Island of Lost Souls Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany May 17, 2012 at 12:37 AM

  • Movies review

    Island of Lost Souls Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £20.42


    Island of Lost Souls has now seen two hi-def editions come ashore. I have reviewed the excellent Criterion region A version already, and most of what I said for that applies to this region B transfer, which carries a similar AVC encode for the 1.33:1 (actually 1.37:1) image. Having compared the two, I can say that the differences are absolutely minimal, with the same specks and nicks, lines, fades and damage occurring in the same places and at the same times, and the level of detail supplied in the same quantity, clarity and resolution.

    However, what I will also say is that this Eureka transfer is slightly brighter than the Criterion, and this can actually make you think that you are seeing a touch more information in the frame, with the darker areas of the US disc now lightened a touch and allowing more texture and potential detail to poke through. But this is marginal, at best, and there are those, myself included, who might prefer the more atmospherically darker, and better contrasted image that is seen on the American edition. Moreover, the Criterion transfer appears, to my eyes anyway, to have a deeper, denser layer of grain. The UK disc, in comparison, actually seems a little smoother at times, with the level of grain lessened. Again, when looking at the two images, I found that, personally, I preferred the Criterion in this regard.

    Anyway, since the two are so similar in every other way, here’s what I said previously.

    The transfer has been culled from the best possible sources – including a damaged 35mm fine-grain master positive, the UCLA's 35mm nitrate positive and, to help repair some shots and sequences, a 16mm private screening print. Although you could never in a million years claim that the resulting image looks “great”, there can be no disputing the fact that this is the best it is probably ever likely to look.

    The vintage print has been cleaned up of myriad scratches, nicks, rips and pops, but there still exists plenty of age-related wear 'n' tear, as you would only expect for a film from 1932 … and one that has also been the recipient of a multitude of cuts and existed in many differing versions. Contrast cannot help but waver, but this is not exactly a distraction, and when you see how deep and generally stable the black levels are, and how nicely refined the shadow-play, it would be churlish to complain about a few glitzy white-outs, some haziness and the odd indistinct background object. The blacks may well have been strengthened from the flimsy, mottled-grey veils that I've seen plagued earlier incarnations, but they don't eclipse any visual information that lurks within. The film looks nicely balanced, on the whole. Light and dark sit well, and the fall-off to grey is handled smoothly.

    Detail remains good, although you have to appreciate the shape of the print. The image has a fair degree of depth, especially evident during the jungle sequences, and this is where the detail seems at its most luxuriant, with foliage, rocks, tents and vines, and long, snaking tree branches filling the frame. The Beast-Men, who crop up from all angles and from behind every shred of cover, are brought to rewarding life with the transfer's evident delight in their frightening visages. I have seen the impressive make-up from Wally Westmore in crystal clear, pin-sharp stills in books, and it would be unfair to compare them to the moving frames from this restored film, but there is plenty of texture and detail in the facial moulds and collagen, and we can see some finite separation in the applied hair and fur, and in the rather ghastly dentistry.

    There is some occasional discolouration. I noticed a yellowish band forming a curved lid over the shot at one point but, again, this was only a small incident and, just like all the other anomalies, part and parcel of a film print (or prints) derived from 1932. Grain does tend to fluctuate and shift, but it doesn't appear at all artificial. There are no problems with edge enhancement either.

    With only the check disc and a page of PR bumf, I have no details about how Eureka’s transfer was fully processed, or the equipment and techniques utilised, but I assume it has gone through pretty much the same process as Criterion’s. They have clearly taken pride in the restoration and presentation of Lost Souls and, once again, the final result gives me great optimism that all those cherished Universal horrors and RKO chillers will gain something similar in terms of their eventual hi-def makeover.

    The final score naturally reflects the condition of the source and how well the transfer has been applied. It doesn't, of course, equate to the transfer of a more modern film.

    Although I prefer the Criterion image, the differences are tiny and adhere to a more personal taste, therefore the technical marks remain the same.

    Island of Lost Souls Picture


    Once again, you have to remember the source material that this transfer has been taken from – which is from pure antiquity. So don’t go expecting miracles.

    Eurekasupply Kenton's film with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix that is certainly up to the task of presenting the audio as cleanly and crisply as possible without anything unwanted being added to spruce up and, inevitably, cheapen the deal.

    There are no major problems with the dialogue. It comes through just fine with only the briefest instances when it is masked or semi-swallowed by damage. Slightly tinny, as you would expect, but speech is almost always clearly intelligible and the many nuances of Laughton's delivery, the queer, semi-goth-queen intonations of Lota, and particularly the snarling Hungarian tongue-rolling of Lugosi's Sayer of the Law are quite finely reproduced. Certainly the gibbering howls and yowls of the poor wretch strapped to Moreau's operating table in the House of Pain lash themselves out of the mix with unearthly and horrid immediacy, and speaking of lashes, the mad doctor's bullwhip cracks away with style.

