Criterion bring Island Of Lost Souls to Blu-ray with an AVC encode that boasts a transfer 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 ever likely to look.
The 1.33:1 print has been cleaned up of myraid 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.
As usual, Criterion provide details of how the transfer was made, and of the equipment and techniques utilised. They have taken as much pride in the restoration and presentation of Lost Souls as they have with every other release … and the final result gives me great optimism that all those cherished Universal horrors and RKO chillers will gain something similar in terms of 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.
Once again, you have to remember the source material that this transfer has been taken from – notably the 16mm private screening print and the 35mm nitrate. Criterion supply Kenton's film with a LPCM mono 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. Slightly tinny, as you would expect, but speech is 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 speaker with unearthly and horrid immediacy, and speaking of lashes, the mad doctor's whip cracks away with style.
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. I doubt you could realistically want for better than this. All things considered, this is an admirable audio transfer.
Criterion pitch in a good set of extras for this coveted horror gem. Not least of which is the splendid essay from Christine Smallwood that can be found in the illustrated booklet that accompanies the disc.
We have a commentary track from historian and author Greg Mank that fills in more gaps about the production than you ever knew existed. Mank is a regular contributor to releases of these classic vintage genre faves, delivering awesome fact and trivia-packed commentaries and usually making an appearance in documentaries. Here, he is on fine form and clearly relishes the opportunity to wax lyrical about such an important film as Lost Souls. Typical of the style that he, Tom Weaver and Rudy Behlmer often take with regards to these old chillers, this is a fast, revealing and highly entertaining journey through the old Hollywood system. He name-checks everybody and even has a few guesses as to the identities of certain “unknowns” languishing beneath the monster make-up. He lists-up various players' credits pre-and-post Lost Souls, yet manages to keep such facts intriguing and relevant without sounding too dry and rehearsed. Well, not too rehearsed. He tells us of the censor problems, liberally quoting from the cast and crew, as well as the tabloids and the moral guardians of the era. We learn about the make-up, the set design, the curious performances, most notably from Laughton, Lugosi and Burke, and the whole anti-vivisection angle. He is frank and amusing and has so much love for the material that it surely must rub off on you too. I consider myself to be something of a loving authority on these movies, but I have to doff my cap to people such as Mank for their all-consuming passion and abundance of knowledge. A great chat-track.
John Landis (whose new coffee-table tome, Monster Of Filmland, comes highly recommended, by the way) sits down for a conversation with monster-maker Rick Baker and monster-fanatic Bob Burns in a fifteen minute featurette. This is great for other fans of the trio and the subject matter, obviously, but it is not specifically a scholarly overview of what Kenton achieved. Basically, all three guys are fans and are merely chewing the vivisected fat, but we get a slew of clips to illustrate the points they raise and the whole thing is conducted with good cheer and obvious infatuation.
New interviews are presented with horror film historian David J. Skal and filmmaker Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil). Skal takes an offbeat look at the styles of the times and the flavour of horror during this highly creative and influential period, whilst Stanley, who had been the “original” director of the appalling 1996 adaptation with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, gets to discuss how he would have liked to interpret the story before studio intervention saw him getting replaced by John Frankenheimer.
A slightly unorthodox couple of features come next that focus on the rock group Devo, whose love for Island Of Lost Souls proved a catalyst to the formation of the band, and whose influence has permeated their work. We have an interview with band-members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, as well as a short 1976 film by the band that boasts the songs “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo”.
Rounding out the platter are a stills gallery, which contains some great portraits that show off
the amazing make-up design work and the film's theatrical trailer.
This is one of the greats, folks. It is 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, Kenton's picture for Paramount Studios, who were determined to add sex and terror to their roster, roiled in 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 Criterion'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 Criterion's terrific release of Island Of Lost Souls. That is the law.
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