Isle of the Dead is a 1945 horror film directed by Mark Robson, produced by the master of 1940s horror, Val Lewton.
It is set in 1912 during the First Balkan War, one of the warm-up acts for World War I. General Pherides (Boris Karloff) is a Greek general who has just won a battle at great cost. With the battle won, he takes a break and goes to visit his wife's tomb on a cemetery island, taking along American war correspondent Oliver Davis. General Pherides is enraged to find that his wife's tomb has been vandalized.
Looking for the culprits behind the vandalized tomb, he finds on the island an archaeologist, Dr. Albrecht, and Albrecht's housekeeper, Madame Kira. Also on the island are several guests of Albrecht: Mr. and Mrs. St. Aubyn, the husband being an English diplomat; Thea, a caretaker for the frail Mrs. St. Aubyn; Dr. Dossos, whose status as a medical doctor becomes important; and Andrew Robbins, an English tinsmith.
Robbins falls ill at dinner and by the morning is dead. Dr. Dossos comes up with a terrifying diagnosis: Robbins has caught The Plague, namely septicemic plague, the worst kind. The entire island is placed under quarantine. Madame Kira, a superstitious old peasant, blames everything on Thea, whom Kira claims is the host for a vorvolaka, a Greek evil spirit roughly analogous to a vampire.
- Actually Not a Vampire: Nope, Thea's not a vorvolaka, it's just ignorance and fear from Kira and Pherides.
- Art Imitates Art: Inspired by a painting called "Isle of the Dead". The painting can be seen in the opening credits, and the matte painting of the island as Pherides and Oliver approach.
- As You Know: Oliver in the opening scene helpfully mentions to Pherides how he, Oliver, is an American war correspondent.
- The Black Death: Septicemic plague, described quite accurately in the movie as the worst sort. Mortality is nearly 100% and victims sicken and die in 24 hours or even less.
- Buried Alive: Mrs. St. Aubyn has catalepsy and thus has a mortal fear of being buried alive. Sure enough, she is buried alive (or rather, entombed above ground) after she falls into a cataleptic trance and the others mistake her for being dead. The result is not good for anyone.
- Chekhov's Gun: Albrecht shows off one of his best antiquities: a trident meant for the god Poseidon. Later, a deranged Mrs. St. Aubyn gets all stabby with said trident.
- Chiaroscuro: A hallmark of Val Lewton horror films, here seen many times in the spooky Old, Dark House, especially during the entire climactic sequence which takes place at night.
- Dwindling Party: The unfortunates on the island start dying one by one from the plague. Later, a good helping of murder speeds the process along.
- Ethereal White Dress: Mrs. St. Aubyn is buried in her long, flowing white nightgown, which is used for spooky effect when, after losing her mind the coffin, she starts running around killing people, billowing nightgown flowing in her wake.
- Face Framed in Shadow: Lots of this in the climactic sequence, where Mrs. St. Aubyn is going around the house murdering, while the survivors are in turn looking for her.
- Freak Out: Being stuck in a coffin causes Mrs. St. Aubyn to have a complete mental breakdown. After she escapes from her coffin, actually a hastily employed wooden crate weakened by dripping water, the deranged widow starts murdering people.
- Kubrick Stare: Pherides starts shooting these at Thea after he goes crazy and comes to believe she really is a vorvolaka.
- Leave Behind a Pistol: The opening scene has Pherides grilling a junior officer whose men were late for the battle. After finding the officer's explanations inadequate, Pherides puts a pistol down on the table and gives the man a meaningful look. The officer takes the pistol outside the tent and shoots himself.
- Magic Versus Science: Discussed Trope, as Dr. Dossos and Dr. Albrecht debate this point. Dossos is dismissive of the superstitions of peasants like Madame Kira, while Albrecht notes that Dossos can't cure the plague and that they might as well pray to Hermes. Albrecht actually does pray to Hermes after that. (In Real Life science eventually won this point by creating antibiotics that can cure plague.)
- Old, Dark House: The spooky house on the cemetery island, currently being occupied by Dr. Albrecht.
- Our Vampires Are Different: The "vorvolaka", a Greek variant on the vampire, an undead creature that feeds on the Life Energy of the living at night, but generally is not believed to drink blood. Madame Kira singles out Thea for no damn reason as being a vorvolaka, causing much trouble for the latter.
- Sanity Slippage: At first General Pherides, an icon of modern Greek civilization, sneers at the superstitions of Kira the peasant with her talk about vorvolaka. But as the situation deteriorates and Pherides finds himself unable to fix it, his sanity deteriorates as well. Eventually he becomes completely unhinged, believing Thea to be a vorvolaka and deciding to kill her to save the rest.
- Title of the Dead: Isle of the Dead