Island of Lost Souls Review
“Not men! Not beasts! THINGS!!!!”
Criterion should take a bow for this wonderful release – the long-awaited and previously so hard to obtain 1932 horror classic, Paramount's Island Of Lost Souls from director Erle C. Kenton.
Inarguably the best adaptation of H.G. Wells' seminal work of anti-vivisectionist fantasy The Island Of Dr. Moreau (first published in 1896), this was also the sort of film that shocked a generation, broke almost all the known taboos and gained notoriety by getting itself banned outright in twelve countries. Even at home in the States, the film was regularly butchered in much the same way that its central figure, the fiendish Dr. Moreau (played by Charles Laughton), would go about his bizarre and freakish surgical experiments in his elaborate House of Pain, with chunks cut out left, right and centre in a vain attempt to preserve the fragile souls in the audience from becoming, well, lost.
For a very long time, the film was consigned to tremendously evocative and scary images in horror movie compendiums. Classy tomes like Alan G. Frank's Horror Movies and Dennis Gifford's lavish and seminal A Pictorial History Of Horror Movies provided these stirring and weirdly wonderful shots, usually of Bela Lugosi in a close-up publicity still in full monster makeup, Moreau commanding a grinning ape-man to do something hideous, and of the infamous revolt of the Beast-Men rising up and surrounding their inhumane tormentor. It took me a while to track the film down, and the version I first saw was a grainy, washed-out and badly scarred bootleg on Betamax back in around 1985. This actually added to the unique frisson of seeing something once so blacklisted. And even though I had eagerly sought out all of the UK's banned videos (and a whole lot more besides) by this time and had becomes something of ghoulish gorehound, there was still something uniquely depraved about Kenton's now great-grandfatherly “Nasty”.
Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is plucked from the South Seas by a passing freighter, the only survivor of the sinking of the Lady Jane. The vessel he winds-up on is headed for the very place in which he is to meet his darling fiancée, but this curious passage has to make mysterious stop-off first. The cargo of live animals – tigers, lions, dogs, a gorilla – are bound for the enigmatic island of Dr. Moreau, who comes to meet the freighter and collect its precious and noisy payload whilst at sea. Having incurred the wrath of the drunken captain, poor Parker finds himself being flung out of the frying pan and into the fire when he is unceremoniously dumped over the side of the ship like some extra baggage for Moreau. Before he can clambour back to safety, the freighter sails away, leaving him stranded with the doctor, his assistant Mongomery (Arthur Hohl) and the oddest-looking crew of natives he has ever seen.
Soon, he is a guest on the Island Of Lost Souls.
Although Moreau appears outwardly genteel and polite, he is swiftly revealed to be anything but. Shunned by the medical academia of England for his unorthodox views and some suspiciously hushed-up malpractices, Moreau had become a self-styled exile on his own tropical island, where he is free to continue his wild and outlandish experiments on living subjects. His overriding ambition is to leap beyond the parameters of evolution and to combine man and animal in one living being. His specimens of beasts are vivisected and some unspoken form of terrible scientific witchcraft (we are never told quite how he does it) enacted to create a race of hybridised “manimals”. These Beast-Men, as they are called, have become the population of the island, living out in the jungle and in a village of their own, although Moreau has one or two special subjects that he keeps close by. M'Ling (Tetsuo Komai) is a loyal manservant, or rather a loyal dog-servant, Pig Man (Buster Brodie) is the cook in the madman's luxurious house, the bruising Ouren (wrestler Hans Steinke) is his giant but agile assassin … but his pride and joy is Lota (Kathleen Burke), the beautiful feline Panther Woman, the exotic culmination of Moreau's kinkiest tinkerings with nature. She has her own room, her own alluring and skimpy attire, a dressing table and mirror … and a sweet, vulnerable nature that the unfeeling and over-zealous Moreau cannot comprehend. When the unwitting Parker contrives to come stay with them, Moreau hatches his most distressing scheme yet. What if his guest and Lota were to mate? What would be the result of such a coupling?
