young, and made its television debut in 1959.

Director Martin Scorsese placed Isle of the Dead on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.[3]

See also


  1. "Back to Bataan: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
  2. Stephen Jacobs, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomohawk Press 2011 p 304
  3. Scorsese, Martin (October 28, 2009). "11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time". The Daily Beast. Retrieved November 15, 2009.

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