Island of Lost Souls (1932)
There is an old bromide often use by the more seasoned cinematic aficionados that states; "they just don’t make them like that anymore". We consider that statement as a lament mourning the loss of an ineffable sense of style movie once held. Perhaps younger fans consider the same sentence embracing the advent of CGI which permitted the filmmaker to realize cinematic visions impossible in an age of practical effects. As determined by my birthdate I am strongly ensconced in the former camp. I recently hit a trifecta for traditionalist science fiction enthusiast, all three film versions of H. G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, originally published in 1896. In 1996 there was ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ featuring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. Before that a movie of the same name was released in 1977 starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York but for the best telling of this iconic story you have to go all the way back to 1932 to the movie considered here, ‘Island of Lost Souls’. Fortunately, the film is not only still readily available but it had been inducted in the lauded Criterion Collection as a remastered Blu-ray. The migration to high definition was accomplished with their famous attention to detail and respect for the original artistic vision of the filmmaker. Despite being the oldest version its addition to Collection makes it the best preserved version of the lot. For us of more experienced appreciation, this is a long sought after prize that many of us have been hunting fir years. I know my brother has been searching for a descent copy for many years. When I told him the Criterion Film buffs of more tender years have an imperative to watch this paying attention to how script, direction and expertly honed actors can bring a literary masterpiece to life.
The story, conceived as it was, during an age when intercontinental travel was only possible over the high seas, the best way to create the necessary venue for terror or adventure was to crash the ship and wash the survivor upon an uncharted isle. While this might appear archaic but as you will realize as you are drawn into the film there is a charm intrinsically part of an old school literary classic such as this. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) becomes one such shipwrecked traveler is rescued by a passing freighter containing a cargo of various animals to an island deep in the South Pacific. The island is privately owned by a scientist, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). When Parker observes the freighter’s captain (Stanley Fields), cruelly abusing an odd looking man, M'ling (Tetsu Komai), one of the passengers, Parker intervenes only to be tossed overboard. He winds up in a boat containing the doctor and his assistant, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl).
Once on the mysterious island Parker discovers he just fell into a dark rabbit hole. Dr. Moreau is ostensibly a gracious host offing Parker the hospitality of his well-appointed tropical home. To help with his comfort Parker is introduced to a young woman, Lota (Kathleen Burke), physically beautiful but extraordinarily naive. As they pass by a locked door they are startled by horrendous screams of pain coming from the room behind it. He was soon to learn that the room had a name by the creatures of the island, the House of Pain .Unable to quell his curiosity Parker covertly investigates discovering something that lies beyond the pale of his worst nightmare. Moreau and Montgomery are performing a surgical procedure on a figure writhing in agony. They were vivisecting a victim without the benefit of anesthetic. This sadistic tableau shocks Parker who attempts to flee. His egress is impeded by a figure that emerges from jungle’s shadows. With a crack of a whip the action halts as a brutish man known as the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi); "Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?" At this the crowd of animalistic men disperses.
The doctor tries his best to back pedal explaining away what the shocked man has just witnessed. Moreau explains that many years ago he had been researching methods to accelerate the evolution of plants naturally moving on to applying those principles to animals. His bio-anthropological experiments were abruptly curtailed when one of his subjects escaped. Setting up his laboratory on the island he intensified his efforts. Lota, for instance, had been derived from a panther. The others on the island were all created by utilizing his methods on other animals. Much to his pleasant surprise Moreau has noticed that since his arrival Lota has been reacting in a noticeably more human manner. Moreau encourages the relationship by destroying the boat that was to take him away. Eventually love does blossom and is sealed by a kiss. Moreau is anxious to see what spawn might be produced although Parker laments his betrayal of his fiancée Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams).
The jaded audience members of today might look at this movie as relatively tame but the sensibilities of their generation but try to place yourself in the mindset of a typical movie goer over eighty two years ago. The film was denounced as unnatural and denied the certificate of approval resulting in being banned in England. This would remain in effect preventing the display of the movie for an additional 26 years. This might seem outrageous for a generation born after the censorship wars and the subsequent placation by the MPAA rating system. The fact is back then the conservative mindset that pervaded the culture. A significant part of the importance of this movie and the valuable contribution distributors like Criterion play to our society by preserving our past through our cinematic history. Film is far more than entertainment, although that is an undeniably vital part of movies. The artistic expression conveyed this this means of expression is a part of history captured in the amber of celluloid. By looking at this film are transported back through time to another age.
Even placing the historical and cultural significance aside there is much more to this film. It remains an iconic story and a faithful representation of a classic piece of literature. H.G. Wells was one of the founding fathers of contemporary science fiction. Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke would all freely proclaim the ineffaceable affect this author had on the genre. He blended crucial social commentary into popular entertainment engaging themes that otherwise might have been too controversial to discussed unvarnished by the sabot of fantasy fiction to fire biting social criticism into the public affected directly by the enforcement of those moral directives. In this film the issue that is focused upon was a popular on for Wells, the ultimate effect of technology on the lives of the population. Like many ‘mad scientists’ represented in the genre Dr. Moreau, was initially compelled by a burning desire to understand the inner working of nature and bend them to the will of man. Like Mary Shelly’s Victor Frankenstein before him, Dr. Moreau wanted to wield the creative power of God. The strength of the individual to challenge these forays into the rightful province of the Creator is demonstrated through the determined actions of Parker. His ultimate choice of eschewing this biotechnology coopting of creation for the natural order of things by rejecting Lota in favor of the human Ruth is a firm yet subtle support of Well’s admonitions concerning the unbridled use of new technology.
Pulling everything together beautifully is the screenplay by Philip Wylie, who wrote the novel ‘When Worlds Collide’ and penned yet remained uncredited for his adaption of anther Wells classic, ‘The Invisible Man’. The director bringing this all together was Erle C. Kenton, one of the most sought after filmmakers who later contributed his fermentable talents to the nascent media of television. With a legendary cast of film giants including Charles Laughton and a famous yet bankrupt Bela Lugosi this was a company of actors without peer. Of the three versions of the novel brought to film this is by far the best and most memorable.
Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?