Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Sometimes when you watch a film, everything in it just clicks. This is what happened the first time I saw Erle C. Kenton’s (House of Frankenstein) Island of Lost Souls. An early version of H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau; the film is the embodiment of everything I love. A washed-out, black-and-white print who’s whites shine too bright? Check. A story that was called by its author “an exercise in youthful blasphemy?” Check. An island that immediately brings to mind King Kong’s Skull Island, only minus the inherent safety of knowing your ship is anchored offshore? Check.
Hopelessness, vivisections, and utter ruthlessness; the proper ingredients for a great movie. “You understand Mr. Parker that you’re an uninvited guest,” Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) “welcoming” the shipwrecked Parker (Richard Arlen) to his island. Parker had been picked up adrift at sea by Captain Davies (Stanley Fields), who promptly punches Parker out and tosses his unconscious body overboard upon reaching Moreau’s domain.
15 minutes in, and we’ve only just seen glimpses of Moreau’s creatures at work, yet all the barbarism and savagery of Skull Island’s monsters has already been internalized into the Island of Lost Soul’s humans.
The tension already building from our main protagonist being castaway not once, but twice, goes terminal when night falls. Dr. Moreau, sharing an island with anthropomorphized jungle animals, is creepy enough. Factor in a frenzied attempt at introducing Parker to Lota (Kathleen Burke), while denying the existence of “the House of Pain,” and the stage is set.
“The house of pain” is where the Dr.’s vivisectional experiments are done; a practice that we hear, long before we see. The sound of which lead to the film being banned in Britain. (It wouldn’t play in Britain for another 26 years; even then, in a cut version.) Granted, these screams would take on a more harrowing resonance seven years later when WWII began, and eugenics jumped from motion pictures to the news feeds played before the motion pictures. Ahead of its time, such experiments wouldn’t be seen on-screen again until Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS in 1975.
Another healthy dose of unhealthy tension comes from Moreau’s continued attempts to get Parker and Lota to mate. Uncomfortable not because Moreau wonders what their children would be, but because he’s wondering if Lota will exhibit human emotions towards her offspring. A question that is laid to rest when Moreau witnesses her crying, thus proving she does have feelings.
Parker realizing that Lota is one of Moreau’s anthropomorphized jungle animals, only this time in a shapelier form, is the film’s coup de grace. Parker’s now trapped on Moreau’s island, and neither men trust each other. When Moreau finds out Lota’s human, but her “animal flesh is creeping back,” he resolves to burn the beast out of her while still keeping Parker as a captive breeder.
The amazing thing here is that while footage of vivisection is shown on-screen, amplified screams filling your ears, rape is never mentioned. Moreau wants Lota to willingly take her suitor, even if it means blowing up said suitor’s boat to keep him there. But force Lota to breed? Neither Moreau or his head scientist, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), consider it. Strange considering that both men are either living completely celibate lives, and have been for some time, or are gay.
Another similarity Island… shares with King Kong is both films have protagonists that are almost completely asexual. Parker not shacking up with Lota is understandable. He’s in love with Ruth (Leila Hyams), who shows up on the island to rescue him. But once Ruth arrives, they both decide to bed in separate rooms; despite Moreau’s general untrustworthiness.
True to form, Moreau sends his beastmen to kidnap, and presumably rape, Ruth instead. So I’m guessing the only reason he didn’t touch Lota is due to his knowledge of her animal origins.
FUN FACT! DEVO’s famous “Are We Not Men?” album title originated here! Bela Lugosi, playing the pivotal beastman, “Sayer of the Law,” shouts it out as the rescuing captain is murdered in the jungle. “What is the law? Not to spill blood. Are we not men?”
This brings about the film’s climax, as the accused beastman defends himself by explaining that it was Moreau who wanted the captain dead. Do as I say, not as I do apparently doesn’t fly with these natives; who, realizing now that Moreau is mortal, get revenge for the years spent in the “house of pain.”
This might be Bela’s greatest role. His think accent really selling his role as the smartest of the mutated animals. The final sequence where the natives run towards the camera chanting, “Part man, part beast” being particularly effective. As well as becoming a standard shot in every zombie movie ever made. (A scene that’s even more impressive when you realize that all the make-up effects were done without latex rubber.
The film concluding with the remaining humans sailing away from the island, now burning itself barren, as Moreau’s screams fill the air. Universal’s contributions to the horror canon now seeming that much less scary.