ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, like the best of those early 30s, pre-Code shock classics, retains much of its enduring fright & fascination factor precisely by being so dated, caught between eras, a hybrid of imaginative literature put across with theatrical acting merged with the artsy techniques and craftwork of film. Though the original author was displeased, one imagines the twisted Dr. Moreau would approve of what was created. *
“They are restless tonight.”
Dumped by a loutish freighter captain onto an isolated South Seas jungle island, ‘Parker’ (Richard Arlen) finds himself first a barely tolerated guest, soon an outright captive. The lord of the unusually staffed realm, ‘Dr. Moreau’ (Charles Laughton), practices vivisection in “The House Of Pain”, mixing sadism with lunacy (and good manners) in conducting animal-into-man experiments. Moreau has ‘Lota’ (Kathleen Burke), a “Panther girl” he hopes to mate with the horrified castaway. Parker’s fiancée shows up, and all bets are off when the ‘manimals’, led by ‘Sayer Of The Law’ (Bela Lugosi) decide to challenge the whip-wielding scientist. “Are we not men?”
Director Earl C. Kenton would amass 143 film and TV credits, mostly undistinguished: this is easily his best picture and greatest claim to fame, thanks to Laughton’s delicious nastiness and the production crew’s memorable design work. Filmed on Santa Catalina for $300,000, the baroque art direction from Hans Dreier, shadowy cinematography from Karl Struss and marvelous creature make-up from Charles Gemora and Wally Westmore make for one bizarre 70 minute stay. The sudden,lurching views of the assorted man-beasts, their distorted features and compromised gaits together with the hideous sound effects mesh into some genuinely daft images, shot through with undercurrents of queasy, particularly unhealthy sexuality. Eeek! This is all really wrong! Best watched late at night.
Reviews at the time were mixed, the film came in #48 for the year—it was banned in Britain. 1932 was packed with thrillers testing boundaries of taste and convention: Freaks, The Most Dangerous Game, The Mummy, Murders In The Rue Morgue, Rasputin and the Empress, Scarface, The Old Dark House, White Zombie, Vampyr and The Sign Of The Cross. The last, a sin-stoked Biblical epic, also starred the 31-year old Laughton, new to the States, with six films that year. His campy Moreau is quite the porcine creep, eyes glittering with vile intent and droll amusement over it all. He based the characterization on his dentist! 19-year old panther-girl Burke was chosen after a publicity blitz that saw 60,000 girls competing for the part (she never lived it down, quitting the business at 25).
“That was my first great achievement. Articulate speech controlled by the brain. And it was a great achievement! Oh, it takes a long time and infinite patience to make them talk.”
Of its time, yet the sick weirdness carries with unsettling effect over the years. Remade in 1977 (so-so) and 1996 (disastrous). With Arthur Hohl, Stanley Fields, Paul Hurst, Hans Steinke (as ‘Ouran’) and Tetsu Komai. **
* H.G. Wells had a Bachelors Degree in Zoology, and his first published work was a two-volume biology text. That background no doubt bore on his 1896 novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, which followed on the heels of his first big success “The Time Machine”. Written when he was 29, he called it “An exercise in youthful blasphemy”, but was less than pleased 36 years later with the film, which he saw as purely a shocker, shorn of his deeper philosophical questions: “If you want to know, I think (the film) was terrible—terrible! You can print that, if you want to.” He did however accord “all respect to Charles Laughton, who is a splendid actor.”
** “What is the law?” Six-six & 240, wrestler Hans Steinke went by the handle “The German Oak”. No less an authority than the Lethbridge Daily Herald pronounced him “the wonder man of the mat”, enthusing about his diet “‘believe it or not’ he eats a ton of sausages every day. But he is no sausage himself. He stands six and a half feet in the arena and is agile as a panther.” From the May 1933 issue of Boxing & Wrestling News: “ If you have seen Hans in the roped ring you can easily understand why he is in demand for certain parts in the movies. In any part that has to do with ape-men, Hans cannot be beaten for his interpretation of the part,”…”Hans plays the part of an ape-man very well because he is very well fitted in a natural way for the part. Even in a match he has bearing of a big ape and the actions of his arms and shoulders remind one very much of the actions of an ape.” Indeed, “ARE WE NOT MEN?”