Theodore Rosack’s thilling novel Flicker is a conspiracy theory made real; it depicts an innocent who is drawn into the bizarre films of a past film-maker, whose uncanny work disguises an evil intent. The book doesn’t nail itself to any one reputation, but certainly evokes thoughts of Orson Welles, William Castle and in particular producer Val Lewton, whose run of eerie horror is yet to be surpassed for indefinable chills. Isle of the Dead is a strange watch, even stranger in 2020 because of some odd foreshadowing…
Lewton is familiar to genre fans for the NYC chiller Cat People and Satanic –panic thriller The Seventh Victim; I Walked With A Zombie saw him transplant Jane Eyre to the Caribbean. Here, the setting is Greece during the Balkan Wars in 1912, and the big issue is, as one of the characters puts it, ‘a contagion of the soul’. That contagion is real, a plague. ‘On the pale horse is pestilence, it follows the wars,’ remarks one character. There’s a creepy frisson to be derived from a film made in 1945 and set in 1912 which features social distancing; the characters are forbidden to meet in groups, and have to abide according to what they call ‘rules of contact.’
‘This plague differs in that it affects some differently from others,’ is another line that resonates with today, but so does the storyline. A Greek general Pherides (Boris Karloff) heads to a mysterious island where he finds desecrated graves; the locals seem to have been doing their own treasure hunting, or so says local archaeologist (the lesser-spotted Jason Robards Sr). But as they are struck down by a bacteria-based septicemtic plague, causing fever and difficulty breathing, Pherides begins to suspect that the locals have correctly identified the influence of a vorvolaka, a malevolent supernatural force, possible in the comely form of Thea (Ellen Drew).
Based on a painting by Arnold Bocklin, Isle of the Dead has a languorous rhythm, even if it barely lasts 70 minutes. There’s a rare sensitivity to foreign philosophies and religion; lots of discussions of the workings of the gods, particularly Hermes, who has votive candles lit in his honour. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and Isle of the Dead is a prime example of a film, like White Zombie or Night of the Demon, might strike some as being haunted; it’s certainly an otherworldly experience to watch. As with the best horror films, there’s a credulity and respect that make this a must-see film for genre fans, and it’s also a film which has a relevance to today that the film-makers could never have dreamt of. As one character notes in a way that dispels the notion that science and progress dissolve all magic;
“Laws can be cold and laws can be cruel,
But people who live only by the law can be cold and cruel,’