Thursday, April 11, 2013

Classics Revisited: Island of Lost Souls

(1932) Directed by Erle C. Kenton; Written by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie; Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells; Starring: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Kathleen Burke; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law.  Are we not Men?”
– From The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Island of Lost Souls represents a true melding of horror and science fiction, exploring the awful implications of biological experimentation taken too far.  It’s a stunning example from the short-lived Pre-Code era, pushing the envelope of what was acceptable, and exploring territories most other films only hinted at.  80-plus years after its initial release, Island of Lost Souls still manages to mesmerize viewers with its haunting imagery and themes of hubris taken to awful extremes. 

H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, was intended as an impassioned treatise against vivisection.  Many individuals saw the material as ripe for adaptation into film,* with several versions produced over the following century.  Paramount’s 1932 version, however, remains the most noteworthy example, and hits closest to the mark of embodying the novel’s horrors.  Perhaps it succeeded a little too well.  Island of Lost Souls was reviled by Wells, who perceived the film to be vulgar, demonstrating that writers may not always be the best judges of adaptations of their work.   The general consensus of government censors seemed to concur with Wells’ negative assessment.  In the United States and Canada, the film suffered various cuts, while in Wells’ native England it was banned outright, until a heavily censored version was eventually released in 1958.

* According to film historian Gregory Monk, two unauthorized versions of Wells’ novel were filmed prior to Island of Lost Souls, in 1913 and 1921.  Both are presumably lost.

Island of Lost Souls was shot on location on Catalina Island, 26 miles off the Southern Californian coast.  Foggy weather and expressionistic cinematography by Karl Struss contributed to the film’s nightmarish tone.  In addition to the location shots, sets were built on the Paramount Ranch, in nearby Agoura Hills, to simulate Dr. Moreau’s secluded lair.  Struss employed light and shadow to great effect, alternately concealing and revealing Moreau’s creations.  The animal men are brought to life, thanks to Wally Westmore’s distinctive makeup.  Dozens of extras were covered in collodion and animal hair, to simulate humanlike creatures derived from wolves, apes, gorillas and pigs.

 Much of the film’s raw energy stems from Charles Laughton’s remarkable, darkly humorous performance as the amoral Dr. Moreau.  His angelic white suit belies his less-than-pure intentions,* as he creates pain and suffering without remorse.  He sets himself up as a quasi-deity to his pathetic animal creations, keeping them in line with threats of a visit to the House of Pain.  He’s obsessed with overcoming the “stubborn beast flesh,” as he transforms animals into distorted facsimiles of humans.  He glibly deflects Edward Parker’s (Moreau’s unwitting guest, played with suitable self-righteous indignation by Richard Arlen**) disgusted remarks.  While possessing a childlike gleam in his eyes, he proclaims, “Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?” (Unfortunately, the line was cut from many prints during the film’s initial run).  Laughton, an avowed animal lover, was troubled by his character’s blatant disregard for the wellbeing of his creations, and allegedly developed a phobia for hair and avoided visiting zoos after the film’s completion.

* Moreau’s distinctive satyr-like beard was inspired by Laughton’s visit to an eye doctor.

** Arlen’s co-star, Leila Hyams (Parker’s girlfriend Ruth) appeared in another landmark 1932 horror film, Freaks.

Kathleen Burke (Billed simply as The Panther Woman in the opening credits) is Moreau’s latest and greatest creation, Lota.  Her casting was the result of a Panther Woman search held by Paramount in 1932, in which she was selected from 60,000 contestants.  Lota represents the culmination of his life’s work, and is the subject of Moreau’s newest experiment, to see if she will mate with Parker.  Burke conveys an odd mix of licentiousness and trepidation, which seems consistent with her nearly human character.  She prompts ambivalence in Parker, who is initially drawn by her innocent sexual charms, only to feel revulsion after he discovers what she really is. Burke’s animalistic, erotic performance as Lota effectively presents an uncomfortable dilemma for the viewer.  We, as the audience feel unclean for being drawn into the chemistry between Parker and Lota, even though we realize she’s not quite human.

Bela Lugosi shines in a small part as the wolf-like Sayer of the Law.  His anguished, sympathetic performance is among his best.  The financially strapped Lugosi was only paid $875, substantially less than his co-stars.  In the previous year, he turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein, because he didn’t want his face buried in makeup.  Ironically, he’s virtually unrecognizable here, leaving us to recognize him by his signature voice alone.

The film diverts from Wells’ novel by doing away with explanations about how Moreau created his beast-men.  While Wells vaguely described a surgical procedure involving the grafting of bone and tissue, director Erle C. Kenton and screenwriters Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie leave the nuts and bolts of the operations to the audience’s imagination.  The screams of the beasts, emanating from the House of Pain, are enough to imply that painful transformations are taking place.  The filmmakers captured the essence of Wells’ cautionary tale about human arrogance.  Long before Jurassic Park, Island of Lost Souls posed the dilemma that just because we could do something didn’t necessarily mean that we should.  Nature would inevitably turn the tables if we continued our trespasses without regard to the consequences.

1932’s Island of Lost Souls remains the definitive adaptation of Wells’ novel, and continues to be an influential force in pop culture.  Several music groups, including Devo (incorporating the refrain, “Are we not men?” into their defining song, “Jocko Homo”) and Oingo Boingo (with “No Spill Blood,” an 80s concert staple) owed much to the story and film.  Island of Lost Souls has been remade and copied numerous times, but none of the versions have ever equaled the seminal, atmospheric original.  The issues raised by the film remain topical today, and time has done nothing to diminish its power to disturb – something that few modern horror films can lay claim to.

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