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Island of Lost Souls
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay: Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie (based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells)
Stars: Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen (Edward Parker), Leila Hyams (Ruth Thomas), Bela Lugosi (Sayer of the Law), Kathleen Burke (Lota, the Panther Woman), Arthur Hohl (Mr. Montgomery), Stanley Fields (Captain Davies), Paul Hurst (Captain Donahue), Hans Steinke (Ouran), Tetsu Komai (M’ling), George Irving (The Consul)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: U.S.
Island of Lost Souls Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Island of Lost Souls Released at the height of the classical era of Hollywood horror, a few years after Universal’s blockbuster one-two punch of Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931) and the same year as MGM’s Freaks (1932), RKO’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and the independently produced White Zombie (1932), Island of Lost Souls was Paramount Pictures’ bold foray into the horror genre. Although it arrived with the pedigree of sci-fi writer H.G. Wells (it was billed as “H.G. Wells’ surging rhapsody of terror”), the combined star power of renowned British stage actor Charles Laughton and Dracula star Bela Lugosi, cinematography by Oscar-winning German émigré Karl Struss (Sunrise), and a marketing gimmick that involved the nationwide search for an unknown actress to play the Panther Woman, the film turned out to be a box office failure, perhaps because its creepy story of a mad scientist surgically extracting man from beast on a South Seas island was simply too unnerving for the mass audience.

The film’s initial failure at the box office, its public rejection by Wells, and its subsequent banning in at least 12 countries, including England, Germany, Holland, India, New Zealand, and South Africa (primarily for its depiction of live vivisection without anesthetic) has pushed it to the margins of popular film history, with many accounts giving it minimal attention except to note its “tastelessness.” For example, in his groundbreaking An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films, first published in 1967, Carlos J. Clarens refers to it as “a minor, not ineffective film” that was “judged unbelievably tasteless at the time of its release.” Similarly, in 1974, Alan G. Frank described it in his glossy, full-color The Movie Treasury: Horror Movies as “a minor, often tasteless, but ultimately terrifying film.” However, that same year in the hardback Horror and Fantasy in the Movies, Tom Hutchinson noted that the film “remains a kind of classic, if not of tastelessness at least as an example of the way cinema can treat a mythic idea.”

The film has recently re-entered the historical consciousness, possibly because critics, genre fans, and scholars now recognize more than ever just how perceptive it was in exploring the horrors of biotechnology, an issue that is all the more pressing in the era of stem cells, cloning, and designer pets. As Dan Diello wrote recently in The Journal of Film and Video, “of all the versions [of H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau], Kenton’s film is still the most prescient, and disturbing, even 80 years after the fact.” It is worth noting the irony that Erle C. Kenton, the director of this disturbing and provocative horror gem, was a prolific B-movie craftsman whose primary focus was slapstick comedy and whose only other contributions to the horror genre were The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the late-1940s “monster mash” Universal films House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), which effectively signaled the temporary demise of the genre.

The story in Island of Lost Souls is told through the eyes of Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), a shipwreck survivor who is dumped on the titular island by a steamship dropping off crates of animals to the island’s owner, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). Once on the island, Edward discovers that Moreau is conducting sadistic, unethical experiments in melding man and beast for no reason other than to prove that he can skip past nature’s evolutionary process; it’s the ultimate assertion of humankind’s supremacy over the natural world, not to mention its Creator (Moreau’s Frankenstein-like question, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?,” was immediately censored during its theatrical release and hasn’t been heard for decades). The exact nature of Moreau’s methodology is left necessarily vague, although visual and aural references to vivisection and the horrific screams that emanate nightly from Moreau’s lab, fittingly referred to as the “House of Pain,” attest to the horrific nature of his surgical experimentation. It is also exactly the kind of material that Hollywood’s Production Code Administration would effectively ban in 1934 when it added a section to the Code on “Repellant Subjects,” which warned against the treatment of “brutality and possible gruesomeness,” “apparent cruelty to children or animals,” and “surgical operations.”

The result of Moreau’s experimentation is a pathetic bunch of manimals who live huddled in the jungle under fear of Moreau’s whip and his imposed “law,” which includes not walking on all fours, not spilling blood, and not eating meat. Although visually horrifying, these bastardizations of the evolutionary process are nevertheless sympathetic because their monstrousness is not a physical manifestation of some internal evil, but rather a sentence imposed on them by the diabolical Moreau. In this regard, Island of Lost Souls plays as a kind of companion piece to Tod Browning’s Freaks, which was also judged tasteless at the time for its use of real-life human oddities and suffered accordingly at the box office and at the hands of various censor groups. Yet, both films are daring in their reversal of the common horror trope of associating physical monstrosity with evil, which asks the audience to empathize with victims whose only sin is being made different, whether by nature or science. It is telling, then, that the title of the film was changed from The Island of Dr. Moreau, which necessarily privileges the mad scientist, to Island of Lost Souls, which foregrounds the victims and their loss of identity.

