Barnes and Noble had a Criterion Collection sale in July and I couldn’t resist because that meant I could finally buy some of my favorite titles. One of those titles was the 1932 underrated gem, The Island of Lost Souls, a film directed by Erle C. Kenton and released by Paramount Pictures in the days before Hollywood studios introduced the Production Code; a list of do’s and don’ts that filmmakers had to adhere by. The film was based on H.G. Wells’ infamous novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau in which a scientist creates “man-beasts” on a remote island. The part of the titular doctor went to the incomparable Charles Laughton and man is he creepy in the part!
Watch Out! Spoilers About!
The film begins on the high seas where an unconscious man on a raft, named Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is taken aboard a freighter. He is nursed back to health by Dr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and discovers that this freighter is taking all kinds of animals (and some peculiar looking men) back to an unnamed island owned by a mysterious doctor, none other than Dr. Moreau. Parker gets into a fight with the freighter’s mean captain over his treatment of one of Montgomery’s servants (Tetsu Komai) and he’s thrown overboard with Montgomery, Moreau, the animals and the “beast men”. Moreau promises Parker overnight hospitality and a boat in the morning.
Parker meets the lovely but mysterious woman named Lota (Kathleen Burke) and hears terrifying screams. He goes to investigate and finds “The House of Pain” (no, Marge, it’s not where you pay the bill) where Moreau and Montgomery are operating on a patient without anesthesia. A shocked Parker runs into the woods where he finally meets Moreau’s “creations”. Before the beast-men pounce, the doctor shows up to make one of them (Bela Lugosi) recite the film’s most memorable lines:
What is the Law?
Not to eat meat. That is the Law. Are we not men?
What is the Law?
Not to walk on all fours, that is the Law. Are we not men?
What is the Law?
Not to spill blood. That is the Law. Are we not men?
The beast-men disperse.
Moreau then explains his work history to Parker. But then he secretly destroys Parker’s escape boat and now Parker is trapped on the island. Why? Because secretly Moreau wants Parker to “mate” with Lota. By now Parker has discovered that Lota was at one time a panther but has been transformed into a woman by Moreau – and she’s slowly turning back.
Meanwhile, Parker’s fiancée, Ruth (Leila Hyams), is concerned about his disappearance and books a ship to the island to find him. Ruth is reunited with Parker but they have to stay for the night, at Moreau’s insistence. Unfortunately one of the beast-men, Ouran (Hans Steinke) has taken an interest in Ruth and nearly breaks into her room while she’s asleep. After she wakes up and screams, scaring Ouran away, Montgomery decides that he’s had enough of Moreau’s lack of ethics (it was he that wanted Ouran to rape Ruth) and offers to escort, Parker, Ruth and the captain that came with her (Paul Hurst) off the island.
But Moreau, once again, has other plans. He orders Ouran to kill Captain Donahue. When the other beast-men find out, they recite the Law. But Ouran says: “Law no more.” That’s when the beast-men revolt. They corner Moreau and take him to the “House of Pain” for torture while Ruth, Parker, Montgomery and Lota try to escape. But when Lota sees that Ouran is preparing to ambush the couple, she fights him to the death. As the remaining trio depart the burning island, Montgomery tells the couple, “don’t look back”.
This film was a subject of controversy and censorship for years due to it’s scenes of animal cruelty, allusions to bestiality and attempted rape and the “blasphemous” question “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” Wells himself disliked the film because he felt it focused too much on horror and less on the moral of his story (Wells never cared for any of the adaptations of his works). The film may also have suffered from competition with other horror/sf films of the day which have survived in public memory: Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and King Kong. But it deserves a place in the pantheon of trail-blazing 30s horror movies for three reasons:
1. Charles Laughton’s Performance.
As I said earlier, Laughton is very creepy as Dr. Moreau. He creates a Moreau that’s fey, refined, polite (though devious), effeminate and creepy (a scene where he explains his scientific goals to Parker while sipping a cup of tea is very unnerving). He waits in the shadows and plays voyeur to our heroes. He gives, creepy, devilish grins when he’s planning something twisted.
2. Creature Make-Up
Most subsequent adaptations make Moreau’s creations look like Chewbacca clones. Wally Westmore’s make-up toes the line between what was once a beast but not yet a man. And the results are very grotesque and pathetic.
3. The Cinematography
Horror and black and white films are a match made in hell. The evoke shadows and illusions and fear of the unknown. Karl Struss, the cinematographer for the film, knew where and when to light sets like Moreau’s laboratory and compound. Even the way he focused the camera on certain characters during certain scenes added to the shock and horror.
So if your a film buff, see this movie. If you love horror, see this movie. If you love sci-fi, see this movie. And if you love the Criterion Collection, see this movie!