He even scuttles his own boat so that Parker cannot get back to civilisation.
But things don't precisely go to plan, of course. When Parker's fiancée, Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) gathers the gumption to go looking for her man, she worms out the location of where he was unofficially dropped-off from the brow-beaten buccaneer and, together with the friendly Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst), mounts her own rescue mission. Poor Moreau's secret island is fast becoming a tourist hot-spot! But once he claps eyes on the pretty blonde who comes ashore, the ever-adaptable Dr. Moreau finds a way to rethink and modify his mating plans. And that big ugly brute-man, Ouran, seems to have his eye on the freshly perfumed new flesh too. Soon, Moreau's Diablo-like beard is twitching with thoughts of wicked new devilry. Experimentation gives way to bestiality, and the world was both disgusted and enthralled by what they were seeing. Kenton's movie, like Wells' novel, was ahead of its time. And it would pay the price for such audacity.
“What is the law?”
“Not to run on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?”
Dr. Moreau has always been at the forefront of the mad scientist genre. Before him, we’d encountered Victor Frankenstein – Mary Shelley wrote of his misadventures in the lab a good seventy-nine years before H.G. Wells told of his irresponsible island experiments in 1896 and, cinematically, James Whale had Colin Clive create his Monster a year before Kenton had Charles Laughton fabricate his bizarre tribe of manimals in 1932 – and there would be far too many interpretations of obsessed medicos and lapsed-moral scientists to follow in their misguided footsteps to count in the decades that followed. The freakish experimenter has tinkered with the DNA of apes, dinosaurs, insects and aliens. He has warped the fabric of time, space and opened-up doorways to the dimensions in-between. He has threatened and destroyed our own world as well as many others, time and time again. Seen in everything from Metropolis to Doctor Who to Cronenberg's The Fly to the repugnant lunacy of The Human Centipede, his experiments are almost always foolhardy and utterly insane to all but his own eyes, but very often wilfully dangerous and cruel. In short, he cannot be trusted … even when he is trying to save us all.
But there can be no doubt whatsoever … Dr. Moreau is a bad boy, through and through.
Charles Laughton, the fabulous Charles Laughton, is splendidly sinister as the vicious vivisectionist. If you can get past his uncanny resemblance to Northern comic Peter Kay – which actually may take some serious commitment as they look so much alike – you can revel in the glory of his self-obsessed mania, his delusions of grandeur and his devout belief that he can rival God in the creation-game. This was Laughton at a young and adventurous stage in his career. You can see the zeal in his eyes, the devil-may-care twinkle. His confidence had grown immeasurably, to the point where he could simply lounge about upon the set, effecting an air of cavalier indifference to it all. It is easy to smite down Brando's portrayal of the mad doctor in the abysmal 1996 effort, a touch less so to belittle Burt Lancaster's tired and somewhat bored rendition in Don Taylor's 1977 version with Michael York and Barbara Bach co-starring. But Laughton is terrific in the part, even without being glaringly villainous or overtly eee-villllll, he has that diabolical upper-class smarm and arrogant disposition to the suffering of others. His grand scheme for this race of confused, mixed-up beings is never actually disclosed. In fact, it is not hard to believe that the blinkered boffin hasn't actually got a masterplan. For Moreau, it is pleasure enough just to cause pain even if the resulting melange of flesh and bone is an abomination. He is a despot and a tyrant. Power and ego are his life-blood, his very essence. He even proudly displays his creative abortions to the nosey Parker, as they symbolically turn a huge water-wheel with their enslaved feet. Ironically, the guys actually appear the most obviously “human”, so just how were they the result of experiments that went wrong? Laughton clearly enjoyed the horror genre. He had the classic Karloff chiller, The Old Dark House, already under his belt, and he would go on to play The Hunchback of Notre Dame to wild acclaim in 1939. And his directorial one-off would be the seminal folk/parable/horror The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Matched against him, Richard Arlen comes up short and rather stiff by comparison. But he is still a much better actor than many of these genre-flung heroes. And Arthur Hohl maintains a steady presence in the background. Cleverly, we are never too sure exactly how far his loyalty to Moreau goes. Both men seem to loiter on the brink of the moral abyss, like spellbound witnesses to Hitler's final solution. Certainly, Arlen and Hohl offer characters who are more rounded and psychologically complex than the majority that proliferated in the genre around these inaugural years of imaginative film-making.
