Monday, 23 November 2009

Isle of the Dead

Boris Karloff Blogathon: Like Fuseli’s Nightmare has become an iconic image, so the famous Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead) painting by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) has inspired music, literature and popular culture, most notably in the symphonic work by Rachmaninov. Itself inspired by the images of Hades from classical mythology, it clearly lends itself perfectly to imagery of an otherworld of the dead.

American film producer Val Lewton minutely recreated Böcklin’s island in his 1945 movie Isle of the Dead. Set in Greece in 1912 during the First Balkan War, the Greeks have just conquered the Ottomans in a battle, but also have to work hard to avoid suffering plague and typhus. Boston journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) follows the Greek general Pherides (Boris Karloff) on a visit to a cemetery on an island just off the coast. The general, a tough and rational patriot with the nickname The Watchdog, wishes to visit the grave of his wife, but finds that her grave as well as all other graves are empty. Although guarded by a statue of Cerberus, the island is apparently not a peaceful resting place for the dead.

Pherides and Davis are greeted by a Swiss archaeologist who has settled on the island at the house of a Greek lady, Madame Kyra. The archaeologist tells them that his archaeological excavations on the island had inspired locals to rob the graves, and that is why the graves are now empty. Kyra on the other hand informs the general that one of the corpses was an ‘evil one’, a vorvolaka, and she suggests that evil is still going on. At the house a handful of foreigners have sought refuge from the war, and one of them, Mrs. St. Aubyn, is ill and grows paler and weaker, while the young Thea is ‘rosy and red and full of blood’. The general tells her that it is nonsense, but when one of the people in the company dies from septicemic plague and they have to quarantine the island, fear and superstition begins nagging even the general Pherides.

Isle of the Dead then pits science and medicine against religion and superstition. As the plague takes it toll on doctor Drossor and even on the general himself, they accept that there may be higher powers at large, and the old Watchdog finds himself begins to believe that Thea is indeed a vorvolaka. He almost succeeds in convincing Thea herself that she may be the cause of the plague and illness.

When Mrs. St. Aubyn suffers a cataleptic trance, everybody assumes that she is dead, and she is placed in one of the burial rooms of the cemetery. She, however, awakens and finds herself prematurely buried, screams and scratches at the coffin, and eventually succeeds in getting out and avenging herself - almost like a vorvolaka. Kyra and the general both are certain that she has indeed become a vorvolaka: 'Who dies by a Vorvolaka, becomes a Vorvolaka.'

Ancient mythological images of Hades, Charon and Cerberus mix with the Greek folk belief in the vorvolaka and plague, catalepsy, premature burial as well as what some term ‘psychic vampirism’. All of that told within just 71 minutes: They certainly knew that ‘less is more’ back then. The acting, not least by Karloff himself, is impeccable and as always in Lewton’s movies, the horrors are done rather by suggestion than by effect, and they work very well.

‘Vorvolaka’ is one of the variants of what is usually called ‘vrykolakas’. Karen Hartnup in On the Beliefs of the Greeks: Leo Allatios and Popular Orthodoxy (Brill, 2004), mentions it in the form ‘vourvourlakas’:

‘It may be misleading to use the term vampire in the context of the Greek revenant. The vampire with which we in the West are most familiar is the Dracula of Bram Stoker and ‘B’ movie fame, with his long flowing cape, fangs, and thirst for blood. Although both the Greek vampire and its so-called Transylvanian cousin are revenants, that is, resurrected dead bodies, they differ greatly in style and in their relationships with members of society. It is not helpful to call this creature a vampire as the word carries with it connotations alien to the phenomenon. What should be used in its stead? A plethora of terms for the revenant existed, with each area having its own variation of the species. It was called among other things, vrykolakas, vourvoulakas and katachtonios. Vrykolakas, however, is the most common Greek word for the creature and so seems to most suitable.

Although the
vrykolakas exhibited non of the traditional behaviour of the ‘Transylvanian’ vampire, nonetheless it had the ability to cause great terror within a community. The creature was so frightening that could drive whole villages to decamp. Tournefort described the reaction of a village in Mykonos which discovered a vrykolakas in its midst:

Whole families quitted their Hourses, and brought their Tent-Beds from the farthest parts of the Town into the publick Place, there to spend the night. They were every instant complaining of some new Insult; nothing was to be heard but Sighs and Groans at the approach of Night: the better Sort of People retired into the Country. (p. 173-4)

Some of the most famous sources on the vrykolakas are the De quorundam Graecorum Opinationibus by Allatios (1645), Relation de l’isle de Santerini (1657) by father Francois Richard and the Relation d'une voyage du Levant by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1717), all of them well-known in the literature on vampires. A careful analysis of Allatios with the evidence on vrykolakas found in Greek texts of ecclesiastical law, nomokanones, in comparison to popular beliefs, is found in Hartnup’s book, which is highly recommended.

This blog post is part of the so-called Boris Karloff Blogathon, commemorating Karloff's 122nd birthday on November 23 2009!


George said...

Fabulous piece. I did an "Isle of the Dead" appraisal, too, and found so much to discover here in this unique study of the film.

Niels K. Petersen said...

Thanks George, and readers will find your appraisal here. It is a very unique movie in my opinion, not least from the point of view of someone interested in vampire lore.

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