This week's movie is the 1932 horror/adventure Island of Lost Souls!
I had not seen Island of Lost Souls in years, due to its generally unavailability on DVD or streaming. But now that the film is back (and by Criterion, no less), I took the chance to catch up with what I remembered as a grisly, creepy horror classic.
A shipwreck strands traveler Richard Parker (Richard Arlen), and he finds himself on a freighter delivering supplies to a remote South Seas island. After Parker sees the ship's captain abusing a brutally ugly, almost animal-like crew member, they fight, leaving Parker stranded again.
He ends up in the boat of two men, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). They take Parker to their island.
It's pretty clear from the beginning that Moreau is n-u-t-s, but Parker is slow to realize this, even though Moreau's island crew seems to be staffed by frightening-looking brutes:
He introduces Parker to a woman named Lota (Kathleen Burke, aka The Panther Woman), but not before delivering ominous threats to her out something called "The House of Pain." Lota takes an immediate liking to Parker, and tries to protect him when screams of pain draw Parker into a room where he shouldn't be:
It's here that Parker finally realizes the trouble he's in, and attempts to escape with Lota. They make their way into the jungle, where they are stopped by an army of animal men, led by a being known as The Sayer of The Law (Bela Lugosi):
Parker sees that Moreau rules these pitiful creatures with an iron fist (and a whip), who look up to Moreau as if a god. Back at the house, Moreau calmly explains how he experimented with plants back in society, but he felt his work was stymied, so he kept going, way past what any of us would consider sane, or humane, work: he has created an entire race of human/animal hybrids!
Charles Laughton's performance is simply outstanding. Sure, it's fairly hammy by today's standards, but there's a tone of relaxed geniality to Moreau that I find creepy. I love this little bit of inappropriately-casual body language as Parker confronts Moreau about his experiments:
Lota has fallen hard for Parker, which delights Moreau, who is watching all this. Deciding to keep Parker on the island, the boat that was going to take Parker back home is found mysteriously destroyed the next morning, stranding him. Eventually, Parker begins to reciprocate Lota's feelings, somewhat, but then he realizes that she, too, is one of Moreau's experiments:
Meanwhile, Parker's fiancee Ruth, tracking down Parker, makes her way to the island. When she arrives, Parker decides they have to get off the island immediately. The animal men, already an edgy, restless group ("Are we not men? What is The Law?"), revolt against Moreau's tight-fisted control and grab him. They drag him back to his lab and eviscerate him with his own surgical instruments:
During the melee, Lota is killed by one of the animal men, and eventually the whole place goes up in flames. This gives Parker and Ruth the time to escape with the help of Montgomery. As the boat makes it away across the water, further and further away from the island, the film ends.
Island of Lost Souls was directed by Erle C. Kenton, who also helmed a lot of Universal's "Monster Rallies" of the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. The staging here is more reminiscent of the time, with long stretches of silence and a leisurely pace, similar to Dracula and Frankenstein. There are a number of spooky shots where characters address or lunge right at the camera, which gives the whole movie a weird, off-putting vibe.
Knowing what we know about Bela Lugosi's decision to turn down the role of Frankenstein's Monster, it's kind of amazing to think that he was willing to take this role, since it's much smaller and even more undignified, in terms of being buried under pounds of unflattering make-up (supposedly Lugosi's main reason for not taking the Frankenstein role).
Speaking of unflattering make-up, the make-ups/masks seen here are pretty basic, but it's that blunt roughness that gives Moreau's creatures an even creepier look; like they're all thrown together, hastily assembled. The final scene of them tearing into Moreau is, while not graphic, quite disturbing--the screams (from Laughton himself?) are the stuff of nightmares; you can just imagine what went on after the camera pulled away.
Considering how much of the horror market Universal had cornered in the 1930s, I have to force myself to remember this isn't from the studio; rather, it came from Paramount. In some ways, they did almost too good a job on Island of Lost Souls; it's so ghoulish and horrible that there was no way they could have kept up this level of intensity, with the Hays Code about to clamp down on the movie industry.
One last thing: I can't be sure, but one of the masks used for the animal men looks, to me, pretty familiar. Check out the guy below at left, and then again sixth from the left at the bottom:
Could a mask from Island of Lost Souls have somehow made its way to a warehouse somewhere, only to be re-used for The Twilight Zone? Paramount sold the rights to a bunch of their films (including this one) to MCA/Universal in the 1950s, so I guess anything's possible!
For the longest time, Island of Lost Souls was not available on DVD, but now its out via Criterion, and I really can't wait to get my non-genetically-altered hands on it!
If you want to pick yourself up a copy and throw a little money this blog's way, just click the, er, handy link below: