Many are the poor, incredulous souls who've perished in horror films for not heeding the dire warnings of simple, seemingly superstitious people. 1945's Isle of the Dead presents the alternate, more likely scenario wherein the superstitions themselves cause harm on top of an all too corporeal problem. Produced by Val Lewton, it's beautifully shot and intelligently written.
Boris Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides who, as the film opens, executes a friend and subordinate officer for the failure of his troops to move efficiently. This role was a great opportunity that Karloff took full advantage of--the movie essentially is a study of his character as we watch him move from ruthlessly secular to ruthlessly credulous.
The consistency is in that Pherides is a man who believes in attaining his goals by any means necessary and is very quick to discard a device that doesn't seem to be working.
The film takes place as Greece was at the cusp of victory in the Balkan wars so the General, after executing his friend, has downtime to visit his wife's tomb at the nearby Isle of the Dead.
So named for the site's popularity for interment. Only Pherides discovers his wife's tomb is empty.
It turns out the graves had been pilfered by villagers misguided by a Swedish archaeologist (Jason Robards Sr. who looks nothing like his son) now residing on the island and repentant of his formerly culturally insensitive ways. The dead rising from the grave is a recurrent fear harboured by an old woman (Helene Thimig) staying with the archaeologist.
When one of the guests dies after displaying symptoms of the plague Pherides and his staff Doctor (Ernst Deutsch) had feared among their troops, Pherides orders the island quarantined, permitting none of the guests to leave.
The old woman, Kyra, blames another of the guests, a young woman named Thea (Ellen Drew) who Kyra believes is a vorvolaka, a Greek mythological creature similar to the vampire.
In the cold and gloomy atmosphere of the island, the film very effectively conveys the fear of having inexorable death on one side and an obsessive desire to simplify life, to make death something to negotiate with, at the other. And both forces prove terribly destructive.