This is not to say that Dr. Moreau does not play a significant role. Quite the contrary, in fact, Charles Laughton creates one of the most memorable of the genre’s deranged scientists. With his cherubic grin, meaty face, and devilish goatee, Laughton’s Moreau is a queasy mixture of remorseless sadism, imperialist megalomania (note the white suit, the official uniform of British colonialism), and a God complex run completely amok. If Frankenstein’s sin was bringing dead flesh back to life, then Moreau’s sin is even more twisted and perverse because he is slashing away at life itself in order to create something that turns out to be little more than a living death. As the hirsute creation known as The Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) angrily exclaims at one point, “You made us things! Not men! Not beast! Part man, part beast, Things!”

Moreau’s greatest achievement thus far is Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), who has been so manipulated via surgery that she has barely any vestiges of her animalistic self and instead appears almost entirely human. Thus, her attractiveness has an uncanny quality that makes her repulsive even as we feel for her predicament, especially once Moreau tries to have her seduce Edward, thus bringing to completion his ghastly experiment in subverting nature’s course in favor of his own. This attempted mating is tame, however, in comparison to Moreau’s later attempts to have one of his ape-like male creations sneak into the bedroom of Edward’s fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) and rape her, which fully reveals his willingness to forego humanity itself in order to reach his ends. In this way, Island of Lost Souls is one of the most disturbing of the early Hollywood horror films, and even a full-on rebellion at the end that puts Dr. Moreau at the receiving end of his own sadistic brand of violence has little reparative effect.

Island of Lost Souls Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Island of Lost Souls is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio English PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank
  • Conversation between filmmaker John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker, and genre expert Bob Burns
  • Video interview with horror film historian David J. Skal
  • Video interview with filmmaker Richard Stanley
  • Video interview with Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of the band Devo
  • Short 1976 film by Devo, featuring the songs “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo”
  • Stills gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by writer Christine Smallwood
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateOctober 25, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    While watching Criterion’s new Blu-Ray of Island of Lost Souls, you should remember that not only has one of the great early Hollywood horrors finally made it into the digital realm, but that you are getting to see the theatrical version of the film for the first time in decades. The original negative has been lost for years, but Criterion has reassembled the original version from several sources, including the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 35mm nitrate positive and an unnamed private collector’s 16mm screening print. The majority of the transfer came from UCLA’s print, which includes lines of dialogue that were censored after the initial theatrical release, while the 16mm collector’s print was used to fill in missing frames and replace badly scratched frames. The result is an image that looks amazingly good given the resources at hand. The picture is slightly soft and bears a heavy presence of grain, but still maintains strong detail and good contrast (I was surprised by how good the darker scenes looked, as I feared they would be too murky). Damage, signs of age, and wear and tear have been largely taken care of via digital restoration, giving us an image that is impressively clean. The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from both the 35mm nitrate print and the 16mm print, depending on which was cleaner. Digital restoration has attenuated most of the crackle, hiss, and hum, leaving the soundtrack remarkably clean and robust.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Given the amount of effort Criterion put into reassembling the film itself, it is no surprise that an equal amount of work went into gathering an array of supplements. The audio commentary is by film historian Gregory Mank, who has written nine books on classical-era horror and science fiction and has contributed to several other DVD commentaries, including Warner Bros.’ Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944). Mank has probably forgotten more about classical Hollywood horror than any of us will ever know, and his commentary is a delight, as he dispenses tons of information about the film to make us appreciate it all the more. There are also several video interviews on the disc, starting with a round-table conversation with John Landis and Rick Baker, who, respectively, directed and designed the Oscar-winning make-up effects for An American Werewolf in London (1981), and genre expert Bob Burns. Their conversation is collegial and easy-going, with much of the discussion weighing on the film’s impressive make-up effects. There are also new video interviews with horror film historian David J. Skal; filmmaker Richard Stanley, who was fired by New Line Cinema from the disastrous 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer that was eventually helmed by John Frankenheimer (how the film would have turned out had Stanley been allowed to finish it is anyone’s guess); and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, whose formation of the ’70s/’80s New Wave band Devo was partly inspired by their love of the film (their 1976 short film/proto-music video featuring the songs “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo” is also included). There is also a fantastic stills gallery with dozens of production photos and behind-the-scenes shots and the original theatrical trailer.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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