Erle C. Kenton, 1932
Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi, Leila Hyams, Kathleen Burke
Based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Erle C. Kenton’s adaptation for Paramount was the first and remains the finest due to its emphasis on the horror in Wells’ story and the scientific and philosophical implications he presents. A young man, Edward Parker, is shipwrecked and rescued by a freighter transporting animals to a small island. The ship’s captain, who is drunk and surly, throws Parker off the ship at the island and he is forced to stay with the owner, scientist Dr. Moreau. Moreau is kind and hospitable and promises that he can stay the night and use one of their boats to leave the next morning.
He meets the lovely, but shy Lota, the only woman on the island. Parker’s idyll is soon shattered as he learns about the “house of pain,” and hears horrible screams in the night. He learns that Moreau has created all the creatures on the island with some violent, sadistic vivisection experiments. Moreau secretly sabotages the boats and prevents him from leaving. He meets more of the island’s inhabitants, all half-animal, half-man hybrids. When Parker tries to leave, they almost tear him apart, but Moreau saves him and reminds the creatures of their rule against violence. Trying to win back Parker’s confidence, Moreau explains how he began experimenting and how he was banned from London and forced to move to the island. Moreau manipulates Parker with the hope that he will mate with Lota, who is part woman and part panther. She is attracted to him and though he returns her feelings, he is repulsed to learn about her animal origins. Meanwhile, Parker’s fiancee Ruth has convinced the surly ship captain to return to the island so that they can rescue Parker. Can Parker save himself and Ruth from the house of pain and escape Moreau’s breeding experiments?
Island of Lost Souls was one of a number of films from the early ‘30s that dealt with questions of humanity and the intersection between the human and bestial, such as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Freaks, and later The Wolf Man, Cat People, and many more. As with all these films, the “monsters” are deeply humanized and we feel sorry for Moreau’s creations just as we are horrified at their existence. The horror in Island of Lost Souls is so powerful because it is complex and, to a certain extent, realistic. There is a visceral, very physical reaction to the half-human, half-animal creatures, the dark, dank jungle atmosphere, and the chilling screams that ring out constantly through the claustrophobic night. But there is also intellectual horror that, unlike Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, remains compelling for modern audiences. Only a few years after this film, Nazi and Japanese doctors would begin similarly appalling experiments and medical torture is one of the lasting horrors of WWII.
Charles Laughton is perfect as Moreau, charming, full of hospitality, and seemingly benign until we learn of his horrible experiments. Most mad scientists from the period were portrayed as outright mad (anything with Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, or George Zucco) or teetering on the verge (like Henry Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll), driven over the edge by their creations/experiments. But Moreau is a smiling sociopath, genial, pudgy, and unthreatening, content to sit back and manipulate the island to his own incomprehensible ends. Bela Lugosi has a brief, but nice side role as the Sayer of the Law, a beast-man who keeps a sort of order on the island and tries to convince the other creatures of their own humanity. Like many genre leading men of the period, the prolific Richard Arlen is bland as Parker, but it works in the film’s favor. It would hardly take a skilled actor to make the audience to empathize with Parker’s shock and horror, but Arlen does a decent job. Leila Hyams’s (Freaks, Tarzan) character Ruth, Parker’s fiancee, is an odd addition to the film, but is likable enough and surprisingly bold in her determination to rescue Parker. Kathleen Burke (The Last Outpost) is unforgettable as Lota and her brief screen time and limited dialogue only add to her mystery and inherent tragedy.
Though there were occasional early horror films set in the jungle, many of these were concerned with voodoo. Island of Lost Souls is unique in the richness and of its oppressive jungle atmosphere, thick with foreboding plants, strange beasts hidden between the trees, and odd sounds in the night. The impressive visuals were provided by the great Karl Struss, whose work ranged from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Murnau’s Sunrise to Vincent Price vehicle The Fly. This is some of his best work in the horror genre and it is certainly the best film of Erle C. Kenton, mostly known for a number of Abbott and Costello films and some Universal horror sequels like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Considering those, it is amazing that Island of Losts Souls is his creation and it’s a shame he didn’t have a chance to make anything else as powerful.
I can only imagine how much this film terrified audiences, as this snuck in before the Hays Code was put in place and wasn’t torn to parts by censors. It deals quite frankly with interspecies attraction and sex, and the chilling and sadistic misuse of science. Though only a kiss is shared between Parker and Lota, he quickly figures out Moreau’s intentions and is horrified, not only at the implications, but at his own desire. The film was actually banned in several countries due to the subject matter and Moreau’s line “Do you know what it means to feels like God?” While Henry Frankenstein utters a similar line in Frankenstein just a year earlier, Colin Clive gives a completely different delivery, someone mad from the success of completing something he only faintly believed to be possible. Laughton delivers the line in a silky, pleased way, indicating he already thinks Parker is beneath him and is little more than a fitting subject for his new breeding program.
Island of the Lost Souls comes highly recommended and is one of the finest horror films from the early ‘30s. Unlike most of its brethren, it has aged particularly well and its horrors still offer fresh appeal. The film is on Blu-ray from Criterion and this restored version with a number of excellent special features is currently the best available.