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Friday, October 31, 2014

Island of Lost Souls (1932) review



Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen (Edward Parker), Leila Hyams (Ruth Thomas), Bela Lugosi (Sayer of the Law), Kathleen Burke (The Panther Woman), Arthur Hohl (Montgomery)

Directed by Erle C. Kenton

The Short Version: The inflicting of pain and its resultant suffering are running themes on this island run by the mad, Hitlerian, whip-wielding scientist Dr. Moreau. He even runs an institution built on it, and one bearing the cheery moniker, the House of Pain. In this clinic of torment, Moreau creates a menagerie of manimals more out of his sadistic nature than the misguided betterment of mankind. A shocker in its day, these LOST SOULS maintains a gorilla-like grip on its ability to jangle nerves, and get skin to crawling. Horror fans will find this ISLAND worth visiting multiple times over.

"Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?" 

Shipwrecked on an uncharted South Pacific island, Edward Parker meets the eccentric Dr. Moreau and his assistant, Montgomery. Curious of the strange looking inhabitants, Parker accidentally discovers Moreau is conducting obscene experiments turning animals into humans using torturous methods. Hitting upon the idea of using Parker for mating with his crowning achievement, the Panther Woman, Moreau has no intentions of allowing him to leave. Meanwhile, Parker's fiance charts a boat to track him to the dangerous, fog-enshrouded island of lost souls.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) was yet another groundbreaking example of Pre-code Hollywood shockers that left theater patrons aghast when they laid eyes upon it at the tail end of 1932. Having already been shook senseless by the visual assault of Tod Browning's unsettling FREAKS (1932) released earlier in the year, it was the tone of LOST SOULS, and the sound of taboos shattering that got people fidgety. The end of the pre-code era came mainly as a result of movies with more overt, less subtle instances of sexual deviancy; but it's virtually impossible to watch LOST SOULS (or FREAKS for that matter) and not think these genre shockers didn't have a hand in the censorship crackdown. With these early pictures, you'll notice major differences in comparison to horror films made post 1934 when the Hays Code was more strictly enforced. A correlation to the emotional shock wave felt by audiences might be the receptions to both THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), both controversial films in their own right.

It's worth pondering what would have happened had the code not been implemented so stringently; what sort of effect it would have had on the industry if filmmakers continued to push the envelope as they did during the infancy of cinema. If you place director Kenton's movie next to his later genre work in the 40s -- THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) -- the differences are night and day.

Kenton's movie is something of a reflection on the nature of man, and the inner turmoil between the civilized human and innate savage in us all; and how, despite technological advances, we've not progressed much past the species of animals in the film that are tortured, prodded, experimented on in an attempt to make them something they are not.

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau has a Frankenstein complex; but unlike the mad man-builder, Dr. Moreau is a mad modification specialist. Instead of stitching a thing using spare parts, he transforms members of the animal world into human-like creatures in crude, torturous fashion without anesthetic! 

Moreau, for all his scientific methodology, is little more than a demented masochist; even less sane than his fellow sanguinary surgeon, Dr. Frankenstein. His aim is to push along the evolutionary process within animals; and through painful vivisections, make them more human. The irony is that Moreau himself is a beast -- a human beast. He beats and whips his experiments into submission -- seemingly taking care of them -- but keeping them all in line with a whip and a gun. His so-called experiments take place in the self-descriptive 'House of Pain'. Most medical procedures are conducted in a hospital, with care for the patients. That Moreau himself refers to his own facility as the House of Pain is telling in that he's less interested in scientific exploration than he is in blatant torture; and getting pleasure from administering it.

His prized creation, Lota the Panther Woman, looks like a human female. Later in the film, her feline origins resurface leading Moreau to proclaim he'll have to burn the animal out of her. Judging by his gleefully sadistic laughter and Lota cowering in fear, this will not be a pleasant experience; at least not for her.  

