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 migr 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 fiance 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.
Copyright 2011 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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