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Horror movies flourished in the brief Pre-Code era, before the enforcement of the Production Code strictly forbade filmic content outside a narrow range of public taste. Just the same, Hollywood's horrors faced stiff censorship on the local level. Frankenstein was considered by many to be high blasphemy, and Dracula was criticized as encouraging an unhealthy interest in the occult. MGM misjudged the public with Tod Browning's Freaks, which dared to place on the silver screen human oddities viewable at any carnival.
The most intellectually disturbing taboo-breaker of the Pre-Code horrors is Paramount's Island of Lost Souls, from H.G. Wells' "scientific romance" novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wells' darkly satirical story imagines the ideas of Charles Darwin applied to a truly monstrous project: the surgical conversion of animals into humans. Wells' fanciful extrapolation presumes that all species are evolving toward the human form. Dr. Moreau accelerates the process by vivisecting animals in his horrifying "House of Pain."
Writer Waldemar Young had scripted some of Tod Browning's most disturbing Lon Chaney Pictures. The prolific, opinionated Philip Wylie wrote the supremely sadistic horror film Murders in the Zoo and co-authored the apocalyptic novel When Worlds Collide. Their screen adaptation retains H.G. Wells' narrative setup of a marooned shipwreck survivor who encounters an island populated by frightening "beast folk". What's more, it expands on the book's mix of sex and horror. Paramount's spine-chiller must have given the puritans at the Code Office apoplexy.
Somewhere in the South Seas, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) runs afoul of a belligerent sea captain (Stanley Fields) and is dumped on the island doorstep of the reclusive Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). Alarmed by the strangely misshapen islanders and the screams echoing from Moreau's operating theater, Parker soon discovers that the natives are all former animals -- dogs, pigs, lions -- that have been scientifically "evolved". Wandering into the jungle, Parker hears The Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) lead the beast men in wailing chants about the Doctor's fearful House of Pain. Aided by his alcoholic assistant Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), Moreau must repeat his surgical horror sessions to prevent his creations from reverting to their original forms. The latest addition to the grotesque menagerie is Lota, a Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke). The Doctor obsesses over the idea of mating her with the handsome new arrival, to determine if Lota is indeed "fully a woman". While Parker tries to make sense of the unnatural happenings all around him, his fiancée Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams of Freaks) prevails upon the authorities to send a rescue ship. What will Moreau do when they arrive?
The nightmarish Island of Lost Souls packs a surfeit of delirious, dangerous ideas into its seventy minutes. Charles Laughton's haughty, self-satisfied Moreau is a horror unto himself, a monstrous egotist so enamored of his talents that he proudly claims to be beating God at his own game. His creations lurk and loiter silently in the background at all times. Some are monstrous, with grossly distorted features. M'ling (Tetsu Komai) is described as a faithful dog, while the hulking, grinning Ouran (originally an orangutan?) eagerly obeys Moreau's instructions to kill: "I want you to lay your hands on that man." Charles Laughton's skill with a bullwhip lends gravity to scenes in which he intimidates his miserable creations, presenting himself as a white-suited unforgiving deity.
The uncanny beast men are doubly unnerving. They express the obsolete but persistent racist notion that people from dominant Anglo cultures are fully developed, and that "natives" are something lower on the evolutionary scale. The creatures in Moreau's monstrous kingdom are a horrid reflection of the colonial attitude. They are accepted only to the extent that they grovel at the feet of their white master and obey his hypocritical laws. Although relegated to the brief role of the Sayer, Bela Lugosi's powerful performance conveys the agony of the downtrodden, the unworthy subjected to Hell on Earth. "What are we?" he wails, "Not men... not beasts... Things!" Like the key Depression fantasy King Kong, Island of Lost Souls suggests that the abused and exploited Third World will rise up to strike back at guilty colonial masters.
Almost every scene introduces a new outrage to the Production Code. We learn that Mr. Montgomery was a doctor expelled from decent society for unnamed "indiscretions". Lota the Panther Woman follows the convention of the darkly exotic tropical maiden that offers herself to the white hero, only to sacrifice herself to prove her love. Moreau's perverse matchmaking flirts with the taboo notion of bestiality. Is Lota's demure interest in Parker a human quality, or is it a mask for the animalistic desires of a feral jungle cat? The writers must have gotten a chuckle out of their play with the recurring theme in pre-feminist fiction, that defines women as unknowable, mysterious beings ruled by instinctual emotions. Moreau interrupts the love scene, dragging Lota to the window to examine her claw-like fingernails: "It's that stubborn beast-flesh creeping back again!" If that's not enough to shock the bluenoses, the screenplay then has Moreau encourage the swarthy monster Ouran to rape Miss Thomas. Moreau will conclude his scandalous crossbreeding experiment one way or another.
