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Island of Lost Souls

Review by: 
Black Gloves
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Directed by: 
Eric C. Kenton
Charles Laughton
Richard Arlen
Leila Hyams
Bela Lugosi
Kathleen Burke
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 “Island of Lost Souls” is one of the greatest of the pre-Hays code Hollywood horror pictures of the 1930s, but it has for some reason been very hard to see until the recent Criterion edition and now this excellent UK Blu-ray release, licenced for the Masters of Cinema series. In the early 1930s, as depression took an ever tighter grip of a stagnant US economy, the unexpected box office success of Universal’s “Dracula” and its follow-up hit, “Frankenstein”, made the newly invented horror genre (along with the then popular jungle adventure film) look like an ever-more attractive money-generating proposition for the main studios as well as poverty row outfits, who each quickly set about concocting their own various answers to the Universal success story. Thus, mad scientists and marauding monsters subsequently became a staple element of Hollywood’s output during these cash-strapped years. But not everyone was happy with the development. With each new release, it seemed to some, the Hollywood dream factory became ever more hopelessly addicted to the thrill of transgression. During the period 1931 to 1935 a succession of lurid horror melodramas appeared on cinema screens which dealt openly with shocking, blasphemous and some might say prurient subject matter, lining up a prohibition-busting cocktail round of forbidden sex and implied sadism showcasing a menagerie-display of twisted, misshapen human forms for public entertainment.

Many of the best of these films frequently seemed to mess around with ideas that intruded into the most sacred areas of the contemporary psyche - especially as far as religion was concerned  – packaging them up in monster melodramas to be gawped at with a voyeuristic fascination. At the heart of the controversy surrounding many of the horror films of this period is the inherent challenge they seemed to pose to the still prevalent idea that there was a God-given ‘natural order’ in nature and life: this was the orthodox, cosy, hierarchical view in which the boundary between Man and ‘beast’ was fixed and immutable for all time, and arranged on a ladder of being which saw mankind occupying the top spot (below only God and the angels) and the animal world languishing some way underneath both, on a succession of ever lower, descending rungs.

But there was another view of the world and of Man’s place in it which completely undermined any such happy, settled notions: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. To make nightmares for the masses of 1930s America meant disrupting and destabilising everything its cinema audiences held to be self-evident and decent - and a large dose of Darwinism was evidently considered the formula with the X factor ingredient when it came to achieving that aim … or so it appears from the number of major horror productions in the early-‘30s which enthusiastically (albeit in a scientifically slipshod manner) embraced evolutionary ideas, not only as a source of motivation for the various mad schemes of their array of megalomaniacal experimenters, surgeons and mad professors, but as ideal fodder for generating queasiness about humanity’s place in the natural world and exploiting associated taboo ideas concerning race and female sexuality. For lurking not very far beneath the surface (and sometimes fully in view) in many of these films is an alternating sense of repulsion mingled with a fascination for ideas that revolve around the concept of miscegenation.

1931 in particular seems to have been a lightning rod year for a whole series of Hollywood works of fiction propelled by an morbid interest in the future prospects for the mutability of previously fixed categories - such as species and race - as expounded through a Darwinian Theory filter. But it was the implied sexual element of the equation which seemed to hold the biggest allure: Rouben Mamoulain’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” saw the urbane Jekyll of Fredric March transformed into a distinctly ape-like Hyde for Paramount Pictures’ big budget adaptation of Stevenson’s novella, with the aid of Karl Struss’s red filter process photography techniques and the heavy-set makeup of Wally Westmore (which was deliberately designed to ‘ape’ the image of a Neanderthal man), setting up a dichotomy between modern humanity’s vain hopes for a higher nobility and the animal brutishness of an ancestry revealed to be still coursing within his veins after being unleashed by Doctor Jekyll’s ill-advised meddling. The troglodyte Hyde who represents Man’s bestial nature is, it turns out (unsurprisingly), extremely interested in having sex with pretty young women and then brutally killing them. Meanwhile, evolutionary theory directly motivates the sexual madness of Bela Lugosi in Robert Florey’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue”, shot for Universal - an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story that has little to do with the original but instead has Lugosi’s mono-browed Doctor Mirakle as a carnival barker who berates his foppish Parisian audiences with evolutionist parables, and whose ultimate plan is to mate his intelligent ape Erik with a human female in order to vindicate his marginalised theories! But perhaps the most controversial, and to this day problematic, of them all was Todd Browning’s “Freaks”, a transgressive step too far for audiences of this MGM flop, which was centred around the prurient parading of a host of human variations from the physical norm culminating in the sexual obsession unleashed when a vampish normal sized woman takes up with a midget circus performer with the aim of inheriting his fortune after systematically poisoning him to death. The film famously, and rather disingenuously at that, affects empathy for its cast of real-life physical and genetic aberrants, but then shamelessly treats them like monsters in order to generate cheap shivers for the final scene. The key point about this incoherent morality tale, though, is that the evil plotting of the film’s femme fatale, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), is eventually derailed because, in the end, she just can’t bring herself to accept the idea that she belongs among such people and that they are her equals.

