ISLAND OF THE LOST SOULS – The Blu Review
For years now ISLAND OF LOST SOULS has been DVD’s most glaring omission from the Golden Age of Horror. It won the Rondo Award several times for Film Most in Need of DVD Released or Restoration , but last October, classic horror fans rejoiced when Criterion finally released the film. They were not disappointed and this year, not surprisingly, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS won the Rondo for Best Classic DVD.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), the first adaption of H.G.Well’s 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau was one several shocking horror films from the early 30′s that helped advance the enforcement of the Hays Code, Hollywood’s self-censoring rules deeming “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it”. It wasn’t ISLAND OF LOST SOULS’s radical scenes of horror (like FREAKS) or the deviant sexuality (like the Frederick March version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR HYDE) that offended but its allegory premise that Man could play God and create Man through surgery by splicing together the flesh of various living animals (and I’m sure the hints of bestiality didn’t help). The new DVD and Blu-ray proves that it is a movie that hasn’t lost its power to shock and disturb almost 80 years later.
In ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, shipwrecked traveler Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is rescued from his lifeboat by a freighter shipping supplies to an isolated South Seas island overseen by Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) who welcomes Parker to his island. Parker soon discovers that Moreau is conducting vivisection experiments in order to transform animals into humans. Parker finds that Lota (Kathleen Burke), the native girl that Moreau is trying to push him toward, is actually a transformed panther and that Moreau wants to keep him there to conduct an experiment in mating her with a human. The hybrid animal men (lead by Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law) revolt and drag Moreau to his comeuppance in his own House of Pain.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS was one of only very few adaptations of his work that H.G. Wells saw within his lifetime and he was vocally unhappy with the film which was banned in his native Britain (ostensibly for its portrayal of cruelty to animals). He considered the film’s overt horror a misrepresentation of the philosophy of his novel, which he claimed was an indictment of the morality of modern science. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is mostly faithful to Wells story, thanks to an intelligent script by Philip Wylie who also adapted Wells THE INVISIBLE MAN for director James Whale the same year and the film’s most famous line “What is the law – Are we not men?” has become horror folklore. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS was not at all popular when initially distributed in theaters and was out of circulation for decades but it was never forgotten. Thanks in part to Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and make-up artist Wally Westmore’s creations that resemble a grotesque middle ground between humans and animals, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS has always been a favorite among horror movie fans.
Charles Laughton, 33 when he starred in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, was a British actor who had gained fame playing Nero the year before in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS. With his goatee, pit helmet, and whip, he more resembles a plantation owner than a dedicated but misguided mad scientist whose medical research would make Joseph Mengele blush. Laughton’s Moreau is a man who appears reasonable on the outside but who has spent his career doing unspeakable things for no practical purpose and Laughton, who would win an Oscar the next year for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, delivers a demented characterization that elevates ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Bela Lugosi was still hot after his triumph in DRACULA the year before and is great as the leader of the animal men. Kathleen Burke, who beat out thousands of young women in a nationwide search to play the Panther Woman, winning the role because of her ‘feline’ look, wears costumes that are shockingly skimpy and her nipples are clearly visible in several shots. Billed on the posters simply as The Panther Woman, Burke went on to a brief but insignificant career. Future stars Buster Crabbe, Alan Ladd, and Randolph Scott have uncredited bit parts in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS has been remade but never improved. The 1978 version with Burt Lancaster as Moreau and Michael York as Parker was lifeless. John Frankenheimer’s bizarre 1996 version with Marlon Brando as Moreau was considered a disaster upon its release but is not without its gonzo charms (both remakes were titled ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU and made Moreau a post-DNA genetic engineer rather than a surgeon). TERROR IS A MAN (1959) and THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1973 with Pam Grier as the Panther Woman!) were both Philippines-shot riffs on the Wells novel, but it’s the 1932 version that makes the most of the material. The long-ago releases of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS on VHS and laserdisc (double-billed with 1933′s MURDERS AT THE ZOO, another pre-code shocker from Paramount) were the same foggy and soft prints that Turner Classic Movies would occasionally run.
Since ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is one of the best horror films of its era, it deserved proper restoration and Criterion has come through. Though the original negative had been lost for years, Criterion has reassembled the original version from several sources, including the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 35mm nitrate positive and a private collector’s 16mm print. Most of the transfer came from UCLA’s print, which includes lines of dialogue that were censored after the initial theatrical release, while the 16mm collector’s print was used to fill in missing and damaged frames. The final product looks terrific. It’s slightly soft and grainy, but much of the film takes place in a foggy setting and the detail and contrasts are top-notch. The audio has been restored as well, cleaning up the hiss and crackle long associated with the film. The audio commentary is by Greg Mank, author of Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration and several other books on horror films. Mank has also done superb commentaries on such classic horror films as FREAKS and CAT PEOPLE and his commentary here is on par with those, furnishing tons of info and trivia about the film to make us welcome the film’s return even more. It’s worth listening to more than once. There are several other interviews with notable fans (everyone wants to discuss this film!) First is a 17-minute roundtable discussion with make-up effects artist Rick Baker, director John Landis, and horror fan icon Bob Burns. The three are huge fans of the film and much of their discussion focuses on the makeup in the film.Film historian/documentarian David J. Skal speaks for 13 minutes about the historical context of the film and the shock it must have had on audiences at the time of its release. Director Richard Stanley, who was fired from the 1996 Marlon Brando adaption and replaced with John Frankenheimer, talks about his love for the source material and makes one wonder what his vision of the story might have looked like.The last interview is with with Devo band members (“Are we not men? We are Devo!”) Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh who discuss their love of the film and show their 10-minute short film “In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution.” The extras wrap up with a Stills Gallery and 90-second trailer. The always-welcome 12-page Criterion booklet by Christine Smallwood contains a critical essay, chapter listings, credits, stills, and detailed overview of the restoration process.