Val Lewton was a film producer and writer who made several excellent low budget horror movies for RKO Radio Pictures. Most of the films dealt with a supernatural theme but it was usually implied rather than outright shown.
There were three conditions imposed on Lewton for making these movies. Each film had to come in under a $150,000 budget, each was to run under 75 minutes, and Lewton’s supervisors would supply the film titles.
Isle of the Dead (1945) was directed by Mark Robson and starred Boris Karloff as a general in the Greek army. It’s 1912 and The Balkan War is taking place. Gen. Nikolas Pherides (Karloff) and his troops are returning home but are plagued by a pestilence. Karloff decides to visit his late wife’s grave on a nearby island and he takes journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) with him. When they arrive they discover that the graves are empty. They go to a nearby house owned by a Swiss archaelogist named Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.). He explains that peasants raided the graves looking for antiquities Albrecht has several house guests. A travelling British tin salesman, a British counsel and his sick wife. The wife has a companion named Thea (Ellen Drew) who Albrecht’s house maid believes to be a vrykolkas. Vrykolkas are an ancient Greek myth that are sort like a vampire.
The Greeks traditionally believed that a person could become a vrykolakas after death due to a sacrilegious way of life, an excommunication, a burial in unconsecrated ground, or eating the meat of a sheep which had been wounded by a wolf or a werewolf. And we thought we had tainted meat problems. Vrykolakas were also known for various terrifying activities verging from merely leaving their grave and “roaming about”, through engaging in poltergeist-like activity, causing epidemics in the community and to the terrifying act of knocking on people’s doors seeing if there was anyone home.
The next morning the tin salesman turns up dead. A doctor is summoned and informs the group that it’s the plague and that the doctor is quarantining the island. The maid thinks that Thea killed the salesman and informs the general. Karloff believes in the old ways but he wants to make sure that Thea is really a vrykolkas.
This is a creepy and moody film. Karloff is excellent as a general who is used to taking command of all situations and the fact that he still believes is an old superstition makes him extremely dangerous. A classic.