    Naturally, there is some degree of hiss that rises up on occasion, but this proves no detriment to the experience, and possibly only adds to the vintage mystique of the drama. There’s no score to speak of, just opening and closing pieces during the titles – with the end credits accompanied by a crazily upbeat flapper-dance! – but this comes over with agreeable panache. Strictly speaking, I think it would be unrealistic to expect anything better than this. All things considered, this limited, yet pleasingly raucous track provides Islandof Lost Soulswith an admirable audio transfer.

    Island of Lost Souls Sound


    So far, I can only comment on the UK check disc from Eureka. The full release edition comes with a DVD copy of the film and a booklet with rare images from the film, plus there is a steelbook variant as well.

    But as far as on-disc supplements go, this UK edition doesn’t fare as well as the Criterion. In fact, besides the Theatrical Trailer we only get two interviews that go into overview and opinion of the production and the film’s lasting legacy. Both are nice to see, but they lack the fun and detail that Criterion was able to delve into, and it would have been awesome to have both sets of extras combined to provide the full roster of freakish goodies.

    The first interview is with actor/director/writer Simon Callow, who is an absolute devotee to, and historian of, Charles Laughton. Having written a biography on this incredible and immortal personality, he knows a thing or two about the choices the actor made, the things that influenced him and the attitude he had towards his performances. Callow provided excellent insight on the man for supplements on Criterion’s awesome BD of Night of the Hunter, but this 12-minute feature is much looser and less vital, somehow. There’s good information provided but this seems too light for the subject matter and the performance, itself, and Callow does end up rambling and his points become quite wayward.

    The second interview is with horror historian Jonathan Rigby and runs for 15-minutes. Although this concentrates on the film, itself, the times and social mores of the cinemagoers and the Hollywood trends in which it debuted, and the whole Wellsian genesis, this is pretty deep and thoughtful without coming across as condescending. Rigby makes the connection between this and the earlier outrage of Tod Browning’s Freaks as well as all those pulpish jungle flicks that proliferated at this time and the inherent sense of the exotic and the mysterious, and, overall, this is a fine, though all-too-brief study of such taboo-shredding imagination.

    Both men are filmed artfully (though rather pretentiously) in black and white, and the interviews feature clips and illustrations and stills to punctuate them.

    It’s good that something was provided for this outstanding motion picture, but I was still left unsatisfied. For its 80th Anniversary, I’m surprised that more material wasn’t found, and that other critics and authorities weren’t involved. The Criterion edition wins hands-down in this department.

    Island of Lost Souls Extras


    Right, this is easy. If you can’t play the region A Criterion release, then this Eureka region B is obviously the way to go. The transfer is pretty much identical – just the brightness being slightly more advantageous than its darker colonial counterpart – and there are a couple of interesting supplements. But, if you can make the choice between the two regions, then the US disc is definitely the way to go, mainly because the extras are better, but I still think the transfer suits the coarser texture of the grain and the deeper shadows.

    Either way, Island of Lost Souls is a true milestone in genre cinema that should not be overlooked. It is one of the greats, folks … a landmark horror film that rocked the establishment during the medium’s Golden Age and proudly proclaimed that the genre had something powerful and emotive to say. After James Whale's Frankenstein ushered-in protests of blasphemy and Browning’s Freaks shocked sexual sensibilities and notions of descrimination, Kenton's picture for Paramount Studios, who were determined to add sex and terror to their roster, roiled in yet more infamy. With Laughton's sinisterly decadent cad claiming that he felt “like God!” as he busied himself in the House of Pain, obsessively reshaping nature into grotesque parodies of itself, a stranded Richard Arlen getting the hots for the Panther Woman, and the Beast-Mens' libidos going molten when Leila Hyman's blonde bombshell gatecrashes the party, H.G. Wells' classic novel of anti-vivisection got a cinema patrons a little sticky under the collar. Even now, the film muddies morals and beckons to the beast in you.

    Ineptly remade not once, but twice, it is time to go back to the original and the best adaptation of The Island Of Dr. Moreau … and Eureka’s loving release makes that entirely possible and extremely worthwhile. Laughton camps it up with arrogant villainy, but he eats up the screen, and Wally Westmore's elaborate and memorable make-up design is given a tremendous showcase. The highly influential movie gets a fantastic transfer, all things considered, and a gem that has been hidden away for far too long now sparkles with twisted, infernal vigour.

    What is the law?

    To celebrate taboo-breaking, vintage horror with Eureka’s (or, preferably, Criterion's) terrific release of Island Of Lost Souls. That is the law.

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £20.42

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