Karloff will forever be associated with Frankenstein, a role that he fought to overcome his whole life. Thankfully, he had acting chops to fall back on, and over time this column will review a couple of his more neglected roles.
Isle of the Dead is a Val Lewton film and while it is quality, it’s not a classic. For one thing, it’s too poorly paced, for another, it introduces a really great concept that it never follows up on. The vorvolaka is a sort of greek vampire, a presence that haunts the film, as the populace still fears it, even as they are being torn apart by war and plague. If the vorvolaka was in this film it would have been awesome.
It was not.
Isle of the Dead takes a more subtle route, as it is statement on fear. Karloff is General Pherides, a proud, disciplined, inflexible officer who ventures onto an island with a mouthy American reporter, only to find the grave ruined. While investigating, an ominous older woman warns him that the vorvolaka is masquerading as someone in the house. He dismisses her repeatedly, but the sign of the vampire is plague, and plague is ravaging the island.
At some point, Pherides transitions to believing in the supernatural. And being naturally protective, he starts to realize that his duty may include killing an innocent girl. Karloff captures the brooding, intense military man perfectly, a man who has done terrible things but all things that he felt were right. He is slowly working himself up to murder, but he doesn’t want to lose his rational self, and it is intimated that part of his antipathy towards her is simply because she was initially rude to him. And this film is brave enough in its denouement to pity the General instead of condemning him.
Isle of the Dead is builds tension until the end when it ends up being remarkably ahead of its time. But at a certain point Karloff lies on the floor, apparently dead, after suffering from plague and then having been mortally wounded. But in the dark he awakes and he drags himself towards a cowering, innocent woman, kept alive only by sheer hatred. Maybe it’s around this point that Lewton (who had reservations about casting Karloff) had to realize that he had gotten a great actor after all.