Of special interest is the performance of Kathleen Burke as the exotic and tragic Panther Woman. Paramount had staged a nation-wide competition to find their feline femme-fatale, so it was hardly a shock to find out that Moreau's babe-in-waiting wasn't exactly the woman she appeared to be. However, what people hadn't banked-on was the smouldering sexuality that she would exude and the confused emotions that Burke would bring to bear. Not only was she alluring – when common-sense told us that we should find her repulsive – but she was the most human character of them all. Torn apart by her own confused infatuation with Parker, and then forced to stand-back as Ruth enters the scene, she is the cat who never gets the cream. Like Elsa Lanchester, who admired Burke's performance so much that it influenced how she would portray the Bride Of Frankenstein, she is able to convey the semblance of pitiable sexuality and yet come across as something intangibly and unbearably other. This was something that hadn't been seen before. There had been the wonderful Brigitte Helm giving spectral life to the robot in Metropolis, another vast influence upon Lanchester, but we fall for this odd woman in many ways. For one thing, we already know that she is less than human, whilst Parker, at first, does not. And yet we wholly understand how he could easily become smitten by her sad and lonely charms. You can imagine audiences of the times squirming uncomfortably in their seats as the two embrace and Parker falls for a softly purring smooch. Val Lewton would take this theme of supernatural sexuality to a dazzling new level in the all-time great Cat People (1942), and Paul Schrader would revisit it with full-frontal nudity in his remake from 1982 with Natassia Kinski revealing the things that Simone Simon could only hint at … but the seeds of such inter-species romance were sown here by Erle C. Kenton, who simply must have known that he was pushing the boundaries of taste and acceptance as he was making the film. This is all dealt with in a very tame, almost innocent fashion … at least by today's standards … but the theme is a difficult one to shake and Kenton must be admired for sticking to his guns, especially as this element was created by screenwriters Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young, and wasn't in Wells' original novel. In fact, it was this core device that made the celebrated author so enraged with the finished film that he, along with many others, utterly denounced it.
He hated it with a passion.
One wonders what he would have thought had he seen the next two adaptations.
But Lota's feline attributes are limited to some terrifying claws that suddenly seem to have grown back the minute that she manages to get Parker in a clinch – something that Val Lewton definitely took note of and acknowledged in Cat People – and crazy, wide, ever watching, ever longing eyes. Others in the Beastly roster would not be so lucky, including, according to Hollywood legend, stuntman Buster Crabbe, who would go on to immortality as both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and even Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott who are rumoured to have donned the fur and fangs.
“What is the law?”
“Not to eat meat. That is the law. Are we not men?”
Lugosi had turned down the part of the Monster for James Whale’s Frankenstein, citing that he couldn’t abide the lengthy make-up process that he would have to undergo. But he must have kicked himself so much for losing out to Karloff, who was, by far, the better performer, that he nudged his pride aside and put himself forward for the role of the Sayer of the Law. This meant that he would have to eat his words regarding laborious make-up, for his beast-man character was to be painstakingly quilled with fur until his tragic moral guardian resembled a cross between an ape-man and Lon Chaney Jnr.’s Wolf Man, his hirsute hybrid a dignified, though primitive orator festooned with horrible scratchy yak-hair. At least the glaring mad eyes were his own. He’d used them to mesmerising effect in Tod Browning’s Dracula the year before, and now they would radiate like feral orbs of fury from beneath the quilt of fur. He only has a couple of scenes, but they are extremely important and highly memorable. He is the voice and the conscience of the Beast-Men, and Lugosi, as hammy as he could so often be, brings intelligence and pathos to the role.
