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
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
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).