Written by: Waldemar Young & Philip Wylie (screenplay), H.G. Wells (novel)
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Starring: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi and Richard Arlen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďMr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?"
Like so many science fiction tales, H.G. Wellsís The Island of Dr. Moreau timelessly intones against tampering with nature; however, I like to think it particularly scared the shit out of its Victorian Era audience. While we now know that the era was beginning to draw its last breaths in 1896, thereís little doubt that it was still clinging to its most treasured motto: ďa place for everything and everything in its place.Ē Wellsís novel thoroughly upends this notion by blurring the line between two of the most sacred and separate spheres: man and animal. For several generations, humanity had grown rather complacent in its place atop of the food chain, bolstered by its own advancements in science and theory; however, like his predecessors, Wells issued a grim warning that our evolution might well lead to or simply reveal the de-evolution resting in our souls by exposing our tendency towards animalistic cruelty.
1932ís Island of Lost Souls is the first feature film adaptation of Dr. Moreau, and itís still the best because it captures the bleakness and unflinching cruelty at the center of Wellsís writing. With a relatively scant 38 years separating the film and the novel, itís no surprise that audiences would be shaken by a film that so accurately reflects manís inhumanity. With the scars of World War 1 still fresh and seeds of political and economic turmoil blossoming all over the world, Island of Lost Souls forced viewers to confront layers of Otherness in its foreign lands and untamed nature, both of which commingle with the tidy, hegemonic outlook that the Western world continued to value with the emergence of fierce nationalism.
Its hero is Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), who looks every bit the part of the two-fisted adventurer: white, handsome, and even a little boyish, he finds himself adrift at sea. Heís rescued by a passing freighter but eventually gets dumped when he clashes with the captain over the latterís maltreatment of a bizarre looking passenger. His second caretaker is Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a scientist conducting experiments on a nearby island who takes him to this abode, which reveals itself to be a foreboding mass of jungles and its curious natives.
80 years and a handful of other adaptations have made the story overly familiar now: we know that the natives are curious because Dr. Moreau has made them that way, and the notion of a mad scientist mucking with nature would have seemed like old hat even in 1932 in the wake of Frankenstein (which James Whale definitively adapted one year earlier). Regardless, this familiarity doesnít render Island of Lost Souls any less resonant, nor is the film able to shake the pervasive, pre-Code weirdness that turns it into a dark adventure story. While Parker might look ready to do battle in some serial-style, Saturday matinee adventure, Island of Lost Souls is anything but that. Shrouded in shadows and the thicket of an unreal sound stage jungle, Erle Kentonís film is incredibly bleak, especially once it makes landfall on Dr. Moreauís island, where daylight canít hope to penetrate. Indeed, it seems that most of Island of Lost Souls is soaked in an impenetrable darkness, as if its characters have staggered into a lost, forsaken corner of the globe that was forgotten by time itself.
Which makes the setting all the more ironic, I suppose, since Moreau sees it as a staging ground for future advancement. Island of Lost Souls is bred from a mix of such contradictory and ambiguous DNA that intertwine to form a creature thatís as fascinatingly twisted as the islandís inhabitants. At every corner lies some seed of doubt, right down to the altered title whose double meaning is voiced by the repeated refrain of those locals: ďare we not men?Ē As the film wears on, that question--and the title of the film--might as well refer to the ďcivilizationĒ represented by Moreau and his work. The film even presents itself in somewhat deceptive fashion; not only does it briefly resemble an old-fashioned adventure, but it also has a dash of romance, as Leila Hyams stars as Arlenís gutsy fiancťe who has to bail him out (speaking of mucking with the order of things!). However, even this is polluted by the presence of Lota (Kathleen Burke), the exotic ďPanther WomanĒ created by Moreau that he hopes will mate with Parker. Imagine the horror of a white man lured from his lily white lover by this exotic Other (and vice versa, as one of the natives prowls and spies on Hyams in her bed one night). Even worse, imagine how horrific it must have been for such a creature to be presented as a sympathetic victim alongside Parker himself.
