Saturday, December 16, 1972: Soul of a Monster (1944) / Isle of the Dead (1945)

Synopsis: George Winson (George Macready) is a famous surgeon and humanitarian who is dying in a city hospital.   An accidental tear in his surgical glove exposed him to an infection, and now he only has hours to live.  It seems everyone in the city has some memory of his kindness and selflessness, and it seems that everyone has joined together in mourning him.

George has come to accept his fate, but his wife Ann (Jeanne Bates) is another story. She is angry that a man who has contributed so much to the world is being taken out of it before his time, while others who do evil and contribute nothing live on.  George’s devout friend Fred (Erik Rolf) tries to console her, telling her it is God’s will, but Ann will have none of it.  What God, she asks Fred, would allow such an unjust thing to happen? Either God doesn’t exist or he has abandoned George; either way, she wants nothing to do with him.  She then says that if any other force in the world — the Devil, for example — would intervene and save George, then she would owe that force her allegiance.  And to prove the point, she calls out to the Devil, asking for George to be saved.

At that very moment a woman in black walks along the darkened streets of the city.  She never breaks stride for a moment, and walks right into the path of an oncoming car.  The couple driving the car slam on the brakes, and leap out, thinking they struck her – but no one is there.  The woman in black continues walking, unconcerned at a downed powerline that is sparking only a few feet away from her.  She walks into a building up to the very room where George is dying.


The woman tells those assembled that her name is Lilyan Gregg and that she heard Ann’s offer.  Does it still stand?  Ann says it does, and at the woman’s word, George begins to recover.  


The next day the newspapers are filled with the amazing news: George Winson has made a seemingly miraculous recovery.  But Fred is deeply disturbed by George’s behavior.  He is now distant and cold, no longer the kind and compassionate man he once was.  He snarls at his faithful dog, throwing a pair of hedge clippers at it in a fit of rage.  Fred later discovers that the dog has been killed, and its blood is on George’s work gloves.   Ann is having second thoughts too, as George displays an increasingly rude and dismissive attitude toward her.

And there are other strange things: when George holds a flower in his hands, it immediately shrivels and dies.  He seems to have no pulse.  And when Ann accidentally cuts him, he does not bleed….

Comments: Edward Dein was a successful if unspectacular screenwriter in the 1940s, penning a lot of paint-by-numbers stuff like The Falcon’s Alibi and Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous and programmers like My Gal Loves Music and The Boss of Bigtown.

But he saved his best work for horror projects, writing the first Inner Sanctum mystery Calling Dr. Death, as well as the The Cat Creeps and tonight’s opus, The Soul of a Monster.

Unlike most screenwriters, though, Dein managed to make the jump to directing, and he both wrote and directed one of the most interesting horror films of the 1950s, Curse of the Undead.

A mashup of the western and horror genres, Curse of the Undead tells the story of a mysterious black-clad gunman named Drake Robey, a vampire who deals death across the Old West both with a six-gun and with his razor-sharp fangs. Robey isn’t the fastest draw in the west but he doesn’t need to be — bullets can’t harm him so he’s always the last man standing.

Early on in the movie young Dolores Carter advertises for a hired gun to kill a town bully named Buffer, whom she believed has killed both her father and kid brother Tim. Pastor Dan Young, a family friend, scolds her for choosing such a sinful path, and their argument closely resembles the one Ann and Fred have in Soul of a Monster:

DAN

Don’t you realize hiring a killer is just as sinful as committing the murder yourself?

DOLORES

I’m not in the mood for any of your sermons — not unless it’s delivered at Buffer’s funeral. You’re a big man with words, but talking’s not going to bring back Tim or Dad.

DAN

And killing Buffer’s not going to bring them back either. All this raving about killing and revenge is as blasphemous as praying to the Devil.

DOLORES

If the Devil can stop some of this pain in me, then I’ll even pray to him.

At that moment there is a knock at the door, and just as Ann Winson got the help she so desperately sought from the mysterious Lilyan Gregg, Dolores gets the help she’s asking for from the equally mysterious Drake Robey — whose name sounds vaguely reminiscent of a certain Transylvanian nobleman. Like the aforementioned glib-tongued Devil, Robey can make the darkest sins sound not only reasonable, but even noble:

ROBEY

Preacher, you’ve been reading the good book too long. You should look at life as it really is. Miss Carter’s in trouble — her land’s been invaded, cattle damaged. Her brother and her father gave their lives in defense of that land. If governments were involved we’d call it war. Now, why don’t you think of me as a professional soldier come to help Miss Carter? In war when a life is taken it’s not considered murder. It’s called a deed of heroism, an act to preserve the peace.

Interestingly, the vampire lore in Curse of the Undead undercuts our expectations. Robey operates without trouble in the daytime, though he appears to prefer the night; and when he first meets Preacher Dan, he notices a pin on his lapel — which has at its center a tiny cross made from two bits of wood. Dan says it was made from “a relic of the True Cross” (a claim that would have been just as dubious in 880 AD as in 1880 AD). But instead of recoiling in fear and hatred, as we would expect a vampire to do, Robey simply compliments him on how handsome a piece it is.