Interestingly, Lugosi would play a deranged scientist who turns himself into an ape for poverty-row Monogram Pictures in The Ape Man (aka Lock Your Doors) for director William Beaudine, and has already played opposite another big mad hairy brute – another simian rogue – in the mean and outlandish Murders In The Rue Morgue only a few months before Lost Souls, and he would again in The Gorilla (1939), alongside the Ritz Brothers. As historian Greg Mank is keen to point out in his commentary, the cinema of the fantastique during this period was veritably swamped with such monkey-business. The main man to wear the elaborate fur-ball costumes was Charles Gemora, who played the apes mentioned, and would even climb inside the suit to play in Lost Souls too. But top of the tree, of course, (or top banana, if you like) was the King of Skull Island, himself, King Kong, who smashed his way to everlasting glory and tragedy in 1933. But the point is this – these early practitioners of horror, and their audiences, seemed peculiarly fixated with savage, monstrous animals that had recognisable human traits. The brilliant Frederick March version of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde had the urbane potion-swigger turning into a whiskery, be-fanged delinquent too. It is almost as though society of the 20's, 30's and 40's (what with The Wolf Man and his ilk arriving during the Second World War) seemed morbidly fascinated with the reversion of Man into something more base and primal. Perhaps the barbaric horrors of the First World War - which would also inform the nature of our morbid curiosity for Browning's incredible Freaks - had something to do with this, as well as the wider appeal of tales of exploration and the frightening denizens found in far off lands.
All of which goes some way to explaining how Lost Souls both appealed to cinema-goers and repulsed them in droves.
The astonishing make-up work was created by Wally Westmore, who had previously delivered a couple of more human monsters in The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds of Zaroff) and the toothy simian look for Mr. Hyde in Mamoulian's audience-jolter. It is regrettable that one of his most outlandish designs never actually made it into the final cut – that of a frightening ape/bear/leopard/wasp combination! Remarkably for someone who had proved so damned good at turning people into monsters, he would take a massive break from fantasy after creating the masks for Norman Z. Mcleod's 1933 Alice In Wonderland before coming back with last-ditch SF vigour in the fifties for When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, The Space Children and the wacky Golem-riff, Colossus Of New York. Ape-man extraordinaire, Charles Gemora would accompany him on many of these projects, and actually come to overshadow him in the creature-creation department.
Like many of the chillers made during this period, there is no proper score for Island Of Lost Souls. Although Arthur Johnston and Sigmund Krumgold suppliy the stock music for the main and end titles, the rest of the movie is bereft of the atmospheric qualities that a score provides, and yet, even for an absolute devotee of movie-music like myself, it is not something that is sorely missed. Only during one pivotal sequence does this lack of underscore make itself apparent. But, for the most part, this is the land of the weird and the dreamlike, the lavish sets and camerawork, the exotic roster of characters and the ripe dialogue make up for the loss of music. Both Frankenstein and Dracula made do with classical pieces overlaid, and it wasn't until Bride Of Frankenstein that this barnstorming parade of vintage spine-chillers gained properly composed scores of their own, with Franz Waxman assuming the role of maestro of the macabre for Bride. The aforementioned cinematography is from the great Karl Struss, who had previously worked for Fred Niblo on the 1925 version of Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ and Sunrise for F.W. Murnau, and would go on to lens Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. He brings the surprisingly detailed sets to life, makes atmospheric use of shadow and chiaroscuro effects and reflections, as well as the genuine sea-mist off Catalina, where the maritime sequences were filmed, and brings the action with the Beast-Men to vivid and disquieting life. A famous shot follows our hero and, well, one of his two heroines into the village of the Beast-Men, and then climbs upward to look down upon them and the hairy throng that gathers around them from the evil Moreau's vantage point on a rise overlooking the entire vista. His framing is, more often than not, tight and claustrophobic. The sets are extraordinary, though hardly large-scale, which is why this is so. But, this said, you get the impression that we are supposed to feel hemmed-in and trapped with this approach. As an aside, Struss is often credited with being the technician responsible for the stunning in-camera transformation of Frederick March's priggish bore, Dr. Jeckyll, into the much more fun Mr. Hyde in Robert Mamoulian's marvellous adaptation – something that the studio kept secret for a great many years. Pssst … listen up … a coat of special makeup on the actor's face that only became visible when an infra-red light was shone onto it. So now you know.
