Looking back at one of the most brilliantly subversive horror films of the 1930s.
1932 was a banner year for pre-code horror films that distressed the British film censors, with both Island of Lost Souls and Tod Browning’s Freaks receiving lengthy cinema bans. While trying to make sense of British censorship of this (or, for that matter, any) period is a thankless task, it is pretty obvious why both this film and Freaks would cause such consternation. Both are hugely transgressive, confrontational and challenging in a way that the more overtly supernatural horrors could never be. Both explore the world of what we would later call ‘body horror’ and the physically abnormal. And both are prime examples of what the horror movie might have become much sooner if not effectively emasculated by the American production code – a moral kneejerk as damaging as anything that the British censors could manage – shortly after both of them were released. Freaks is the film with the bigger reputation as a subversive masterpiece that still shocks even now, but Island of Lost Souls – the first of a number of movie adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau – is equally unsettling and powerful.
There seems to be no real explanation why the title was changed beyond the idea of ‘lost souls’ perhaps being a bit more exotic sounding than the name of a doctor that most filmgoers would be unfamiliar with, but the film is perhaps the most accurate version of Wells’ novel, even though the writer himself apparently hated it. It opens with the shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) being rescued by a freighter, only to be put ashore on an uncharted island after a violent disagreement with the drunken captain. On the island, he becomes the guest of its main inhabitant, Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton), who at first is keen to get rid of him, but then has other, more sinister plans. Moreau, it turns out, has been creating human-animal hybrids by genetic manipulation and vivisection of the local animal population (the details of just how he does this are naturally somewhat vague) in his ‘House of Pain’, and introduces Parker to his most successful experiment, the exotic ‘Panther Woman’ Lota (Kathleen Burke) in order to see if she is attracted to him. But Lota shows evidence of regression to her animal state, and Moreau’s less successful experiments, led by The Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) are becoming increasingly restless, feeling damned to be neither man nor beast. Things come to a head when Parker’s fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) arrives at the island with a sea captain to rescue him, and Moreau orders the captain killed – a direct violation of his own laws that releases the beast-men from the moral bonds that have so far restrained them in their desire to be ‘civilised’.
If you are more used to the sedate horrors of the 1930s and 1940s (including director Erle C. Kenton’s own House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein), this film will be quite a revelation. While suffering from some of the production crudeness of the era, it’s a remarkably fresh and gritty film that still seems extraordinarily sadistic and brutal in parts: certainly, the vivisection scene is one of the most visceral moments of pre-Sixties horror.
The hero and heroine are bland in the way that 1930s horror heroes always were, of course, but especially so here as they are towered over by three amazing performances. Laughton is brilliant as Moreau – oily, creepy and yet oddly ill-at-ease with himself, his dedication to scientific research is obscured by his prurience and sadism, something revealed in sly glances and little smiles rather than any dramatic barnstorming – proof that you can be a larger-than-life villain without going over the top. It was a lesson that perhaps wasn’t taken on board by co-star Bela Lugosi later in his career, but in this film he is even more impressive than Laughton, mostly because the excellence of his performance is rather less expected. It’s notable that just a year after Dracula, and his turning down the monster role in Universal’s follow-up movie Frankenstein because he thought a part covered in make-up was beneath him, Lugosi’s career was already enough in decline for him to appear in a small (though important) supporting role in this film, unrecognisable beneath animal make-up. How impressive then that he gives one of his best performances – racked with pain and fury, he lets loose emotionally in a way that is astonishing to see. Perhaps he really would have made a great Frankenstein monster if his own ego hadn’t gotten in the way.
And then we have Burke (billed in the opening titles simply as ‘The Panther Woman’ – you could do things like that back then, as seen with the number of times Boris Karloff was simply billed as ‘Karloff the Uncanny’ and so on). It’s easy to see why Parker would forget his milksop fiancée and be seduced by Lota, given that she is a remarkable exotic beauty who manages to seem both vulnerable and animalistic at the same time. She doesn’t have much to do, but when she is on screen, you won’t be looking at anyone else.
Kenton directs with unexpected efficiency, given the throwaway nature of his later horror movies – this is not a particularly flashy film, but there are some great visual moments courtesy of Karl Struss’ cinematography, and it moves at a fast pace, piling on the horrors and the crimes against nature. The end result is one of the best horror films of the decade and one whose savage impact would not be matched for years. No wonder the BBFC took against it.
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