June 29, 2011
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The movie begins when traveler Edward Packer (Richard Arlen) finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Rescued by a freighter, Packer gets into a fight with the Captain (Stanley Fields) while the boat is delivering cargo to the island of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a scientist conducting a secretive research in the tropics. The captain resolves to leave Packer in the island, so he ends up making a forced stay at Moreau's installations. Following Moreau's and his associate Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), Packer is invited to dinner, where he meets Lota (Kathleen Burke), a beautiful woman who seems very interested in him. However, soon Packer discovers Moreau's "House of Pain", where he finds a humanoid monster receiving surgery from Moreau and Montgomery. Packer tries to escape, but he finds himself surrounded by other monstrosities, humanoid figures with animal features. Saved by Moreau, Packer begins to realize what is going on in the mysterious island, where Moreau is a God and the animal-men follow his law.
Writers Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie crafted the screenplay, in what could be seen as the passing of the torch from the seasoned veteran Young to débutant Wylie (who later would pen several science fiction classics). Young and Wylie's take on Wells' novel is decidedly one based on the horror aspects of the tale, making Packer's venture into the island of Dr. Moreau quite a nightmarish one. Written in the days before the enforcement of the Hays code, "Island of Lost Souls" implies a fair amount of grizzly violence and disturbing imagery, as well as a good dose of eroticism. While indeed it could be stated that the story has been simplified and the characters reduced to archetypes, the essence of the story remains intact, with Dr. Moreau being more complex than a mere mad scientist. Moreau's obsessive dedication to science and quest for perfection is in sharp contrast with his cruelty, and his fascination with being a God gives the movie a quite interesting point regarding similarly minded totalitarian rulers.
Director Erle C. Kenton crafts his movie with an effective mix of sober elegance and an aggressive, visually arresting style that is quite unlike anything else he ever directed. With an ominous, haunting atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Karl Struss (who had previously done a masterful work in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1931), the movie has an increasingly nightmarish, almost surreal look as Packer enters the island and discovers its secrets. Taking advantage of the jungle setting, Kenton crafts a nightmare where the jungle is set to represent the savage nature of the beast, the wild nature that Moreau is trying to suppress in everyone of this creations but that lays dormant in each and every one of the animal-men. In "Island of Lost Souls" the jungle is a dark beast that preys and devours the sanity of Moreau, whom Kenton makes perhaps less the scientist of H. G. Wells and more the self-proclaimed God of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". The make-up, by Wally Westmore, is effective for the most part, though Struss lighting is what makes it work nicely.
However, "Island of Lost Souls" would not be the same without one person: Charles Laughton, whom in this movie, one of hist first American films, demonstrates his enormous talent. As Dr. Moreau, Laughton crafts a complex character that, while at first sight seems like a jungle variant of mad scientist archetype, is actually much more than that. Classy and elegant, yet viciously cruel and aggressive, his Dr. Moreau is quite vivid and intense, and his powerful presence can be feel through the island even when Laughton is not on-screen. As Packer, Richard Arlen is not really a match for Laughton, and is easily the weakest link in the cast. Arlen plays the handsome hero in a very basic manner, which at least this time works, as the inhabitants of the island are much more interesting than his character. As Lota, Kathleen Burke is quite effective, appropriately sexy and owner of a wild eroticism that's perhaps better used in "Murder at the Zoo". As the Sayer of the Law appears Bela Lugosi, whom despite having limited screen presence completely owns some of the best scenes in the film.
While a flexible filmmaker, Kenton was more adept to making comedies than serious horror (even the rest of his horror output always verged towards comedy in some way); however, "Island of Lost Souls" is a powerful tale of horror and madness by its own right, eerily disturbing and full of unforgettable scenes. An interesting feature of "Island of Lost Souls" is how purely visual it is, not merely as a collection of disturbing or shocking images, but as a visual trip through a nightmare. The intensity that Laughton and Lugosi bring to their characters is so powerful, that even without sound their strength is felt. Kenton began his career directing silent films, and that background can be seen put in action in "Island of Lost Souls", blending that visual style captured by Strauss with the strong performances of the cast. And on this subject, whereas it could be said that Laughton overacts, his work is perfectly appropriate, as it goes well with the character's Victorian elegance and self-made image of God and ruler of his island.
Less famous than the horror films made by Universal in the same decade, but no less interesting, "Island of Lost Souls" stands as a masterful display of 30s horror and pre-Hays code filmmaking. The eroticism inherent in the film, though perhaps less suggestive that the one found in the afore mentioned "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" or "Murders in the Zoo", is in the film an intrinsic part of the plot, relating it to the wild nature that is present in the human being. Along with the diverse examples of violence in the film (in which Moreau, a human, ends up as crueler than the animal-men), one wonders if perhaps H. G. Wells was wrong in his statement that the film lacked his philosophical ponderings. In my opinion, they are there, under the guise of a very different though no less magnificent beast.