"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Monday, 8 October 2007

Isle Of The Dead

As I've been neglecting you recently I thought I'd just share something with you... because I like it. And because I care.

This is the Isle Of The Dead (1880) by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. It's been the inspiration for numerous painters, novelists, composers and film-makers. Those that stand out, for me, are Rakhmaninov's tone poem of the same name, H.R. Giger's Homage series* and, of course, the eponymous 1944 film.

The Isle Of The Dead (1944, Mark Robson) is a sadly neglected and under-rated minor masterpiece from Val Lewton's famous RKO unit. This genuinely spooky chiller starred the inimitable Boris Karloff as a hardened Greek Officer of the First Balkan War quarantined on the titular island with a mixed ensemble as a plague stalks them... the plague of the vorvolaka, vampirism. The basic material could have inspired a mediocre or melodramatic slice of hokum but in the hands of the Lewton team it becomes so much more than its inauspicious premise. While it could be considered a horror, the atmosphere conjured is something entirely different to the standard; dreamlike, almost ethereal, it conjures the feel of such horror aberrations as White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin), Vampyr (1932, Carl T. Dreyer) or Lewton's own production I Walked With A Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur). Some 20 years later Karloff seemed to retread this territory for his segment ('The Wurdalak') of Mario Bava's unrecognizedly influential Black Sabbath (1963).

*I don't think it would be too great a stretch to see the influence of this painting on Giger's design of the derelict spacecraft in Alien.


martin said...

Great painting - I loved Cat People and I Walk with a Zombie, and I'd love to see more of Lewtons films - saw a box set of them for £80 when I was last in the smoke *sigh*

Jon Peacey said...

I can heartily recommend tracking down a few more: The Seventh Victim is another personal favourite (some sources link it in with Cat People and Curse of...) and was a highly unusual story for the time. The Body Snatcher is also reckoned to be one of the best: certainly the highest production values. It should be noted that a couple (Ghost Ship and Mademoiselle Fifi) have no horror/chiller overtones.

And glad you liked the painting!