Aside from motifs of inflicting pain, themes of bestiality and rape run rampant in Philip Wylie's and Waldemar Young's adaptation of H.G. Wells's original story. Moreau's insidious plan to push Parker into a mating ritual with Lota is blatant, not to mention appalling. Making the whole idea even more difficult is Kathleen Burke's sensitive, curious portrayal of Lota. The audience derives a great deal of sympathy for her. With very little dialog, Burke resorts to body language to sell the performance. Much like a family pet, her inquisitiveness is evident without having to utter a word.

While the presence of a dark romance between man and cat is in the air, something more sinister awaits Parker's fiance. When she has the misfortune of ending up on this nightmarish isle, Moreau's chief hairy hitman, Ouran has a literal animal attraction to her. This minor plot point isn't the sort of infatuation akin to Kong and Fay Wray. With the most searing bedroom eyes, the hunched-over, gorilla-like man-thing leaves little to the imagination of his intentions with Ruth (Hyams).

The assorted creatures of Moreau's morbid museum range from disturbing to frightening. Paired with the taboo thrashing themes, it's easy to see why ISLAND OF LOST SOULS raised so many eyebrows in its time. Wally Westmore, the real creator of Moreau's mistakes, devised a bounty of revolting and pitiable visages that, despite being over 80 years old, are still impressive today. Compared to the makeup jobs in the 1977 remake, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, the meticulous monsters designed by Westmore are a Rembrandt to the '77 versions paint splotches. An even more inferior remake followed in 1996.

Bela Lugosi plays the Sayer of the Law, a very hairy, werewolf-like creature who keeps the creatures in line when Moreau's whip isn't doing the talking. Lugosi was hot at this time, yet he isn't a headliner as he was in DRACULA (1931), WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Still, he gets many of the best lines in the movie, some of which have been spoofed in other movies. Lugosi was often characteristically over the top, always giving his villains something extra with his delivery and mannerisms, and he doesn't disappoint here at all. His impassioned, boisterous "Are we not men" speech reveals the monsters to possess an emotional capacity that is irrefutably absent in their creator.

The Darwinian nature tampering was another topic that had audience members squirming; especially with this rotund Dr. Demented proudly proclaiming he was playing God by building new, living beings with the use of existing parts. FRANKENSTEIN (1931) raised similar issues, yet Colin Clive's mad scientist seemed to genuinely believe he was doing good for civilization. Moreau, while operating with the same mission statement, seems more interested in playing with a beasts insides than playing a superior being.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) was highly influential on a number of filmmakers from around the world. The monster makeup was imitated in foreign films from the Philippines and Mexico, for example. Films like Eddie Romero's THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1972) and Alfonso Carona Blake's SANTO EN EL MUSEO DE CERA (1963) feature mad scientists creating manimals for reasons suitable only for genre fare. The former turns the Wells story into an action-adventure film with monsters. The premise feels slapped together, but there's fun to be had. The latter is a unique spin on the material in that it's a concentration camp survivor who is tinkering with nature using human guinea pigs. It's one of the best examples of the Mexican wrestling movie genre, a filmic style that often mixed horror and the supernatural with wrestling.

Controversial in its day, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) remains a provocative piece of genre filmmaking. One of the most important, topically persuasive movies of its kind, it took James Whales's nightmare of Franken-science and transformed it into a deranged chiaroscuro wasteland. Nearly perfect from start to finish, a few modern viewers might actually find themselves mortified by the films subject matter, in addition to its gallery of grotesque monster makeup designs. Essential viewing for any serious horror aficionado.

This review is representative of the Criterion DVD.


Dick said...

I picked up the Criterion release when it came out after viewing it again after many years it was really astounding to see what an evil and vile movie this is. Charles Laughton is magnificent and there's a real grimness hanging over everything. It's about the only horror movie from that era that makes you feel like taking a shower after watching it. Great Stuff ! - and great review Brian.

venoms5 said...

I got the DVD, but been thinking about getting the blu, too. Great film. I saw it on TCM sometime back and really liked it much better than I thought I would. Some of those pre-code movies were really risque and boundary pushing.

Laughton was great in this. I recommend MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) if you haven't seen that one yet. Some grim bits in there, too.

E. SANCHES said...

Great Job in this Blog
Congratulations friend

Dick said...

I really like MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and DR. X is also a pretty cool little pre-code horror.

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