Of course, this particular relic will prove to be Drake Robey’s undoing, and good triumphs over evil in Curse of the Undead, just as it does in Soul of a Monster. Nevertheless I would say Curse of the Undead is the more satisfying film dramatically, and it’s clear that Dein had grown as a storyteller by the time he wrote this later film (though to be sure, his dialogue was never more than adequate).

Isle of the Dead

Synopsis: During the First Balkan War of 1912, General Nikolas Pherides (Boris Karloff) punishes one of his subordinates in the Greek army, an officer whose troops arrived late to the front during the battle that has just concluded.  Despite the officer’s protests, and despite the battle’s evident success, Pherides strips him of rank and gives him a pistol, allowing him to commit suicide.  This cold-blooded behavior is questioned by American war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer). But Pherides replies that what might seem like cruelty is simply grim necessity.  War, the general says, does not allow for mistakes or excuses. He notes that the punished officer was an old friend of his.  

Walking outside with Davis, Pherides points out the men who are hauling bodies from the battlefield on a cart.  They are working late into the night, the general says, because the bodies must be disposed of immediately.  Cholera and septicemia are constant hazards on the battlefield. Once diseases of that kind begin to spread, there is little to stop them, and they can quickly wipe out a fighting force.

The general mentions that his own wife died many years ago, and that she is buried in a crypt on a nearby island, an island that serves solely as a cemetery.  The two decide to go and visit the grave, and they take a rowboat over to the island.  But the general is distressed to find that his wife’s grave has been desecrated; in fact all the coffins in his wife’s crypt have been broken into, and now the bodies are missing.   The two are about to return to the mainland when they hear a woman singing a haunting melody.  This surprises both men, since they were unaware that anyone else was on the island.

Following the singing, they find a number of people at the caretaker’s house. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.) is an archeologist whose work on the island years ago incited the locals to desecrate graves in search of valuable antiquities. Mortified, Albrecht retired from his profession and has been living on the island ever since, having bought the caretaker’s house from Madam Kyra (Helene Thimig).

Also staying on the island during the fighting on the mainland are St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his wife,  the ailing Mary (Katherine Emery), and the nervous Mr. Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).  There is also Thea (Ellen Drew), a lovely young woman whose singing drew the men to the house.


Madam Kyra is convinced there is evil afoot in the house, and she draws General Pherides aside to tell him that she suspects the presence of a “vorvalacka”  — a supernatural being that suffuses itself with life by draining the health and vitality of those around it.  Pherides laughs off this suggestion, telling her that he is too old to believe such stories.

Davis wants to stay overnight in the caretaker’s house, as he hasn’t slept in a real bed in months.  Though he doesn’t mention it, he’d also welcome the opportunity to get to know Thea better.  Pherides reluctantly agrees, figuring that he’ll be able to inspect the shore artillery at first light on his way back to camp.  However, during the night Mr. Robbins dies.  Knowing that Robbins’ symptoms are consistent with an outbreak of septicemia, Pherides summons the camp physician.  Sure enough, Robbins is declared to have been killed by the plague.  This means that the islanders are quarantined, and no one can come or go from there, including the camp doctor, reporter Davis or Pherides himself.



One by one, those on the island fall to the plague.  But Madam Kyra insists that the deaths on the island aren’t caused by plague, but by the vorvalacka.  And Pherides, that practical, world-weary man of facts and reason, begins to wonder if perhaps she is right. Maybe the sinister being exists after all, and maybe it is none other than the beautiful Thea herself, who remains the very picture of health even as those around her are dying of the plague….

Comments: I’m hesitant to describe this as a “moody, ethereal Val Lewton film”, since it’s like calling  Hour of the Wolf “an existentialist Ingmar Bergman picture” or Armageddon “a loud, stupid Michael Bay movie”.

But the more often I see this film, the more I feel it’s really sort of archetypal Val Lewton picture, telling the story of a practical, unimaginative man being forced to face the supernatural. Lewton’s movies are unusual too in their focus on death: not just a thing that threatens the protagonists for the length of the film, but something that is perpetually in the nearby shadows. In Lewton films it’s death, not life, that is the status quo, and the real question is what exactly happens when death inevitably overtakes us. This preoccupation, interestingly, begins with General Pherides himself — he sets everything in motion with his decision to travel to the island in order to visit his wife’s grave.

Between his performance here and in Lewton’s previous effort Bedlam, Karloff shows more range than he ever did in his whole time at Universal and Columbia, and the scripts written for him actually play to his strengths as an actor. His practical and iron-willed General Pherides is the perfect person to set against the mysterious vorvalacka, and it’s clear why Karloff felt so relieved to be working in Lewton’s shop. He’d been typecast as a mad scientist everywhere else.

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