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.