Saturday, April 21, 1973: Isle of the Dead (1945) / The Monster Maker (1944)

 

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 existential 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.

 

The Monster Maker

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Synopsis: Celebrated concert pianist Lawrence (Ralph Morgan) maintains a grueling concert schedule despite his advanced years. Attending one of his concerts is his daughter Patricia. Occupying the next box over is Dr. Igor Markoff (J. Carrol Naish) who tells his assistant Maxine (Tala Birell) that Patricia is “the spitting image” of an unnamed someone. “It is like seeing the dead come to life,” he marvels, to Maxine’s obvious irritation.

Markoff rudely gawks at Patricia throughout the concert, something that clearly makes her uncomfortable. During the intermission Patricia goes backstage to greet her father; moments later Markoff arrives as well, on the pretext of apologizing to her for his impolite behavior. He tells them that Patricia looks exactly like his own late wife — so much so that it took him a while to get over his shock. Lawrence gives him a polite but frosty sendoff, and Markoff returns to his seat. But he is dismayed to see that Patricia doesn’t return to her own seat after the intermission.

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Patricia begins receiving flowers from Dr. Markoff on a daily basis, complete with flowery love notes. She becomes increasingly agitated over them, until Lawrence decides something must be done. He goes to Markoff’s office, telling him that Patricia isn’t interested. But instead of backing down, Markoff says he has no intention of giving up his pursuit of Patricia. He baldly declares his intention to marry her, which convinces Lawrence that the man is insane. He gets into a struggle with Markoff  who knocks him unconscious with a handy piece of sculpture. While Lawrence is out, Markoff gives him an injection. He then calls Patricia and asks her to come and pick Lawrence up, telling her that Lawrence seemed to be suffering from vertigo and might need to consult a doctor.

When Lawrence regains consciousness, Markoff warns him not to talk about their altercation. “It will be your word against mine,” he says.

In a conversation with Maxine, we learn that Markoff isn’t really Dr. Markoff (he murdered the real Dr. Markoff and assumed his identity). He also became insanely jealous of his beautiful wife (she had tried to leave him for the unfortunate Markoff), injecting her with a virus causing acromegaly so that no one else would want her, after which she committed suicide.

Weeks later, Lawrence is practicing the piano but he keeps making mistakes. He tells Patricia that his fingers don’t feel right, and she notes that they look thicker than normal. Consulting a number of doctors, Lawrence is eventually diagnosed with acromegaly, a glandular condition that causes severe physical deformities. He’s told the disorder is extremely rare, but will unquestionably make him increasingly deformed and grotesque, and that there is only one specialist who can treat such a condition: Dr. Igor Markoff.

Unwilling to allow his family to see him in his hideous condition, Lawrence reluctantly turns to Markoff for help. He is given an ultimatum: convince Patricia to marry him, or forever live as a monster….

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Comments: While this PRC programmer’s first act is suspiciously similar to that of Monogram’s The Strange Mr. Gregory from two years later, the two don’t share any real connections beyond being poverty-row cheapies.  Like most PRC productions from this era, it was directed by Sam Newfield (brother of studio head Sigmond Newfield) who directed an astonishing number of PRC titles each year, both under his own name and a number of pseudonyms in order to hide just how prolific he was).

Unfortunately this one is rather drab stuff, even by PRC standards. J. Carrol Naish was at the peak of his career at the time and PRC was no doubt delighted to get him (he’d been nominated for a Best Supporting actor Oscar the previous year for Sahara, in which he portrayed a fed-up Italian soldier), yet he seems flummoxed by the dull-witted material and his performance is quite forgettable. I really can’t blame him. As an actor there’s no way to sell the character, who’s not only a nut but a nut who doesn’t make sense –we’re supposed to believe he killed the real Dr. Markoff, assumed his identity and now is continuing on with the late doctor’s line of specialized scientific research.

This doesn’t really add up, but no one worries too much about your motives when you’re a mad scientist.

Speaking of things that don’t make sense, Maxine is hopelessly in love with Dr. Markoff in spite of the fact that he’s not actually Dr. Markoff, but a murderer who somehow assumed his identity without anyone noticing, and who drove his wife to suicide after injecting her with a virus that caused acromegaly. Talk about red flags in a relationship! You’re a knockout, Maxine, you can definitely do better. One amusing touch comes when she expresses some jealousy at his attention to Patricia. “You are only my assistant,” Markoff reminds her through gritted teeth. Most lab assistants don’t get taken out for an evening of classical music, so I think poor Maxine has been getting some mixed signals. She was played by Tala Birell, an icy beauty from Eastern Europe marketed as the “next Greta Garbo” (there were a number of women similarly billed in those days) but who never quite hit the big time. She really delivers the best performance in this picture, with a much more subtle performance than you’d expect in a production like this.

Subtle is not a word you’d use to describe Poverty Row stalwart Wanda McKay, who is only tasked with playing the pretty young object of every man’s affection and can’t even pull that off. I didn’t believe a word she said throughout the entire picture.

It’s nice to see Ralph Morgan, who played Kurt Ingston in Universal’s Night Monster, play the father figure and sometime grotesque here. He’s under heavy makeup for much of the picture (and it’s pretty good makeup for the era). It’s not as much fun as the Ingston role, but he carries it off well.

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“MAN IS WHAT HIS DUCTLESS GLANDS MAKE HIM”, raves that five-cent fishwrap published by the Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry. Note also the “Liquid Gas Discovery” that “breaks chemistry rule”. What rubbish!

 

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One comment

  1. I never cared for ISLE OF THE DEAD, my least favorite of Karloff’s Lewton trio. It was prescient to see Glenn Strange as J. Carrol Naish’s assistant in THE MONSTER MAKER, as just four months later he’d be throwing Naish’s hunchback out the window in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

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