Isle of the Dead (1945)

Directed by Mark Robson [Other horror films: The Seventh Victim (1943), Bedlam (1946)]

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started this movie because, in truth, while I knew the title, I didn’t really know anything about it. After seeing it, I can’t say I’m disappointed, as I had few expectations going in, but I can say that it’s not quite the movie I was looking for.

Like some horror films, especially horror films related to Val Lewton (who was one of the writers here), there’s a decent amount of build-up before we get to anything that really feels like actual horror. Hell, the director of this picture, Mark Robson, directed a horror film where it almost never gets to actual horror (being 1943’s The Seventh Victim), which is almost a feat in itself. Certainly this movie picks up with the final twenty minutes or so, and it’s not exactly dull beforehand, but given the talent involved here, I expected a bit more.

Obviously Boris Karloff doesn’t really need an introduction. Among my favorite performances of his is that of The Black Cat (a movie I didn’t love at a whole, but I won’t deny he did great in it), Frankenstein, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam (which, coincidentally, was also directed by Robson), and he’s pretty good here, as a by-the-book general who might be a bit too brutal. Others here do okay, such as Ernst Deutsch, Marc Cramer, and Ellen Drew, but really, Karloff pretty much commands the screen.

Story-wise, there’s an interesting (and, as I’m writing this in late 2020, time-relevant) plot where a group of people are stuck on an island trying to survive a plague. It leads to the expected tension and increased feeling of being on edge, which might be a bit much for some characters, such as that played by, of course, Boris Karloff. It leads to some quality scenes in which characters argue between science and religion (and of course, this being an older movie, my atheist friends and comrades will be disappointed by the illogical nature of the conversations), but ultimately, it doesn’t really get good until a confluence of events at the end.

The finale itself is no doubt pretty solid, though I’d argue it’s not enough to really warrant watching this one again, at least any time soon. Isle of the Dead isn’t a movie that I could see myself throwing into a favorites pile of classics, but I did certainly appreciate the, for lack of a different word, almost atypical presentation and story, and it may just take some more viewings for it to really grow on me.

6/10

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Directed by Albert Lewin [Other horror films: The Living Idol (1957)]

While certainly more a morality tale than a straight horror film, there’s a reason that this classic is often listed as part of the genre, especially come the end of the film in it’s debauched glory.

More than anything, The Picture of Dorian Gray questions morality. Personally, when it comes to many aspects of the hedonistic lifestyle portrayed in the film, I didn’t have a big deal with it. It was a different time, though, so if you can get past how tame Dorian’s ‘sins’ seem (some of the worst stuff is off-screen, only alluded to), you can have a good time.

The cast here is stellar. Hurd Hatfield does a great job as the debonair but somewhat soulless Gray, and his youthful appearance lends credibility to the story. He’s never really been in much that I’ve seen, but given that this was only his second role, it shows the quality of his performance. Honestly, though, George Sanders and his amoral character impressed me more. He was witty, fun, and most importantly, entirely able to defend the actions others see as questionable. Sanders here really brought a great character to life.

Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury played two love interests of Gray at different periods of his life. Reed was decent, but it was Lansbury who made a bigger impression, and the scene in which she’s singing prior to meeting Gray was great. Her time with Gray was short and tragic, especially come the test of her virtuousness (all thanks to Sanders’ character).

One more name need be mentioned, and that’s Cedric Hardwicke, who narrated the film. I sometimes have an issue with narration (look at how awful it was in Curse of the Faceless Man), but it was very solid here, and only added to the tone of the film.

Another thing very much worth pointing out was how, despite the film being black-and-white, there were a few scenes in full color, when first showing the titular picture of Dorian Gray and again toward the end once, showing just how far his soul has fallen (which led to some unnecessary “Pray for your soul, Dorian,” stuff, but whateves, I can deal with it). It was a very effective use of dramatic coloring, and that, coupled with a murder that happens moments after the second portrait reveal, really bring the horror element of the film to the forefront for those scenes.

When it comes to classic films, it’s not uncommon for horror elements to get mixed up with heavy dollops of drama, and this movie is a prime example of that. For fans of modern-day horror, The Picture of Dorian Gray might not be up to their standards. It’s a great mixture, though, of a morality tale, throwing in elements of romance, horror, and the desire for one to better himself. Certainly a movie that’s recommended, and referred to a ‘classic’ for a reason.

8/10

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Directed by Robert Wise [Other horror films: The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Haunting (1963), Audrey Rose (1977)]

This classic film is one that’s heavily bolstered by solid performances and a rather entertaining story. While somewhat light on what you might traditionally expect from a horror film, I think The Body Snatcher has a lot going for it.

One thing about this film that I rather enjoy is the fact that it’s easy to use this as a companion piece to the 1960 release The Flesh and the Fiends. If one were somewhat daring, you could even call The Flesh and the Fiends a prequel to The Body Snatcher. At the very least, the two films work together well, and as both are rather decent films, there’s possibilities there.

The Body Snatcher’s cast is probably the best part about the film. Bela Lugosi is somewhat underused, but both Henry Daniell and Boris Karloff are used to great effect. Daniell has that aura of a dignified man with a rather torrid past, while Karloff oozes sleaziness in virtually every second of screen-time. Daniell and Karloff are definitely the most memorable performances here, because while the audience’s moral center, played by Russell Wade, is decent, he’s ultimately somewhat forgettable by the time the story wraps up.

Speaking of which, while at first I was hesitant toward the final ten minutes of the film (they struck me as unnecessary, given the death of the antagonist that had already happened), I found them masterful (important to note that while I’ve seen this one before, it’s been quite a long while, so many of the details were forgotten). The final carriage ride is just fantastic, both introspective and somber, turning into a manic, thrilling conclusion.

While it’s light on some horror aspects (which is something I didn’t really notice at the time, but seems clear when thinking back to the film), The Body Snatcher is a lot of fun, and it really does have a lot going for. Definitely give it a watch, as it’s one of the high-lights of the often lackluster decade that was the 1940’s.

8/10