When you head off to your local video store this Halloween to stock up on fright films, I recommend you find a “new” old classic to pick up. Fourteen years after it was released on VHS, Island of Lost Souls has finally received the Criterion Collection treatment and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 classic Island of Dr. Moreau, this 1932 gem is a true example of what classic horror is all about. When compared to the other classics of its time, Island of Lost Souls goes down paths that even 1931’s Frankenstein dared not tread. While Dr. Frankenstein was trying to create life out of dead bodies, Dr. Moreau was practicing the fine art of vivisection on animals in an attempt to force them to become humanoids. Of course, who could forget the strong overtones of bestiality to go along with the screams in the “house of pain.” This was certainly not your normal subject matter for the thirties, which could be why the film was banned in at least a dozen countries, including England, home of H.G. Wells himself (who was said to be deeply disturbed by the film).
Obviously by today’s standard of horror, this film doesn’t pack the same shock value it once did. Our society has been desensitized to such an alarming degree that movies of that era, which could once send audience members running out of the theatre mid-film screaming in terror, now hardly make the audience flinch, much less feel terror or fright. So the real question is why would today’s horror fan want to spend 70 minutes of their time for mad scientists and black and white horror? Simple – without these films there would be no Saw, Paranormal Activity, or Insidious. I believe the famous saying “you must know where you have been to know where you are going” describes the phenomenon. The influence of the horror classics is still a major part of pop culture, yet most of today’s generation don’t even realize. Try to picture Halloween without Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and his cape, or the mummy and his limp. You can’t do it, and it’s all thanks to the thirties horror films.
For the movie itself, I haven’t even touched on the fantastic acting or the claustrophobic style in which it was directed. Charles Laughton, star of Old Dark House, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and director of Night of the Hunter, potrays the god-complexed Dr. Moreau in his most celebrated role. His ridgid mannerisms and ever watchful eyes give the impression that everything he sees is being perceived as some experiment. He seems in complete control at all times, except for when he is removing the “animal side” of his beasts in the “house of pain” room. It is then Laughton gives the viewer a glimpse of the madness inside the doctor.
While the film follows Edward Parker, played by Richard Arlen, and his misfortunes that take him to the isle and subsequent attempts to leave, you never get a sense that he is the star of the film. It’s not so much that Arlen does a bad job bringing the character to life as much as it is Laughton’s acting is just that superior. For instance, our first glimpse of Moreau is a quick off-in-the-distance camera shot where we can’t even see his face while exotic animals are being loaded onto his boat. It’s a very subtle shot, and the dialogue is forgettable, but the audience is completely drawn to the character.
The other top billed star of this film is Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. While he will always be known as the face of Dracula, his performance and look as the Sayer is also iconic. The Sayer of the Law comes across as the pseudo-leader of the the beast-men, he himself being one. He leads them in the reciting of the laws that Moreau has set for them. His deep Hungarian accent allows our ears to truly believe that we are hearing the voice of something not quite human but not quite animal. Even though the film was well directed by Erle C. Kenton, cinematographer Karl Struss seems to have been the man responsible for the atmosphere that works so well on Lost Souls. Most of the scenes feel claustrophobic, whether it is the jungle fauna, the small rooms in Moreau’s home, or the close-ups of the doctor at work. It’s almost as if everything is a methaphor for how close the relationship between man and animal really is. All of these things work well, just like Moreau’s control over the beast-men of his isle, at leat until one of the laws are broken…
While I realize not all of the NerdRep populace will consider this film (or any of the others mentioned) must-see viewing, I do believe there are enough of you fellow horror nerds out there who will find this classic worth adding to the late night, black and white collection. And to you I ask, “Are we not men?”