Required Viewing: Island of Lost Souls

Wayyy back in September I started what was intended to be an ongoing column entitled “Required Viewing”, with my opinions on Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I intended to do reviews of things on the viewing list for my film class at the time, but the realization that said film class was kind of a joke soured me on the idea of extracurricular writing that might tie into it.  I think a better usage of the column will be to talk about films that I see which fill me with the sudden urge to show them to everyone I know, and to expound on the viewing experiences that really get under my skin in one way or another.  Tonight, for your reading pleasure, I’ll be kicking off this retooling of the concept with 1932’s Island of Lost Souls.

The first of three film adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, Island of Lost Souls is without a doubt the best, but it’s one that somehow had escaped my disc tray until now.  The fact that it has Bela Lugosi in a featured role means that I’ve seen countless clips and stills shown in relation to Lugosi’s more famous work with Universal Studios, but the very fact that it was made by Paramount Pictures at a time when Universal was king of the horror film seems to have left it more or less swept under the rug.  Thankfully, the powers that be at the Criterion Collection decided this was one worth saving, and I was finally able to see it in its original form, cleaned up and reconstructed from all the damage done by overzealous censors over the years.

From The Most Dangerous Game to Planet of the Apes, many of my favorite stories begin with a shipwreck of some sort, and this one is no exception.  Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is rescued at sea by a cargo ship en route to a mysterious island, carrying several cages populated by exotic animals.  On board he meets Mr. Montgomery, the man accompanying these animals to their destination, as well as Captain Davies, a stereotypical drunken sea cap’n who engages in at least two fist fights in his brief time onscreen, one of which sees Parker abruptly thrown off the ship when it comes time to drop off Montgomery and the cages.  It’s a this point that he meets Doctor Moreau: Montgomery’s boss, animal recipient, and island owner, portrayed here with undeniable skill by Charles Laughton.  Moreau agrees to take him ashore with the promise to see him off to his intended port of call in the morning, provided he can stay in his room and keep his mouth shut about anything he sees going down on the island.  Typically, this is a pretty big warning sign.

Moreau alongside one of this film’s many examples of impressive creature makeup

On the way from the docks to Moreau’s villa, they encounter several apparent man/animal hybrids, curious about the new visitor.  All are swiftly dispatched with Moreau’s trusty bullwhip, to the point where it becomes funnier than probably was intended, but it’s a great sequence nevertheless.  We’ll get back to this later.  As poor shipwrecked Parker soon learns, all of these beings which Moreau refers to as “the natives” are in fact his own creations.  Through some lab scenes that borrow from Frankenstein‘s combination of surgery and magic, but which are infinitely more disturbing, it is revealed that Moreau has discovered a way to “skip over” several evolutionary stages, raising animals up from their current state to what he refers to as their inevitable human form.  His lab is referred to by both himself and his patients as the “House of Pain”, and with good reason.  The terror that this place holds for the island’s inhabitants is incredibly unsettling, and pretty bold for a film made in 1932.  It’s pre-Code, but was still the subject of many, many cuts by censors across the US, and was banned outright in England.

As it turns out, Moreau’s intention is not at all to allow Parker to leave, but rather to attempt to mate him with Lota, a woman created from a panther and thus far his closest approximation of the human form.  Kathleen Burke does a great job with the character of Lota, and by the end I found myself sort of rooting for her and Parker to get together, even though she’s half panther and he has a lady back home.  In addition to Lota, Moreau keeps a couple beast-people around for servants, but most of them are gathered outside the main compound in a primitive looking village run by Bela Lugosi’s character, the Speaker of the Law.  The Speaker relays Moreau’s commandments to the others–rules intended to keep them human, such as not walking on all fours, and not spilling blood.  Between each law is a chorus of sorts, “are we not men?”, which is more or less the inspiration for the entire career of new wave icons Devo.  This line sees direct use in their track “Jocko Homo”, but I can’t help but wonder of Moreau’s ever-present bullwhip inspired the problem solving advice found in “Whip It”.  Mark Mothersbaugh, if you’re reading this, let me know.

Bela Lugosi as The Speaker of the Law. You can always spot those eyes.

The movie, as a whole, is better than it has any right to be.  Up until this point there had been a handful of successful silent horror films, but Universal was essentially reinventing the genre for sound, and both Dracula and Frankenstein only preceded this film by a year.  On top of that, Universal’s horror oeuvre was entrusted in large part to genius directors such as James Whale.   Outside of Island of Lost Souls, the work of director Erle Kenton was largely forgettable.  He apparently had a pretty extensive career, but all I know him from is directing the terrible sequels to the good Universal monster films, stuff like House of Dracula and The Ghost of Frankenstein.   This is also a film without the benefit of horror makeup pioneer Jack Pierce, but which nevertheless manages to have unique creature designs for a cast of about thirty, many of which are superbly executed.  At this point Universal was still reusing a lot of sets for its horror films (and in the case of Dracula, scenes from entirely unrelated movies), but this has several elaborate and unique sets, all tailor-made.  On top of which, although they managed to slide a few things past the censors, Universal was largely playing it safe with their horror classics at this time.  Island of Lost Souls is more or less a straight-up middle finger towards most of the restrictions of the era, and outside of actual nudity it breaks pretty much every 30’s film rule you can think of.  I imagine the version shown on most screens at the time was quite the chop-job, but seeing it all reassembled is nothing short of amazing.  How this film manages to evade so many lists of horror classics is beyond me, because it’s objectively better than a lot of the classics and competes with the best.  Bride of Frankenstein will forever be my favorite horror film of the era, but this one gives it a run for its money.

Lota, The Panther Woman. The film’s sympathetic center.

If you’re at all a fan of classic horror or sci-fi, I’d recommend checking this one out.  The original Wells novel was written in the wake of the publications of Charles Darwin, and its dark look into the reverse implications of Darwin’s research is fully intact in this adaptation.  Moreau is as close to an impostor God as the mad scientist archetype ever gets on film, far beyond Doctors Jeckyll or Frankenstein.  And short of portraying an actual vivisection onscreen, the House of Pain is as unsettling a concept as it can possibly be.  If you want to see this one restored with all scenes intact, you’ll pretty much have to get it at either Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or Criterion’s own website.  I recommend it wholeheartedly though.  While it might not carry the prestige of some of its contemporaries, this is film is no less important or skillfully executed than any of them.  In many ways, it is far ahead of its time, not only in terms of makeup but also thematically.  Many of the same themes were addressed in Tod Browning’s Freaks earlier in 1932, and there are a couple scenes in this film that echo that one, but between the two I’d say this is a more adept handling of a similar subject; it’s as adept a handling of the “God vs. man vs. beast” trifecta as you’re likely to find in any medium from any era.

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About Ryan Searles

I like watching movies, and then talking about those movies. Sometimes I write things about them, which you should read. Other interests include boxed wine, video games, the works of Harlan Ellison and HG Wells, and being a general curmudgeon.

Posted on November 2, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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