June 29, 2011

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Creator of immortal classics of modern literature such as "The War of the Worlds" and "The Time Machine", author H. G. Wells is without a doubt one of the most important writers of science fiction in history. Amongs his varied output, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" stands as one of his darkest "scientific romances", not only because of the horrific experiments it details, but also because of the complex personalities of complexities of its characters. Though officially adapted to cinema on just three occasions, many other "apocryphal versions" have been done about Dr. Moreau and his creations, as the novel continues to capture the imaginations with its dark pessimist tone, its theme of "nature versus nurture", and the horrors it contains. The first official film adaptation of the sound era, 1932's "Island of Lost Souls", is a film that takes a very strong focus on the horror side of the novel, something that Wells himself decidedly disapproved. However, it is this particular focus what makes "Island of the Lost Souls" a real classic of the horror genre.

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.



cinemarchaeologist said...

This is a great, twisted little piece of work. There were a few pre-Code horror flicks like this. They feel like the lurid pulp fiction of the era. Even that poster image you used looks like a pulp cover (as does a lot of the imagery in the film itself). If it had been proposed as a film only a year or two later, it wouldn't have been possible to make it, nor would it have been possible for a few decades after that.

It's as good as the best of the much-better-known and more successful Universal horrors (and I'm a die-hard fan of those, too), and deserves a much wider audience. It's a crime against not only the film but against cinema itself that DVD has, so far, passed it over.

Like THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (which is also excellent), ISLAND OF LOST SOULS feels a lot like an Jesus Franco movie, decades before there was any such thing (probably because this is the stuff Franco was watching as a kid).

J Luis Rivera said...

Yeah, those sci-fi/horror films have that pulp fiction style that to me is irresistible. Have you seen "Murders at the Zoo"? Pretty much the same style.

I've never seen any Jess Franco film, but you have piqued my interest. Where could I start?

cinemarchaeologist said...

I've never seen MURDERS IN THE ZOO. It was a pretty obscure movie before its DVD incarnation.

Jess Franco is a huge subject (something in the neighborhood of 200 pictures he's directed), and it's always hard to know what to recommend to someone new to it.

I suppose a good place to start is THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF (I always preferred the original Spanish title GRITOS EN LA NOCHE, but OROLOF is the one that seems to have stuck). It was his first horror flick, the first Spanish horror movie (the Franco regime wasn't very fond of such material), and it launched an entire subgenre that spread throughout the Spanish-language world for a few decades. It's tame compared to a lot of Franco's later work, but quite radical for its time--lots of crazy camera angles, lurid, pulpy subject-matter, musical choices that seem totally inappropriate but that work like a charm. Franco's sympathies are always with his monsters, not the "normal" characters, and pretty much every scene with the obligatory investigator is a waste (Franco wears his boredom on his sleeve like few directors you'll ever see).

Franco becomes a lot more radical with his films as he goes along; if you want to see something representative of what he does best, I suppose VENUS IN FURS is as good a place to start as any. It's like the Twilight Zone crossed with Cornell Woolrich, left to sit in a marinade of sex, jazz, and psychedelica. Love it.

If I may be allowed to toot my own horn, I've written, a few times, about Franco--one of my favorites--over on my own little corner of the internet. One piece, which I started to write to defend him against charges of hackery, ended up being a sort of primer on his work: