Island Of Lost Souls

US (1932) Dir. Erle C. Kenton

When Universal scored unexpected success in 1931 with their horror double whammy of Dracula and Frankenstein other film studios rushed to capitalise on this and get a piece of the action for themselves. Paramount were quick off the mark with Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde followed by this re-titled adaptation of the H. G Wells novel The Island Of Dr. Moreau.

The story begins with a shipwrecked traveller Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) being rescued by a freighter with a cargo of live animals heading to an island so isolated it is not even on the map. Parker sends a message to his fiancée Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) to meet up in Apia but following an argument with the captain (Stanley Fields), Parker is dumped onto the boat heading of the island owner Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) and his assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl).

Parker accepts the hospitality of Moreau and agrees to an overnight stay on the island but his curiosity towards of the odd simian looking natives gets he better of him and Parker makes a startling discovery of Moreau’s unusual practices. Meanwhile Parker is unaware that Moreau is using him for an experiment with the lone female on the island, Lota (Kathleen Burke).

Since Universal had the rights to The Invisible Man and other filmmakers were banging their heads against the wall trying got figure out how to bring War Of The Worlds to the big screen, Wells’ scientific horror novel about the deranged biologist playing God with animal and human hybrids was ripe for the picking.

It’s not been openly forthcoming the reason for the title change but seeing as much of the story and subplots came from the pen of screenwriters Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young, including the female characters of Lota and Ruth, perhaps this was a ploy to give them more credit for fleshing out Wells’ novel into a workable script.

Wells himself was said to be upset with this adaptation – the third after versions by France and Germany in 1913 and 1921 respectively – for being too much of a horror film and overlooking the philosophical quandaries of Moreau’s scientific manipulations. While the film’s finale sits alongside those of its horror contemporaries, it relies more on discussing the morality of the experiments to engage the audiences than scaring them.

But with a terse run time of just 70 minutes and the story being mostly build up to the poetic justice of the climax, we have to make do with Parker being a vocal but ineffective moral objector. Less a hero and more a cipher for the audience, Parker is at least shown to be an upstanding chap throughout – his expulsion from the freighter was for lamping the captain for abusing M’ling (Tetsu Komai), Montgomery’s servant tending to the animals.

It takes a while for Parker to realise something is amiss with the natives on the island, unaware that they are all results of Moreau’s experiments. In the original novel the Beast Folk were made up of many different animals but here, presumably for budgetary reasons, they are mostly ape like, with thick Neanderthal foreheads, jutting jaws, slouching gaits as they walk and very hirsute.

They speak with varying degrees of competence, mostly short sentences of rudimentary phrases e.g. “boat come”, “peoples come”, “man and not man”. Standing above them all is the Sayer of the Law (and unrecognisable Bela Lugosi), who recites the laws of the land which dictate that no beast should come to harm, or inflict harm, ending each clause with “Are we not men?” (later borrowed by 80’s pop mavericks Devo).

Despite being made before the dreaded Hays Code came into effect in 1934, this film was still subject to heavy censorship around the world, largely due to the immoral treatment of animals. A scene in which an ape like creature is operated on was one such victim, as was the line of Moreau comparing himself to God.

Here in the UK it took over twenty years before it was released with an “X” Certificate – today it’s rated PG. It’s rather amusing that the original novel passed by without censure yet the film was banned for “being completely against nature”, in response to which Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester quipped “so is Mickey Mouse!

Another subversive element of this adaptation is the frisson instigated by Moreau between the Lota and Parker. Since Lota fears all other men on the island, the charming Parker is her first sight of nice guy and her sense of attraction finally awakens. But Lota is called the Panther Woman for a reason, and while they only kissed it is enough for Parker to realise the egregious folly of this interspecies canoodling.

If this were made today the Beast Folk would be CGI renders all played by Andy Serkis. In 1932 the make-up was practical and the performances physical, and with much of the film shot at night, the hideous hybrids do possess a palpable creepiness about them, despite being quite benevolent, just lurking in the bushes.

The true monster however is Moreau himself, wonderfully essayed by Charles Laughton in just his second Hollywood role. Amiable, debonair yet chillingly at ease with his unconscionable work, Laughton’s characterisation is a clear template for many a suave bond Villain that followed, absorbed by his ambitions but blinded by his ego.

Bela Lugosi is the other big name in the cast but just one year after Dracula work was already drying up. He accepted this small role for a meagre $800 yet gives it his all; beneath the layers of hair and latex he is still an enigmatic presence. Incidentally, Laughton and Lugosi’s scenes together were shot separately which the editing covers up quite neatly.

Modern horror fans won’t see the fuss about Island Of Lost Souls but classic movie aficionados will recognise it as an overlooked classic for its unmistakable influence on cult pop culture as well as its horror descendants.