The same is true of the other natives, the beasts who have been twisted and contorted from animals into men and now rest somewhere in between. While modern audiences might laugh off the ďscarinessĒ of Island of Lost Souls, itís still easy to see exactly what would have frightened its contemporary viewers: the ambiguous, disconcerting uncertainty lying in the filmís central conceit. Moreauís accomplishment is both a marvel and a horror all at once; he is both a genius and a madman, played with a delightful sort of charisma by Charles Laughton that makes Moreau repulsive and irresistible. Laughton plays Moreau as a man eternally pleased with himself, as if heís unlocked the secrets of the universe and hasnít gathered that heís about the burned by the same fire he stole from the gods. In a film full of uncertainty, heís the only person who seems certain--and heís the deranged psychopath whose unrelenting cruelty defines the picture.
That cruelty is still haunting today; not only does Moreauís physical torment--the whippings, the floggings--still sear, but so too does the very existence of these creatures heís created. Grotesque, malformed, and totally subjugated, theirs is an unwanted, agonizing existence, defined by animalistic features and inhuman wailing and bellows. The effects seem crude but are efficient--thereís a real messiness to them, as if they were haphazardly pasted together. Their ringleader is Bela Lugosi, referred to here as ďThe Sayer of the LawĒ; one might say this was a sign of things to come in Lugosiís later career, as heís relegated to a handful of scenes despite his prominent billing. However, he is striking in these bursts; Iíve long held that Lugosiís eeriest turn came as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein, but Island of Lost Souls has me reconsidering that. His appearance here is like Ygor if the deranged hunchback had mutated into a werewolf, all wide-eyed and savage, yet completely empathetic alongside his fellow man-beasts. Their eventual revolt is earned but still causes pause; while their status as victims earns such empathy and allows them to serve as a stark reminder of natureís revolt against tampering, these creatures also serve as that savage, untamed Other that had been subjugated during the colonial period. Their uprising both reaffirms and repudiates the natural order of things, and, that, ultimately is what makes Island of Lost Souls so alluring.
As a production, it carries a certain airless, early talkie stagnancy since thereís no score, but itís nevertheless marvelously accomplished. Moreauís abode is atmospheric, a darkly exotic tangle of jungles and bungalows. The despair and desolation hang in the air and smother the otherwise brisk proceedings. You can subtly see evidence of a more assured cinematic hand here; this is no slight to Tod Browning, of course, but, just one year removed from glorified photoplay Dracula, Island of Lost Souls exhibits a little more dynamism in the way of visuals and camerawork. Its black and white photography is rich, its shadows underlying that terrifying ambiguity pulsing at the center of the film. Island of Lost Souls is subversive thanks to a Pre-Code status that allowed it to scandalize audiences with blasphemous dialogue that would be censored in later years. Thereís no outrunning or editing the mean ambivalent streak that defines it, though; like Whaleís Frankenstein, it ends on a seemingly happy note thatís severely undercut by the horrors that have caused audiences to question the very order of things. For all its evolution, man canít help but return to a primordial state marked by cruelty and suffering. Consider the irony of Baron Frankensteinís closing toast to the health and happiness to the house of Frankenstein; Island of Lost Souls, too, ends with a reaffirming image thatís lit by flames in the distance that may well represent the conflagration of society itself.
Though itís been canonized as one of the great horrors from the genreís Golden Age (and even found itself in the Universal horror stable decades after its release), Island of Lost Souls went without a DVD release until last year, when Criterion lavished it with a special edition. Featuring the uncut print from the best available elements (the original negative is long lost) and an uncompressed mono track, the film is masterfully restored; the wealth of extras includes a commentary with historian Gregory Mank, a conversation featuring John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns, interviews with film historian David J. Skal, and director Richard Stanley (who was originally set to helm the 90s adaptation). Even Devo members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh discuss the filmís influence on the band and present their 70s short film that was inspired by Lost Souls. A stills gallery, a theatrical trailer, and a booklet with liner notes by Christine Smallwood round out the offering, which made the wait worthwhile for fans eager to catch up with this classic. Essential!
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