The year is 1912 and Greece is at war. On a small island off the coast, a Greek general (Boris Karloff) goes to visit the grave of his wife, only to find the tomb has been broken into and the body gone. The General and Oliver, an American reporter (Marc Cramer), discover the island is inhabited by a group of people sheltering from the war - and that there is a deadly plague there. As they begin to drop like flies, could there be another, supernatural explanation for the deaths?
Isle of the Dead was written by Josef Mischel and Ardel Wray, and was one of three horrors that Boris Karloff starred in for producer Val Lewton. The best of these was The Body Snatcher, but the others, Bedlam and this one, are just as interesting. Karloff's glowering visage and funereal voice suit the Lewton atmosphere of insidious superstition and impending doom perfectly.
The General we see at first is a pragmatic man who has such ruthless devotion to his cause that he sends out a colonel to commit suicide after letting down his men - it's the decent thing to do in the General's eyes. But once he gets on the island, an old woman plants the seeds of his downfall in his mind by convincing him that a vampire-like spirit is stalking the land, carried in the body of a young servant girl, Thea (Ellen Drew).
Thea is an unlikely source of evil, being wholesome and innocent, but even she believes that she may be harbouring a baleful power. We even start to believe there could be something unnatural going on ourselves, even though a rational explanation for everything is provided. But the deep shadows, Gothic set design and eerie ambience tell you otherwise - even the daylight scenes look murky and sinister.
Eventually the relentlessly mournful gloom wears you down, and the chirpy reporter seems out of place (he looks as if he's there as a requisite romantic lead more than anyone useful to the story). But the finale, with an Edgar Allan Poe-influenced return from the dead by one character, is excellent. Dressed in white, she follows the vulnerable Thea through the night, all the while gently singing; then she gets hold of a trident and starts stabbing people to death, simultaneously fulfilling the superstition and ridding the surviving characters of it. It's sequences like those that make these old chillers worth watching. Music by Leigh Harline.
Workmanlike Canadian director who occasionally rose above the mainstream. A former editor, he got his break directing some good quality Val Lewton horrors for RKO: The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Excellent boxing drama Champion led to more high profile work: Home of the Brave, Phffft!, The Harder They Fall, Peyton Place, enjoyable Hitchcock-style thriller The Prize, Von Ryan's Express, campy Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake.