There are numerous underrated or forgotten horror classics from yesteryear. While many will rewatch great classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, few will attempt to look much further. One such “lost” movie is the horror classic, THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS starring the inimitable, Charles Laughton as the cold, soulless Victor Frankenstein-like Dr. Moreau. As the star of this movie, Laughton is amazing but it’s the darkness that quietly impresses. A horror film noir, its shadows and blackness create a mood that is sinister in all aspects. The movie is perfect in black and white. Genre fans should occasionally “cleanse their palates” of modern horror and CGI to appreciate the older foundations of the genre.
In this movie adaptation of H.G. Wells 1896 book, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, Edward Parker (played by Richard Arlen), our hero, is floating on the sea after an unseen shipwreck. He is rescued by the ‘Covena’, a ship carrying a strange cargo of animals to a little known island with peculiar inhabitants. Going to the aid of a strange looking man being abused by the drunkard of a captain, he pays the price by unceremoniously being dumped onto the vessel owned by resident mad scientist, Dr. Moreau. The doctor initially agrees to send him back on his way to his fiance' the following morning. However, as Parker spends the evening with Moreau and friends, including meeting the exotic Lota, Moreau gets an idea that starts the plot rolling.
Parker discovers that the misshapen natives of the island are actually animals made “human” by the hand of a soulless genius. He runs to anguished screams to find Moreau performing surgery, evidently without anesthesia, on what Parker first thinks is a man.The doctor explains his work, experimenting with animals to make them human. Moreau, for his part, has gotten a new idea. He has decided to try a new experiment and mate the unsuspecting Parker with his greatest creation, the beautiful Lota (played by Kathleen Burke ) who was “remade” from her natural existence as a panther. This attempt fails when during an intimate moment, Parker realizes that Lota is another of the evil doctors creations. For her part Lota has fallen in love with the human. Parkers fiance', searching for her lost betrothed, finds the island which then sets a new plan in motion. Moreau decides to have one of his creatures, Ouran, rape and potentially impregnate his new guest. When this fails and Parker decides to get off the island and seek help, Moreau sends Ouran to kill the captain. However, in an attempt to “train” his creations from their predatory instincts the doctor has created laws, one of which is “not to spill blood. . . . are we not men!”
These laws are ceremoniously repeated to his creations by their leader, the Sayer of the Law (played by horror icon Bela Lugosi). The array of beast men have all been created in an operating room edifice called The House of Pain and throughout the movie, intermittent screams of fear and pain are heard from the House. The Laws are created to make them more “human” and live in peace. The doctor’s breaking of the law becomes his undoing. The plot has assorted acts of subterfuge that start to fall like a house of cards leading to the movies climax.
It should be noted that Wells hated the movie. He thought it had too many aspects of horror, which for us horror fans is not a bad thing. The movie, like FRANKENSTEIN, played to the theme of man obsessed to become like God and break the bonds of creation. Laughton is incredible in this role. He is a scientific sociopath, free of conscience, empathy or sympathy. Charming and playful one minute and cruel and scheming the next.
The movie was considered very controversial. It was banned in many countries and edited to the extreme in other countries, as well as in several states. It made the British list of banned movies for being “against nature”. This was in reference to both the God theme and the concept of animal/human mating. The concept of human/animal experimentation was also a sore point and the Anti-Vivisection League protested the movie.
I love the look and feel of the movie. It is a feast for the eyes and incredible in creating a sinister mood of apprehension. Scenes of people and things running and their huge shadows chasing after them, the ripple of a pond and the reflection of those ripples glittering on the wall, the hulking Ouran looking up and leering at Parkers fiance', Ruth (Leila Hyams) as she prepares for bed, the scene dark and threatening with the lush jungle around them and the obvious seeming safety of her room, like peering from hell through a window into heaven for the lurking brute. Incredible visuals that take advantage of the use of light and darkness in its black and white. When looking at the creature colony, flames all around, it’s a hellish scene beautifully framed.
In its original script, Lota had at one time ripped a suitor apart so Moreau wanted her to meet Parker as he was new to the island and didn’t make her feel threatened. Moreau also wanted to kill Parker and remove his face and put it on one of his creations to make accepting him easier for fiance' Ruth. These plot turns were not accepted as being too extreme back in the 30's but sound like an interesting plot concept in modern times with modern sensibilities. One would think that with the lesser quality of subsequent remakes, the writers would have taken advantage of these ideas and used them to make a different version.
The Panther woman was not in the Wells novel. I think she was a great character invention as towards the end of the movie, she does something that seems to make the point that she, even as a “thing”, had more humanity than the humans who experimented on her. As a side note, the Panther Woman actress was picked after a nationwide search for an unknown to portray the character. Women from all over the country in all lines of work, competed to be chosen for the part and Paramount used the publicity to trumpet the movie.
Cool trivia to note: if you watch carefully, during scenes where the beast men turn on Moreau, one sets another’s hair on fire with his torch and can be seen quickly patting it out. Also, the films dialogue is the origin of the phrase “the natives are restless tonight.”
I love this movie. Its one that I think stands up well particularly in the incredible, uncut restoration from Criterion. The visuals are incredibly moody, from shadows to fogs to beast men, they are great to look at. The dialogue is well written, and the acting can’t be beat. Laughton is an amazing treat to watch. The subsequent remakes are forgettable while this is not. Remembering that this is a 1932 film, one can easily see that much of modern horror currently pales in comparison. You can never go wrong with the classics.