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Island Of Lost Souls (1932)
Director: Erle C. Kenton

review by J.C. Hartley

This is a film version of the 1896 novel The Island Of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells, in which the eponymous physiologist experiments to transform animals into human beings. It is a very disturbing book, made more so by its episodic structure. Moreau's creations, bestial hybrids with human characteristics, their behaviour constrained by fear of their creator and a flimsy code of ethics, conform to Freud's definition of the uncanny, which lurches into psychic disturbance engendered by an encounter with the unfamiliar where one should expect familiarity.

Inevitably, as with so much of Wells' work, the book has spawned its share of creative after lives. There are a clutch of film versions, including the film-shoot from hell that was the 1996 offering, directed by John Frankenheimer while warring with stars Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Elsewhere, surely Moreau's creations influenced Marvel Comics' Ani-Men, and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's itinerant geneticist the High Evolutionary, with his beast-men constrained by an Arthurian chivalric code as the Knights of Wundagore. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill featured Dr Moreau in volume II of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, his evolved animals including Alfred E. Bestall's Rupert Bear and Kenneth Grahame's Toad, a comment perhaps on the late-Victorian fad for anthropomorphism.

With its themes of degeneracy and vivisection Wells' novel was a mirror of contemporary concerns rather than a piece of prescient writing. Degeneracy was a social theory developed as an adjunct to evolution, the belief that the human race might lapse into a devolved form or be superseded by a more evolved race. Wells had his own theories on the future of humanity, being a supporter of eugenics, not by selective breeding for improvement but by the 'sterilisation of failure'; something of an arbitrary distinction. As the novelist Hugh Walpole quoted Joseph Conrad's argument with Wells, "You don't care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity but know they are not!"

So what of Moreau? He 'improves' animals to evolve them into humans, and binds them with a code of ethics, whereby they must resist their instincts, to eat meat and spill blood. But Moreau's creations continually degenerate and slip back into their beast nature. Is this Wells vision of humanity? A pessimistic outlook on humanity's future, without even the small shred of hope that comes at the end of The Time Machine, that, "gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man"?

Re-titled for this cinematic outing, the film is fairly faithful to the book, although Wells disliked it, feeling much of the philosophy had been lost. Also there is the inclusion of 'the panther woman' Lota (Kathleen Burke) to add a bit of sex, the hero's fiancée Ruth to create a love triangle, which goes unexplored but allows for even more sex through the threat of rape. Wells presumably would be happy that the film was eventually banned in England, banned not for its overt horror content or the sexual shenanigans, but inevitably it seems for the theme of cruelty to animals. The film finally got an X certificate in the year of my birth, some 25 years after release; I vaguely remember some television news item with a clip from the film some time after that.

Richard Arlen plays Edward Parker (in the novel, he's Edward Prendick; too much of a mouthful? sorry), the only survivor of a shipwreck, rescued by a freighter and revived by a passenger named Montgomery. The freighter is taking a cargo of assorted wild animals to an uncharted island. After earning the ire of the ship's captain by punishing the latter's abuse of Montgomery's curiously deformed servant, Parker finds himself bundled overboard into Montgomery's boat when the latter is met at sea by his employer Dr Moreau. Moreau is initially suspicious of Parker but by the time they reach his domain he has hatched a plan.

Moreau confides to Montgomery that he wishes Parker to meet Lota whom he introduces as his female protégé, a native of the islands. It is only when Parker hears terrible screams that he eventually discovers that Moreau and Montgomery, the latter himself a medical practitioner wanted by the police in London, one assumes for illegal abortions, are conducting experiments transforming animals into humans. Lota is Moreau's most successful creation, beautiful if quirky, with panther claws, but with the power of speech and, potentially, female human emotions. It is Moreau's plan to use Parker to trigger these emotions in Lota, and to use Lota's obvious charms to encourage the pair to mate.

Escaping Moreau's compound, Parker stumbles upon a village of Moreau's beast-men, earlier experiments displaying varying degrees of success. Under the leadership of the 'Sayer of the Law', a sort of village headman played by Bela 'Dracula' Lugosi - as Universal saw fit to credit him, the hybrids are constrained by a code whereby they forebear to walk on all fours, eat meat, or spill blood. Their cry of "are we not men?" has a pop-cultural resonance to rival the "gobble, gobble," and "one of us," of Todd Browning's Freaks.

