By Jeet Heer* – The Nation
A classic horror movie reveals how authoritarianism and scapegoating flourish during a plague
None of us are going to the movie theater anytime soon. Fortunately, there are convenient substitutes for cinema addicts, perhaps most readily the streaming of classic movies. But it turns out there is no escaping the pandemic—even in the pleasures of the past. Rewatching the movies of Val Lewton, who produced nine remarkable horror flicks for RKO during World War II, I was struck by how closely the anxiety of these films mirrors our own moment. This is particularly true of one of his less well-regarded films, Isle of the Dead (1945), set in a plague-ridden Greek island whose inhabitants start suspecting they are being stalked by a kind of vampire.
Lewton, previously a troubleshooter at MGM, had been hired by RKO in 1942 with the mandate to produce trash. RKO had just lost a fortune with Citizen Kane (1941) so the studio decided they needed less art and more crowd pleasers. The idea was to copy Universal Pictures’ popular franchise of monster films, creature features like Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) which were endlessly recycled in sequels. Lewton, who’d had an earlier career as a pulp writer, seemed just the man for the job. RKO even ended up hiring Boris Karloff, famous for his doleful-eyed Frankenstein monster, to work with Lewton.
Though Lewton was hired to be a hack, he failed by giving the studio art. Burdened with sleazy titles (Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie) and B-movie budgets (each movie had to be made for under $150,000), Lewton used his constraints as challenges to see how much artistry he could get away with.
If he had to make movies about cat people or zombies, he’d turn the freakish subject into a question: What are the circumstances under which a young woman could believe that she could become a murderous feline when aroused? Could it have to do with sexual repression? What function do myths about zombies serve in colonial societies? Are they a way to control the population through fear?
Lewton wasn’t interested in monsters so much as the conditions that made people believe in monsters, the impossible-to-suppress atavistic fears that persist even among people who think of themselves as rational. Exploring the borderline where ambiguity gives way to terror, he became a maestro of uncertainty.
That love of uncertainty found its counterpart in the fog and murk that mark his characteristic visual style. Low budgets and wartime limits on electrical usage were contributing factors to the shadowy nature of his movies, as they also were to those who made film noir. But as with film noir, Lewton turned necessity into opportunity. Shadows have their shades, Lewton discovered. The eye can be held by trying to distinguish between umbra, penumbra and antumbra.
In an interview with Life magazine in 1946, Lewton codified this into a rule. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he confided. “If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it they want!” He added that viewers “will populate the darkness with more horror than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.”
One reason Boris Karloff proved to be such a happy collaborator with Lewton was that the famed horror actor had the same philosophy. A gifted character actor, Karloff had long grown tired of the luridness of the Universal Pictures formula, where the shocks were too explicit. In the introduction to an anthology titled Tales of Terror (1943), Karloff argued for the superiority of stories that used the subtlety of suggestion and explored the “fear of the unknown and the unknowable.”
Isle of the Dead is set in 1912, during the First Balkan War. The movie was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting of the same name, which shows a desolate island, an image alluded to in the film. Karloff plays General Pherides, a fierce Greek military leader. Nicknamed “the Watchdog,” Pherides is a stern disciplinarian, a believer in rules, order and rationality. An outbreak of the septicemic plague occurs on a small island housing refugees. Pherides immediately declares a strict quarantine.
An old Greek woman named Kyra (Helene Thimig) starts planting rumors that the actual culprit isn’t the plague but a vorvolaka, one of the living dead. Pherides scoffs at her with gruff good humor. “Go away with your nonsense, old woman,” he chides. “These are new times for Greece. We do not believe the old foolish tales anymore.”
Pherides sees himself as a modern man, a man of science, who has put aside foolish old wives’ tales. He puts his trust in the medical advice of a military doctor. In scenes that will ring all too familiar, everyone on the island is caught up in rituals of handwashing and distancing, complete with awkwardly avoided handshakes.
But the pandemic takes a psychological toll, with Pherides increasingly coming to doubt science and taking comfort in raw authoritarianism. His need for order makes him vulnerable in the end to Kyra’s teachings about the vorvolaka. The film is an exploration of how the stress of a pandemic breeds a search for scapegoats. It’s hard not to think about the Trump administration’s campaign of blaming China, nor the rising hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Karloff is wonderfully nuanced as Pherides, a man whose vigilance is a strength at normal times but becomes his undoing. The pandemic in Pherides mind is the true subject of the movie, and Karloff brings to life all the twists and turns of that mental universe.
There is much in the character that reflects Lewton himself. Born in Russia in 1904, Lewton grew up with horror stories told to him by his nanny. Even as he became a successful producer in sunny California, these Gothic tales never left him. The inability of modern people to escape the Gothic past is Lewton’s recurring concern.
Isle of the Dead isn’t usually ranked as one of Lewton’s best movies. Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie have been much more celebrated. Isle of the Dead had a troubled production history, with hasty rewrites leaving many plot holes and jarring scene shifts. Writing in The Nation in 1945, James Agee gave it a wildly mixed review. He said it was “tedious, overloaded, diffuse, and at moments arty, yet in many ways to be respected, up to its last half-hour or so; then it becomes as brutally frightening and gratifying a horror movie as I can remember.” Revisiting it in a new century, we can say it has many of Lewton’s characteristic virtues and, thanks to Covid-19, a new urgency.
*Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).