It’s hard to imagine that a movie made over 80 years ago could still be as frightening as it was when it was released. In a time when shockers like those of the Human Centipede ilk can repulse and revolt, it’s easy to write off a 70-minute black and white picture from 1932 as irrelevant or out of date… but that would be a travesty. During the horror heyday of pre-Code Hollywood, some of the most innovative and most boundary-pushing films were produced. Universal made a name for itself with Gothic horror pieces like Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein, and soon other studios wanted to jump on the horror bandwagon.
The following year, two of the most controversial scare pictures of all time were produced. The first was Browning’s Freaks released by MGM depicted real people with real physical deformities, something which would never be allowed today. The film was banned in several countries, though it has been available now on DVD for some time. The other film just got a release on disc a few years ago and is still considered one of the most controversial films of all time: Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls. What’s fascinating about this picture is that it manages to offend and shock purely through suggestion and situation. In truth, it’s one of the most effective films of its kind ever produced.
Based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls tells the story of a shipwrecked man, Parker (Richard Arlen), who is picked up by a passing ship carrying wild animals. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) tells Parker they’re for research he and his boss are conducting. After a scuffle with the ship’s captain, Parker is thrown overboard onto the boat of Montgomery’s boss, the mysterious Dr. Moreau, played with sinister, sadistic glee by the great Charles Laughton. Moreau takes Parker to his island where he lives in a lavish mansion and does some sort of scientific work with animals. Parker notices that the natives on this island are all hairier than usual and have strange physical characteristics. Moreau seems to have some ulterior motive for bringing Parker to his island and introduces the young man to Lota, the only woman on the island, whom Moreau claims is a “pure Polynesian.” There is something strange about Lota, though Parker cannot tell what. Eventually, Parker hears horrible screams coming from Moreau’s lab, which Lota calls “The House of Pain,” and Parker soon learns the horrible truth: that Moreau is experimenting on animals in order to make them human.
The central conceit, blurring the line between men and beasts, is still strong today. What makes humans sentient and not animals? Is it just as simple as a little bit of surgery? The film’s title references the crux of the issue: whether or not animals have souls. Dr. Moreau rather glibly compares himself to God as he says humanity is the endpoint of thousands of years of evolution and that he is merely speeding up time. One wonders, though, if Moreau actually succeeded the way he wanted, he’d treat any living creature humanely; certainly he seems to have little regard for them. Laughton prances around the screen with an impish energy and a truly unsettling demeanor, something I submit only Laughton himself could have accomplished.
Moreau’s island is full of “failed” experiments, all of whom are beasts that can think. Like Moses bringing the Ten Commandments from the mountain, Moreau stands over the encampment of his creations and reminds them of the law – HIS law. The leader of these poor creatures is the Sayer of the Law, played by the legendary Bela Lugosi, who constantly repeats the mantra, “Are we not men?” There is also the Dr’s fiendish plot to see if Parker would mate with Lota, not knowing she is in fact a panther woman. Failing that, Moreau plans to have one of his hulking creations attempt to rape and impregnate Parker’s fiancé when she arrives to rescue him. It was this implication of bestiality, as well as the remorseless blasphemy, that caused the film to be banned outright in several countries, including Great Britain, and to be cut severely in several other markets.
I’m going to remind you all that this was 1932 when all of this was happening. Moreau’s experiments are presented as horrifying and inhumane, surely, but also as a thing that’s just happening. The menace surrounding all of his actions and the actions of the animal-men he’s created is thick throughout the film, and leaves the audience in a constant state of unease. We know, or at least can guess, pretty early on that Lota is indeed a woman who is an animal and Moreau’s constant attempts to make her mate with a human are akin to watching Hannibal and knowing that our heroes are PROBABLY eating human beings and not realizing it at all. The defying, subverting, and perverting of nature is a sure way to scandalize and audience, and surely it did in the days when Herbert Hoover was still president.
Island of Lost Souls is a fantastic film, and one that likely would not be seen by anyone if not for Criterion. The ideas and themes brought up are still way ahead of their time. This is real horror that is handled most effectively. Laughton and Lugosi are brilliant and terrifying in their own separate ways and the rest of the cast is quite good as well. This is a must for any fan of film history, horror films, pre-Code films, and of a good story told well. There is perhaps no more disturbing and affecting a scene as when the failed experiments all turn against Moreau and come and attack him. All of this in a movie shorter than two episodes of modern drama television. Watch it right now.