What a great movie Island of Lost Souls is. Released in 1932, it marked the first attempt to bring HG Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau to the screen. It remains the best of the bunch: despite an attempt in 1977 (Burt Lancaster, Michael York) and a 1996 version featuring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer—are you kidding me?—this early classic tops them all. Shot in moody black and white with brilliant cinematography from Karl Struss and crsip pacing courtesy of director Erle C. Kenton, the film is probably best remembered for Charles Laughton’s creepy performance as Moreau.
The plot can be summarized easily enough. Richard Arlen plays Edward Parker, a marooned sailor who winds up on a mysterious and uncharted island in the South Pacific, a place of heavy foliage, lurking shadows and strange sounds in the night. He’s taken in by the sahib of the place, the white-suited and sinisterly soft-spoken Dr. Moreau, whose refined Britishisms seems jarringly out of place in this clogged wilderness.
Moreau’s right-hand man, Montgomery, is less than happy about Parker’s sojourn on the island, but Moreau wants him around long enough to meet with, and interact with, and maybe even get frisky with, Lota, a young woman whose feral jumpiness is yet another indication that all is not right in this world. (The way everybody mutters things about “the house of pain” is another clue.) Parker is attracted to Lota, but before things can develop very far, he finds himself running through the forest at night, and then things start getting really weird.
Island of Lost Souls is built around just one or two major revelations, and given that most viewers will know those plot twists going in, what remains to be enjoyed is the ride that takes us there. In this, the film does not disappoint. The island sets are choked with foliage, lending a claustrophobic feel that comes across even decades later and on a small screen. Inventive angles are used to suggest menace and dread; lighting and shadow effects are everywhere, strikingly effectuve in both their originality and their power.
The performances are consistently strong, as well. Laughton steals the show of course, but Arlen plays his straight-man role low-key and convincing, while Kathleen Burke as Lota offers a performance entirely devoid of camp. Bela Lugosi makes an appearance too, identified only as The Sayer of the Law; his performance is competent, but he appears only a handful of times.
The makeup effects also deserve a mention. Certainly they are primitive when compared to some of today’s work, but even in their crudeness there is a kind of unnerving power, the ability to leave a viewer unsettled. There is no gore—everything truly stomach-wrenching occurs off-screen—but as has been often stated, this is a technique which is often more effective than splashing buckets of blood over everything.
As expected, this Criterion Collection disc offers an impeccable visual transfer that is quite a remarkable achievement for a film nearly 80 years old. Sound is crisp as well, with little of the muffle that you might expect. A nice booklet offers a six-page essay by film historian Christine Smallwood, and DVD extras are plentiful: an audio commentary by Gregory Mark offers insights, while a three-way conversation with horror director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), makeup artist Rick Baker (Star Wars, Men in Black, Planet of the Apes), and horror expert Bob Burns proves entertaining, as well.
There are further interviews, including one with members of the band Devo, who took the film’s repeated line “Are we not men?” and made it the chorus of their signature tune “Jocko Homo” from their debut album, Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh talks at some length about the influence that the film had on him as a college student in Ohio, and the band’s own short film from 1976 serves to remind us of just how weird Devo was when they first lurched into the pop-music scene. Before such things as music videos properly existed, the film served as a de facto video for “Jocko Homo” and “Secret Agent Man”.
The plentitude of extras threatens to crowd out the movie itself, which clocks in at a modest 70 minutes. Happily, though, this is unlikely to happen. Island of Lost Souls is uncannily disturbing even today, as it raises issues of genetic manipulation and the ethics of medical testing—not to mention colonialism, gender and eugenics. It might just be a horror movies from the old days, but this scrappy little creep-fest offers much more to think about than you might expect.