“What is the law?”
“Not to spill blood. That is the law. Are we not men?”
Despite the wonderful work he did here, Erle C. Kenton would go on to become something of a hack for Universal. He leapt on to the monster-mash scene with a couple of the worst examples in the once-awesome series of creature-capers – House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula which were fun but dire – though he had, at least, worked some magic into the earlier Ghost Of Frankenstein, in which Lon Chaney Jnr. donned the scarred flat-top, electrodes and asphalter's boots, and Bela Lugosi reprised his classic role of Ygor from Rowland V. Lee's wonderful Son Of Frankenstein (1939). But he handles this groundbreaking story with a steady dark wit that drip-feeds the tension, and a gusto during the big moments that gathers momentum and makes the pulse race. The uncanny thing about the film is that its moments of genuine horror are very few and far between, and yet the aura of depravity and sickness permeates the whole scenario. He doesn't shy away from the violence either. One pivotal confrontation between two of the star beasts is brilliantly done – appropriately savage and bestial. The horrific implications of the creature suffering in unbearable agony on the operating table is genuinely upsetting, and made all the worse with Moreau's casual disassociation from all feelings of empathy. He creates some shudderingly creepy stalking scenes as well. Ouran is the usual predator … and to see him move along the branches like a steroidal monkey, but with the stealth of a commando, is thoroughly unnerving. The oft-repeated image of a damsel in a bedroom being menaced by a monster coming through the window is given a shot in the arm here, with Ouran hefting the steel bars out of their moorings so that he get closer to Ruth's soft body. Ouran is a definite threat, though even knowing how vile his intentions are and how formidable he is, we still feel for him. He is, after all, just an animal trapped in a semi-human shell. He is still a victim, himself and a slave to desires that Moreau has invaded his body with.
We will have to forgive him one rather lousy effect, though. Watch for the unintentionally hilarious moment when the belligerent and brutish captain of the ship slaps Parker around and then, when nobody is looking, heaves him overboard to land on the deck of Moreau's vessel. Richard Arlen takes the knocks up on deck, and then a dummy is hurled over the rail, to land with a gangly sprawl of non-living limbs. And then Richard Arlen, in a close-up, gets to his feet to shake an enraged fist at the gloating sea-dog. Honestly, it plays out exactly like one of the stunts in an old episode of The Goodies.
The film is over and done with in the blink of an eye (72 minutes in this full uncut version), but the deluge of themes and concepts bandied-about and thrust in-your-face simply knows no bounds. Even today, with all the horrific ideas and images that the medium can throw our way, Island Of Lost Souls has the power to shock. The House of Pain and the howling, gibbering wretches who limp, slink, hobble and prowl out of it really do linger in the mind. The revolt is quite unique. With images of Gaddafi's final moments at the hands of a blood-baying mob still prevalent on the net, it seems strange to suffer another unwanted shiver of sympathy for someone who so deserves to die horribly at the hands of those he had tortured and oppressed. And yet, we do feel for the mad doctor at the end … which reveals something about us. That we truly aren't as callous and barbaric as the movies like to make us think we are.
A true classic that is vitally important to the history of the Horror Film, Erle C. Kenton's Island Of Lost Souls makes a triumphant debut on Blu-ray, courtesy of Criterion.