Sunday, 6 September 2009
Isle of the Dead
Above is the opening sequence from Isle of the Dead, one of the nine extraordinary horror films made by Val Lewton (Vladimir Ivan Leventon) in the 1940s. The best of the nine are Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Seventh Victim. Lewton, a Russian émigré, was fascinated by Slavic and Greek supernatural folklore, which informed many of his films. In Cat People, the tragic heroine is Irena Dubrovna, who is convinced she is from a tribe of devil worshippers in Serbia; while in Isle of the Dead, the action is set in Greece during the Balkan wars and involves the obsessively austere, tyrannical, hubristic General Nikolas Pherides (played by Boris Karloff) preventing a group of travellers from leaving a small island hit by septicemic plague, which Pherides fears will reach his troops on the mainland. As Pherides' stringent measures to contain the plague fail and his charges die one by one, the general loses his mind and begins to persecute a beautiful young woman, Thea, who he believes is responsible for the deaths, asserting she is a vrykolokas (vorvolakas), an undead creature that haunts the living world and murders and drinks the blood of its victims.
Isle of the Dead isn't the best in the Lewton series – Seventh Victim is his masterpiece, I believe – but it contains many of the doom-laden elements that characterise his films – loneliness, obsession, madness, the liminal state between life and death, catalepsy, premature burial, sexual desire, repression and repulsion, the potency of the supernatural and the irrational and, above all, the supremacy of thanatos.
g Read more about the vrykolokas in Greek folklore here and here.
g You can watch Isle of the Dead in its entirety at youtube, where you can also see all of I Walked with a Zombie, Body Snatcher, Seventh Victim, Leopard Man, Ghost Ship and Bedlam.
g The Greek island in the film is inspired by Pontikonissi, off Kerkyra, which Lewton visited and extensively photographed, having become mesmerised by the depiction of the island in Arnold Böcklin's painting Isle of the Dead.