When rescued by the freighter, Parker was able to send a wire to the mainland, and now his resourceful fiancée Ruth arrives in the care of amiable soak Captain Donahue. Foiled by Parker's resistance to Lota's charms and his abhorrence for Moreau's work, the latter sees another means to obtain offspring from the coupling of a human and one of his creations. He allows Ouran, presumably a brutishly developed orang-utan, entrance to the compound where the creature attempts to gain entry to Ruth's room. Having foiled the attempted rape, Parker, with Montgomery's help, organises an escape but Moreau suspends 'the law' and sets Ouran to kill Donahue. When Ouran reveals his actions to the other beast-men, they declare that there is 'no more law' and attack the compound, killing Moreau with his own medical instruments in the process. Lota kills Ouran to save Parker and he escapes with Ruth as the island burns.

There are two little essays to camera on the disc, one from the actor, writer, and Charles Laughton's biographer, Simon Callow; and one from horror critic and historian Jonathan Rigby. It has to be said Rigby's is the more fluent and interesting piece. Callow flounders a bit. He seems to be thinking on his feet and often overstates Laughton's case. Remarkably, he ignores what seems like a gift to the critic, a possible homosexual subtext as explored by both Ivan Canadas in an article on the novel and by Phillip R. Fagan in his film blog. Fagan suggests that Laughton's Moreau has designs on Parker himself, and there is indeed a wonderful little scene between the two characters early on where Laughton's doctor perches coquettishly on the very brink of his operating table his legs crossed coyly at the ankles.

Prior to the making of The Island Of Lost Souls, Laughton had appeared on stage in London, in an adaptation of Hugh Walpole's macabre 'shocker' A Portrait Of A Man With Red Hair, in which he played Crispin, the rich, sexually tormented sadist who believed that through torture he could become god-like. It is fair to say that Laughton may have channelled some of the Crispin character into Moreau, the beautifully modulated voice and the ambitions of divinity; Moreau's question "Do you know what it means to feel like God?", that caused such distress with the censors, seems to echo the character of Crispin. In appearance, Laughton manages to resemble both the young H.G. Wells and the young Harold Wilson!

While only Laughton's performance stands out, Paul Hurst provides some comic relief as the bibulous Captain Donahue, and Arthur Hohl effectively communicates Montgomery's conflicted impulses. Kathleen Burke was a dental nurse who won a national competition to play Lota, going on to make about 20 films in a six-year career before her retirement aged 25. The film was co-written by the pulp SF author Phillip Gordon Wylie, famous for When Worlds Collide, and the creation of The Gladiator (1938) a human given powers of great strength and invulnerability by a serum administered to his pregnant mother, and his book is generally regarded as one of the sources for Siegel and Shuster's Superman.

Wylie's career would suggest an interest in the philosophy behind Wells' novel, and while obviously the horror had to take centre stage, certainly the script is literate, and despite the preposterousness of the proposition the characters can express themselves with conviction; listen up George Lucas! Lugosi, in weird make-up, is striking as the sayer of the law, but his performance suffered in my eyes by reminding me of Spike Milligan. The Internet Movie Database lists a whole catalogue of actors who might be beast-men, including Buster Crabbe and Alan Ladd; but cannot corroborate.

Kenton did a few 'House of...' horrors for Universal; Callow suggests alternative directors while acknowledging Kenton made a reasonable job of it. I wondered if the material might have suited Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton but it would be another ten years before Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, and The Leopard Man. Kenton shoots a lot of set-ups through bars, and shadows suggesting bars, the cage motif is an obvious one but effective for all that.

The blu-ray transfer seems okay; this film is about 80 years old, and I didn't really know what to expect. Early shipboard scenes during a sea-fret seemed murky, but apparently the mist and fog are genuine and not atmospheric effects! Callow and Rigby are disturbingly pinpoint sharp. The original trailer wouldn't have dragged anyone into the cinemas to see the picture.

Island of Lost Souls blu-ray

Laughton and beast in Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls poster

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