Which brings us to 1932’s “Island of Lost Souls” - an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novella “The Island of Dr Moreau”. This film is really the summation of all the ideas and themes that had been percolating through the marrow of 1930s horror throughout its first four years of life. It was another Paramount Production, and the studio seems to have gone all out to tap every single taboo subject it could muster, gathering together a roster of the genre’s very best in order to do so the more effectively. Although “Freaks” had clearly turned off audiences, “Island of Lost Souls” in many ways feels like Paramount’s attempt to top Browning’s efforts to push the boundaries of sexual transgression and evolutionary mutability to new levels of outrage, despite gathering moral opprobrium and the increasing appetite for censorship that was by now gaining quite a forceful momentum. Director Erie C. Kenton is generally regarded as little more than an efficient journeyman (he would return to horror in the 1940s for Universal’s monster rallies “House of Dracula” and House of Frankenstein”), but he is surrounded, here, by masters of their art, and proves capable enough at the helm to enable him to effectively rally his troops into producing some quite astonishing work. Karl Strauss had previously shot the superbly atmospheric “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” for Mamoulian and, earlier, “Sunrise” for F.W. Murnau; and his work here conjures some fabulously rich, dark and velvety jungle settings contrived on Paramount’s Malibu back lot by art director Hans Dreier, complementing then with claustrophobic fogbound seascapes in exterior sequences shot on location on Catalina Island. Wally Westmore – the creator of the simian-like Mr Hyde – was back again to put together a hideous array of beast-men and misshapen man brute monstrosities for the picture, some of the most genuinely unsettling makeup work from the whole era. “Freaks” female star Leila Hyams was cast as the blonde, white female lead who eventually (and inevitably) attracts dark-skinned bestial attentions from some of the residents on the island in question; and to cement the connection between the two films, Browning’s long-time collaborator Waldemar Young was brought in to co-adapt the Wells novella on which the film was ultimately based.

Although it follows the general plot outline of Wells’ book reasonably closely, the great author of ‘scientific romances’ had little time for Paramount’s morbid efforts. His original story was more of a fable-like satire on colonialism than a febrile tale of sexual transgression, addressing issues of social conditioning, the morality of animal experimentation & vivisection, and the Darwinian social politics threatened by the possibility of the physical engineering of the natures of both man and animal. Clearly Darwin provides a basis for the book’s sad animal hybrids, but the dreamlike tale was never too concerned about scientific verisimilitude, although that was certainly not out of ignorance on Wells’ part. Indeed, the author had obtained a first class degree in biology after studying under the eminent Victorian naturalist and staunch supporter of Darwin’s theory, T.H. Huxley; and the very first piece of literature ever published under his name was a biology textbook, written while Wells was still a schoolmaster in 1893. The film’s referencing of Darwinian ideas concerning evolution is actually both far more explicit than the book’s while also being a gross distortion of them - designed to conflate the quasi-religious idea of man as the pinnacle of evolution’s predetermined program with Moreau’s megalomaniacal assumption of the position, like Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein in James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic (also released in 1931), of a God-like figure - fashioning his own brand of humanity from lower, primordial beings, then ruling over them with iron cast laws which attempt to force them into denying their animal origins. Barely eight years after the Scopes trial, in a country still riven by segregation and the social attitudes that sustained it “Island of Lost Souls” was by far the most overtly challenging of the pre-code horror pictures of the early 30s. To suggest that the boundaries separating man from the animals were no more fixed than those between the races was a particularly threatening idea when the latter was still impossible to accept for a large number of people. The film was banned outright until 1941 in the US, and then only rereleased after massive cuts were imposed by the MPPDA. But it wasn’t just the US which found it all too much, though: fourteen other countries banned the film in total, including the UK, where the BBFC, astonishingly, didn’t reverse its decision until as late as 1958 … and, even then, it still insisted that three scenes be trimmed! H.G. Wells was far from alone in his dislike of the movie.

Even the man whose performance possibly contributes the most to the film’s continued relevance today, Charles Laughton - who plays the mad experimenter as a clipped, plump, self-satisfied colonial overlord in a white linen suit and a panama hat – could never afterwards, according to his wife at the time (the future bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester), bring himself to enjoy a trip to the zoo again. ‘Hair was all over the place,’ said Laughton, recalling his experience of the Paramount set; ‘I was dreaming of hair. I even thought I had hair in my food!’

 The film begins much like the novel, with the survivor of a sunken ship, the Lady Vain, being hauled aboard a passing trading vessel in the middle of the South Seas. The Corvena is on its way back from Mombasa with its cargo hold full of animals, and is now bound for the mysterious uncharted island of Dr Moreau. Nursed back to health by Moreau’s on-board assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) [‘Yes, I am a doctor. Or at least I was … once upon a time.’] Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), awakes from a delirium to reveal that he’s due to be married any day now on one of the nearby south sea islands, and requests a cable be sent immediately to his expectant fiancée, Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) to reassure her of his safety and imminent arrival. However, after becoming involved in an altercation with the ship’s drunken Captain over the seaman’s poor treatment of one of his servile but odd-looking deck hands (who has furry dog-like ears!), Parker is beaten unconscious and tossed onto the deck of Moreau’s ship as it draws away from the Corvena, having just collected its strange cargo.

Although at first reluctant to accept responsibility for this unexpected and unwelcome guest, Moreau (Charles Laughton) suddenly becomes most hospitable and courteous (‘I’ve got something in mind,’ he whispers, in a fiendish aside to a dubious Montgomery) and introduces Parker to his large manorial white-brick home, which sits deeply ensconced within overgrown island jungle foliage out of which peer curious misshapen natives with animal-like feature that Moreau confidently sends scuttling back into the undergrowth with periodic cracks of his bull-whip. Inside, Parker is introduced to and encouraged to spend his days associating with, an attractive young, dusky-skinned native woman called Lota (Kathleen Burke), but is disgusted and distressed when he hears screams of anguish emitting from a locked dungeon-like room the other more bestial natives call ‘the House of Pain’. Moreau explains that all of the jungle dwellers and even his servants, such as the hound-like M’Ling (Tetsu Komai), actually started out as various assortments of animal life which have subsequently been made to take on a human shape through a combination of genetic experimentation and Moreau’s special surgical interventions. The beasts have been given the ability to speak thanks to experiments on their brains, and are encouraged to live like humans by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi – only a year on from “Dracula” and now almost unrecognisable underneath copious yak hair makeup): a wolf-human who gets to wear decent white mans’ clothes for encouraging his beast-man peers not to run on all fours, not to eat meat and not to spill blood after gathering them round the jungle fire for a nightly ritual chant of ‘are we not men?’ Parker eventually realises that the beautiful Lota is also one of these creations, an untutored feline fashioned from wild black panther stock. It becomes clear to Parker that Moreau has no intention of letting him leave until he has contributed as only a man could contribute to Moreau’s obsessive genetic tinkering by helping him to prove that Lota can attract a man, fall in love with him and even breed with him like a real woman. However, when Parker’s intended wife Ruth also turns up on the island, having traced his whereabouts and commissioned a schooner to get there with the help of the American consulate, Moreau’s experimental breeding programme takes an even more shocking turn as the dastardly scientist arranges for grinning troglodyte beast-man Ouran (Hans Steinke) to pay Ruth a bedtime visit she won’t forget in a hurry!  