Erle C. Kenton's sensitive direction handles the film's weirdness in fine style, juggling mordant comedy and extremes of terror. Although the movie is thankfully free of overt comedy relief, Laughton's impishly eccentric performance is certainly amusing, and sea captain Paul Hurst occasionally sounds as if he's doing a W.C. Fields impression. The suspense scenes make the biggest impression, as when Ouran breaks into Ruth's bedroom by slowly, silently loosening a window bar. Kenton's cinematographer is the superb Karl Struss, the cameraman of Murnau's Sunrise and Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The moody shipboard scenes were filmed in the open sea, and the main set doubles as an actual zoo, with real jungle cats in their cages. As they contemplate escape, Parker and Ruth are framed by expressionistic shadows on the compound wall. The scenes at the beast men's encampment are edited to give quick impressions of horrifying make-ups. A montage of monsters chanting as they approach the camera still causes some viewers to recoil. Wally Westmore's remarkably effective makeup for the Sayer of the Law has the appearance of a crazed wolf man, but those wild eyes and contorted hands could only be Bela Lugosi's.
Technically, the Mad Moreau's genetic experiments categorize this show as science fiction. Moreau is neither an alchemist nor a mere transplanter of brains, although we do hear some hurried exposition about a radium ray that "accelerates the process of evolution". The Doctor regards his tortured beast men as laboratory specimens existing only to prove his theories. 1 The final frenzy of Island of Lost Souls is pure medical horror. Bestial claws and paws smash a gleaming glass case, seize Moreau's chromium scalpels, and prepare to give him a dose of his own medicine. Charles Laughton's moan of shocked disbelief, rising to a strangled scream, is unforgettable. Once upon a time, screen horror was high art.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Island of Lost Souls is a welcome surprise, as the Collection has gone to great pains to restore what was almost a lost film. When Paramount sold its pre-1948 library to MCA in the late 1950s, the vault inventory was pared down to just one or two duplicate copies per title, sometimes only in versions censored for reissue. Island was considered unprintable. Criterion patched the film together using several sources, including an uncut nitrate screening print held by the UCLA Archives. A couple of Richard Arlen's dialogue lines appear in this presentation for the first time on home video.
The resulting HD transfer and digital restoration is very good, with clear audio and an image that retains the look of nitrate original prints. Some scratches are present and a few scenes have more grain than others, especially those filmed in thick fog. Karl Struss used heavy diffusion filters for the bright day scenes, while the jungle nights in Moreau's compound reflect Paramount's "house style" influenced by the glamorous visuals of Joseph von Sternberg. 2 The clarity of HD gives us an excellent opportunity to examine the marvelous Westmore makeup designs. No two of the beast men look alike but all are recognizably human, making them sympathetic as well as repulsive: "What is the Law?" " Are we not men!?"
The absence of an overall music score adds immeasurably to the film's impact: without a soundtrack to cue conventional responses, we must formulate our own reactions to the disturbing action on screen.
Criterion's disc producer Susan Arosteguy lines up qualified horror experts for the disc extras. Historian and author Gregory William Mank's commentary goes into exacting detail on the production, citing actor salaries and the woes that befell the film in distribution. Many individual state and city censor boards ordered extensive cuts, and the movie broke a record for the number of foreign countries where it was banned. In a new featurette director John Landis, makeup man Rick Baker and monster-maker and collector Bob Burns evaluate the film's unique creature-creations. Burns and Baker also remark on the career of Charles Gemora, a legendary gorilla and monster suit specialist. Author David J. Skall offers his thoughts and theories in another interview featurette, and director Richard Stanley discusses his troubled experience working on the dismal 1996 remake starring Marlon Brando. Music fans may be amused by interviews with two founding members of the rock group Devo, which fashioned a signature identity around Island's beast man chants. A short 1976 film by Devo is included as well.
An original trailer captures the film's highpoints, reminding us how shocking it must have seemed to audiences of 1932. The stills section contains an interesting alternate makeup for Bela Lugosi, and a selection of beast man portraits. One disturbing horror-face not seen in the movie resembles a scrambled Picasso portrait. The insert booklet offers an insightful essay by writer Christine Smallwood. Criterion's Island of Lost Souls is a godsend to horror fans and a significant restoration of an underappreciated classic. It's the most exotic vintage disc release of the year so far.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Island of Lost Souls Blu-ray rates:
1. Moreau's vivisection sessions have been compared to Nazi medical atrocities, but questionable experiments involving the live dissection of dogs and apes were not uncommon in the early 1930s. Protests against the medical vivisection of animals were a partial inspiration for Wells' book, and an anti-vivisection society was established in London shortly after its publication.
2. Unwarranted "look at me" disclosure: I met Karl Struss, shook his hand and praised his work on Island of Lost Souls at a genuine Hollywood Party I attended on New Year's Day 1976. It was one of director (and then UCLA lecturer) David Bradley's old-time soirees, where I also met people like Miliza Korjus (look her up) and Ray Harryhausen. Struss was peppy and gratified to be recognized, even if only by a long-haired college student. I think I remembered that he filmed Dr. Jekyll too. So hey, look at me, the hob-nobber with Hollywood greats -- who never again had a similar experience.
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T'was Ever Thus.