Embarking for the Island of Lost Souls
Published on October 22nd, 2011 | by Michael Rawls0
On Tuesday, October 25, The Criterion Collection is releasing Erle C. Kenton’s “Island of Lost Souls” (1932) on DVD and Blu-ray.
“Someone told me it’s all happenin’ at the zoo.” – Paul Simon
And it is all happening at Dr. Moreau’s island zoo. Torture, surgical species hybridization, kidnapping, attempted bestiality, murder… but then it’s not really a zoo, this establishment of Moreau’s. No, according to the man himself it’s an “experimental station for biomorphic anthropological research.” Well, that ought to bring in the grant money.
The Criterion Collection’ s disc of 1932′s “Island of Lost Souls” (the earliest and best of the three adaptations of H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau”) is something of a major evolutionary leap forward in itself in picture and sound. I can’t imagine how the film could have looked and sounded any better on its first release. But to at last take up our story…
Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), en route to the island of Apia to meet his fiancée, is serially involved in a shipwreck, a rescue which lands him on a vessel hauling a cargo of animals to the aforesaid experimental station and an altercation with the captain of that vessel over his mistreatment of a somewhat canine-looking servant. Punching out the chronically drunken abusive captain leads to Parker being literally dumped overboard, abandoned to the hospitality of Dr. Moreau. Promising Parker use of the Moreauvian schooner for continuing his passage to Apia (“for we’ll not see another ship for a twelvemonth”) on the morrow, it’s all (Parker, Moreau, Moreau’s disgraced medical sidekick Montgomery, faithul dog butler M’ling) back to the Doc’s place for dinner with scientific lecture to follow. Having begun back in London by leapfrogging plants thousands of years down the evolutionary road, Moreau soon progressed to bestowing this Darwinian leg up on sentient creatures (i.e., animals) with rather painful surgery. An escaped howling patient in the heart of London necessitates Moreau’s removal of operations to this island that ”you won’t find on any chart.” Parker is told to show some discretion (ignore the odd agonizing scream) and stay in his room but ignoring this injunction discovers Moreau’s “House of Pain,” an operating theatre where animals are excruciatingly lifted up (?) toward humanity. The so-called natives of the island are in fact creatures carved out of living flesh and Moreau has ideas of mating his finest work (the seemingly completely human Panther Woman) with Parker or perhaps having one of the beast men (hairier and more bestial than William Bendix) rape Parker’s fiancée, who has arrived to rescue him.
Moreau is played by Charles Laughton, one of the greatest character actors of all time. Laughton has been labeled and parodied as a shameless ham but I believe this demonstrativeness is appropriate to most of the characters he played (the martinet Bligh, the corrupt Southern “elder statesman” in “Advise and Consent,” the campy Batman villain Nero in Demille’s “Sign of the Cross,” the conceited buffoon Hobson). He was not a petite-souled man. Having said all that, I think that this surprisingly understated (and all the more effective for that) turn is one of his best performances. According to the cinematographer Karl Struss (“Sunrise,” among others), the director Erle C. Kenton gave line readings to everyone in the cast, including Laughton. So that might have something to do with his restraint here.
To pick two examples of Laughton’s subtlety: that narrowing of the eyes at dinner when he remarks that “you are a man of discretion, Mr. Parker” and that prissy and fishlike triumphant pursing of the lips that he directs toward his assistant Montgomery when Moreau shows Parker that his only avenue of escape, the schooner, has been inexplicably smashed up during the night (“probably the natives”). The understatement here makes both scenes all the more chilling. This is a magnificent performance.
In fact, I think this is easily the best-acted horror film of 1932, which was a banner year for horror. To speak of acting in “Freaks” is risible. “The Mummy” is indeed a classic, but several members of the cast who are not supposed to be in a trance, heavily medicated or dead give the impression of being one or more of the above. Melvyn Douglas is a weak link in Whale’s wonderful “The Old Dark House.” “White Zombie” is certainly haunting, but the acting?!? “The Mask of Fu Manchu” is delightfully degenerate but thespianically we’re back in TV Batman territory. Here, nearly all the actors are good. Although I do find that second captain (the one who brings Parker’s fiancée to the island) just a tad too cute at times. After Laughton, the performer I would single out is Béla Lugosi as Sayer of the Law (“Not to eat meat. Are we not men?”). As Moses to Laughton’s God, Lugosi gives the most moving performance he ever gave and this with no end of animal make-up obscuring his face, acting only with voice and eyes.
Two years later, 1934, the Tablets of the Motion Picture Code, incised years earlier but largely ignored by the Hollywood Heathen, did fall into the hands of that stern prophet of virtue Joseph I. Breen and his toadying acolytes at the Code Office. Thus was tamed the wildness of the American horror film. And thus were banished talents like James Whale and Tod Browning.
And speaking of wildness and the lack thereof, the most entertaining of the supplements on the Criterion disc for me was the interview with Richard Stanley, the writer and originally the intended director of the 1996 “Island of Dr. Moreau.” Stanley’s vision being quite a bit weirder (quadruple-breasted beast women, for one, or four), sexier, more violent and more intellectual than the studio had in mind for their megamillion megastar extravaganza, he was fired after four days and paid off (100,000 dollars). The production was shut down and eventually started up again with the excellent John Frankenheimer presiding a over a 40-million-dollar shambles that pleased nobody. Stanley was able to have a close-up view of the vivisecting of his baby by temporarily entering the animal kingdom (well, half-way).
In another supplement, film historian David Skal compares Moreau to noted biomorphic anthropological researcher Josef Mengele. Apt, but one also might compare Moreau to Hitler and Stalin, two other researchers under the impression that they’ve gotten The Word and who have a whole lot of captives to make The Word (burned, lacerated) flesh.