If you go back and reread Wells’ original story today, you probably won’t notice a great deal of emphasis in it on inter-species sex! But the theme is omnipresent in the movie through a confluence of ideas embodied in the two principle male leads. A perverse distortion of Darwin’s theory is evinced by Laughton’s portrayal of Moreau, through the character’s colonialist’s assumption of western man’s prime place atop the tree of evolution, and is set side by side a troubling Freudian “return of the repressed” reading of the Edward Parker character, as played by Richard Arlen.

Both themes are hinted at from the very earliest scenes of the film: after Parker is brought aboard the Corvena he is delirious and animal-like in his sickness, eyes wide and staring, and teeth barred as though to subtly demonstrate from the off the animal nature of this civilised man when his conscious defences are down. Parker is soon restored to ‘normal’ by Montgomery, and assumes his place with the other sophisticated western passengers: strolling the decks clean-shaven and in crisp, freshly pressed ship’s whites. But after Montgomery leaves Parker’s cabin that first time, having woken him from his initial delirium to inform the survivor of his whereabouts and of the cargo ship’s ultimate destination, there’s a telling cut which sums up the film’s major thematic concerns. As Moreau’s assistant opens the cabin door, the sound of animals howling and barking from the cargo hold seeps into the room, invading Parker’s consciousness. The action then switches to the island of Apia, outside the western Administration building where Parker’s fiancée Ruth is waiting for news of survivors from the Lady Vain wreck. The soundtrack fades from that of the sound of the rabble of animal noises on-board the Corvena into the sound of native babble and the incomprehensible chatter of foreign voices, as Ruth discovers her husband-to-be has survived and then retires, relieved, to the Hotel Continental opposite. As the camera tracks her progress, it passes across a relatively unremarkable background scene made up of huddles of dark-skinned native female Polynesians amid the occasional rich-looking white male westerner, the latter wearing the usual uniform of white linen suit and either a pith helmet or a panama. On first acquaintance the viewer may not think anything of this, but after Laughton’s first appearance it soon takes on more troubling associations.

Laughton’s Dr Moreau is no ordinary mad scientist. He’s a parody of western colonialism - and Moreau’s take on Darwinism is a twisted, utterly garbled variety that is indicative of nineteenth and early twentieth century colonialism’s superiority complex. Visually, he couldn’t look more genteel and courtly in his white suit and panama, despite a strangely artificial-looking forked beard that introduces the taint of Mephistopheles to his pudgy face. As he leads Parker through the jungle, sauntering along and issuing an automatic flick of the whip whenever one of the shadowy figures lurking in the trees or behind the thick foliage gets too close and needs to be warned off, Moreau casually points out interesting geological formations in clipped upper crust tones like a dilettante collector of natural rocks, and gives a summary of the Island’s biogeography, founded on the fecundity of its volcanic dust and the seeds which have blown in on the wind or been picked up by seabirds. Moreau’s account of his experiments on the island next goes in a decidedly unorthodox direction though: he has apparently found a way to ‘accelerate evolution’, skipping over intermediate steps and creating in the present a version of what orchids or asparagus will be like 100,000 years from the present. If the idea that every species of plant and animal has an evolutionary path that’s pre-determined and which can be anticipated through artificial breeding isn’t enough to make Stephen J. Gould flip somersaults in his grave, then Moreau’s next assertion will surely do it. ‘Man is the present climax of a long process of organic evolution,’ he asserts. And then the whopper: ‘… and all animal life is tending toward the human form!’

So, Moreau’s beast-men, with their distorted, lopsided physiognomies, their shuffling half-human gaits and their guttural grunts and barely recognisable bayings are supposed to anticipate what their animal antecedents were always destined to eventually evolve into anyway, only brought nearer to the perfect pinnacle of the human form they were destined for by Moreau’s early intervention! The fact that these ‘brutes’ are at first mistaken by Parker for natives, and most are played by dark skinned actors, makes their existence and their inferior treatment in Moreau’s self-made colonial enclave all too readily identifiable with the still prevalent assumption at that time that white western man was the peak of evolution and that the ‘savages’ and darker races belonged on a lower rung, only just above the rest of the animal world. Moreau has set himself up as Colonial overlord in this little westernised mansion paradise of his and the parallel with those early scenes on Apia begin to tell when we consider his unequal relationship with the beast-men. Furthermore, since he’s actually created every class and “race” of ‘human’ on the island, his position becomes indistinguishable from that of being a god, which only sends him further over the edge into twitchy mania. Laughton is at his finest in the film when revelling in the hubristic absurdities of Moreau’s position as vivisectionist-cum-colonial tyrant overlord: as he describes to Parker his pride at having created in his animal-men the power of ‘articulate speech, controlled by the brain’, he lolls back nonchalantly (but supremely awkwardly) on his vivisectionist’s operating bench as though it were a divan in a Victorian drawing room; although he’s entirely alone on the island (apart from Montgomery and the weird artificially constructed beasts of the jungle) Moreau still keeps up the pretence of a westernised lifestyle, taking afternoon tea alone in his quarters and sipping from a dainty bone china teacup. Moreau’s rule, then, is modelled on a surreal mixture of the God of the Old Testament and a brutal colonial administrator – his failed experimental subjects are used as slaves on a treadmill that provides the power for the turbines that create the electricity he needs for his lab equipment; when the beast rabble inhabiting the jungle becomes excited by the presence of more white people who look like their master, Moreau retains control by standing astride an outcrop on a cliff, dressed in his customary white suit while cracking his bull-whip and extorting the cowering creatures to kneel and repeat ‘the Law’.

But one can’t help coming to the conclusion that Moreau’s colonial biologism also cloaks a troubling obsession with sex alongside its insistence on total social and behavioural domination over its subjects, a goal that is obtained with the aid of Pavlovian conditioning and the routine infliction of pain. No wonder then that his creations take after his own image. The man-brutes become personified emblems of Moreau’s own sexuality - much like Hyde is portrayed as the raw, primitive sexual embodiment of Dr Jekyll’s Victorian repression in Stevenson’s tale. The hulking troglodyte brute, played by Hans Steinkehe, who he tries to force on Ruth as part of the film’s climactic round of animal rape transgression, is rarely without a mocking grin fixed upon its ape-like features; a grin that uncannily mimics Moreau’s own cloying smirk which appears when Laughton’s portrayal allows the character to reflect on the ‘brilliance’ of his scientific endeavour.

These endeavours are fixated on the need to create a breeding race of his manimals; yet Moreau, tellingly, has only been successful in creating one female specimen. In fact, the striking ‘Panther Woman’ is the only female on the island – a piece of information Moreau takes special care to emphasise when he introduces Lota to Edward Parker soon after his arrival. Lota was played by nineteen-year-old former fashion model, Kathleen Burke, whose brief Hollywood career afterwards floundered on a succession of exotic temptress roles after a follow-up appearance in the horror film “Murders in the Zoo”; but her distinctive looks were perfect for this film: Burke’s exotic appeal, calculated to reach the male audience members, plays on her dusky native looks and their association with a guileless, uncomplicated form of female sexuality. Parker is clearly enchanted by Lota in the same raw way male audience members could undoubtedly also be expected to be, but the revelation that she isn’t human (which comes when her talons dig into Parker’s back during a poolside clinch on the grounds of Moreau’s estate), also plays on racist ideas of miscegenation (Kim Newman point out that the idea of a Polynesian woman having sex with the white hero was transgressive enough for many audiences at the time anyway). Parker is disgusted by the idea that he has almost been tempted away from his fiancé by a non-human; the repressed beast side of his own nature (the one glimpsed during his delirium after he was first fished from the sea) has been revealed fully during this episode; but perhaps the most disturbing thing about the relationship is that Moreau is surely right to presume that by stranding Parker on the island for long enough without any other female company apart from Lota, ‘time and monotony’ will surly eventually lead ‘nature’ to take its course, just as he intended.

Moreau’s attempts to encourage a sexual relationship between Lota and Parker are played with a campy relish by Laughton, who acts like a creepy uncle (‘I’ll just leave you two young people together’) when he introduces the two and then retires to peep on them from the shadows of his mansion. The re-emergence of Lota’s animal claws is as much a symbol of Man’s own persisting beast nature, a nature which Moreau’s various attempts to eradicate have always been met with failure. ‘The stubborn beast flesh … always creeping back!’ bemoans the doctor when he catches sight of sultry Lota’s animal inheritance; but he’s reinvigorated when she suddenly begins to cry at the prospect of the loss of Parker’s affections, because such emotional suffering is a sign of humanity; Laughton brings about the film’s most chilling moment when he registers elation at the sight of Lota’s distress: ‘She’s the first of them to shed tears!’ he shouts excitedly to Montgomery; ‘prepare the theatre … I’ll burn all the rest of the animal out of her!’

Moreau’s insipient madness is also already existent in his creations of course, and when the law against spilling blood is seen to be a hollow one after Moreau secretly commands one of his beast-men to murder the sailor, Donahue (Paul Hurst), who brought Ruth to his Island, the misshapen horde need little else to encourage them into rising up and turning on their creator in classic angry mob style, breaking into his cabinet of surgical instruments in the House of Pain and subjecting Moreau to one of 1930s horror’s most suggestively grisly scenes as they inexpertly wield scalpels and knives against him on his own vivisection table. The almost casual way in which the film’s screenplay combines such an unhealthy array of taboo subjects with such relish, and the restrained expressionistic beauty with which the production team are able to realise it all under Erle C. Kenton’s stewardship, makes this still one of greatest of all fright flicks from the period - still effective for its disturbing imagery, Laughton’s camp but nuanced performance and the succession of subversive nightmare vignettes that weave together to make a still compellingly vital piece of Hollywood monster mania.

 As the accompanying booklet makes explicit, the original negative of “Island of Lost Souls” no longer survives. This new high-definition master was supplied by Universal and created from three separate source elements – a 35mm fine-grain master positive, a 35mm nitrate positive, and a 16mm screening print. Each was scanned in high-definition, then reassembled, utilising either the longest or best quality version of each scene, to create the most complete version ever to appear on home video. This composite was then extensively digitally restored to remove and reduce jitter, flicker, tears, warps, dirt, and scratches where possible without unduly affecting the original nature of the image. The soundtrack was remastered and digitally restored from a combination of the best available elements – the 16mm screening print and 35mm nitrate source. Despite the occasional variation in quality, for the most part this still looks surprisingly rich and detailed in HD especially once we leave the foggy sea exteriors and find our way to Moreau’s jungle home, which is where the transfer comes into its own when reproducing the flora and foliage of this haven of horrors, and the deep velvety shadows that lie in-between.

The included handful of disc extras may not be all that lengthy, but they’re excellent all the same: Charles Laughton’s biographer, the actor Simon Callow, is the host of a 12 minute video piece in which he talks eloquently about Laughton’s fine performance in the film. This is very much a personal appreciation though; it’s left to critic and author of the essential “American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema”, Jonathan Rigby, to provide a concise and extremely erudite summation of the circumstances surrounding the film’s production, its influences and its reception, as well as a characteristically astute assessment of its virtues, in his own 15 minute talk, which is accompanied by well-chosen production and behind the scenes snaps. Rounding off this excellent release is the traditional Master of Cinema booklet, resplendent as it is in its assortment of portraits and production snaps (including the test monster makeups of Wally Westmore, many of which look considerably more bizarre than those that made it into the film), this provides a beautifully adorned home for a fine essay by Kim Newman, which looks at the Hollywood backdrop to the horror boom of the pre-Code 1930s, before going on to examine the film itself with Newman’s habitual well-written elegance.

“Island of Lost Souls” continues to beguile and bewitch with its hothouse jungle atmospherics and strange, transgressive imagery and subject matter. Eureka Entertainment’s new duel-format release is an essential purchase for any horror fan who has a love of the genre’s rich history. Highly recommended.

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