February 16, 2012

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) - must-see pre-code horror

(USA, 1932)

This classic has been missing from DVD for too long, considering it was amongst the first wave of Hollywood fantasy films hellbent on scaring the audience. It was also one of the very first horror movies to be set in the modern world, rather than a mythical European country like Frankenstein (1931) was, or in the distant past, like the settings for The Golem (1920) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

It's perhaps creepier than its 'golden age' contemporaries because more elements of this story overlap into reality more aggressively than the supernatural horrors. While Frankenstein's success at creating life from stitching together body parts and electrocuting them is about as scientific as a ghoulish nightmare, Dr Moreau alone on his island operating on live subjects is far closer to what rogue scientists actually get up to.

While experimental surgery on human subjects definitely happened in the concentration camps ten years after this film, unanesthetised experiments were already happening to animals, and that is partly what inspired HG Wells to write The Island of Dr Moreau in 1896. Vivisection was a hot moral topic at the time, and this is a spectacular way of getting the reader's sympathy for the animals, by allowing them to speak and protest for themselves.

I'm not sure Wells was intentionally prophesying that this could eventually happen, turning animals into humans, as much as imagining a way for the animals to state their case. I'm not sure he could have anticipated the use of animal organ transplants into humans either, but who knows?

While there were many 'apes with the intelligence of men' movies, often variations on Frankenstein (brain swaps) or Murders in the Rue Morgue, this isn't a B-movie. The star, Charles Laughton, was definitely 'A' list, having just appeared as Nero in Cecil B DeMille's epic The Sign of the Cross and James Whale's follow-up to Frankenstein, The Old Dark House. The jungle sets are large and convincing, the photography lavishly adding shadowy menace. 

Laughton is too good an actor to give us a typically hysterical mad doctor. His evil is two-faced and confidently relaxed. A polite and charming host, manipulating his prey into mind-boggling situations in the name of science. While there isn't too much onscreen to offend the censors, the doctor talks about some controversial experimentation very openly, only possible because this is a pre-code production (before very strict censorship was laid down). It still cause enough of a stir to be banned completely in some countries. I was surprised to hear Moreau compare himself to God, when Dr Frankenstein had had his lines cut for the same claim only the year before. Possibly, this line can only be heard because we're allowed to see the uncut version.

While he hasn't much screen time, Bela Lugosi is high on the cast list due to his success in Dracula the year before. But his performance stands out as broad and theatrical (he shouts his lines) compared to the entire rest of the cast (manimals included), and is now the most dated aspect of the film. 

Lugosi's make-up is spectacular, as are all the other animal people, even if their intricate 'masks' are only briefly glimpsed. It's the publicity photographs that demonstrate the artistry, imagination and detail that went into these creations, looking almost organic. (The DVD extras have a great gallery of photos). The ghastly magnitude of Moreau's experiments keeps growing as we meet more and more beast-men.

This is easily the best adaption of the story to date. Two more official adaptions followed - both using the book's title The Island of Dr Moreau. In 1977, Burt Lancaster hounded Michael York, though I felt that the animal fights looked too violent to be humane. It adds some twists to the story but sorely lacks atmosphere.

The 1996 version had a famously troubled production, and despite Stan Winston's elaborate make-ups, they were let down by some poor computer animation. The film is further sabotaged by increasingly eccentric performances from Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The most memorable aspect for me was the title sequence (by the same team who had just done the titles for Se7en) that introduced the genetic update to the tale. Also unforgettable was the casting of the world's shortest actor, the two foot four inches tall 
Nelson de la Rosa who played Moreau's mascot, thus inspiring the sidekick to South Park's Dr Mephisto (who wears Hawaiian shirts like Brando's character). It's maybe worth a look as a runaway movie without any reins.

In the US, Island of Lost Souls has been remastered and released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion. There's a detailed 14-page booklet with it (from which I learnt of the vivisection connection). There's a commentary track from horror historian Gregory Mank and very interesting interviews with John Landis, Rick Baker, Richard Stanley (original director of the 1996 adaption), my favourite horror analyser David Skal, and two members of the band Devo!

This restoration is also available on a dual-format (Blu-ray and DVD) set in the UK on May 28th, as part of Eureka's Masters of Cinema collection. With the surviving film elements being quite grainy, the Blu-ray ekes out as much detail as is possible. The extras are more limited than the US set, a trailer and interviews with Simon Callow (actor and Laughton biographer) and Jonathan Rigby who carefully places the story in the context of sci-fi literature and contemporary horror films. There's a different but lovely 32-page booklet with it too, with rare stills and a long essay by Kim Newman.

(Updated May 28th, 2012 with details of UK release.)


  1. This is a fantastic sci-fi/horror film, easily the best adaptation, and one of the best BluRays of 2011. I found the vivisection factoid very interesting.

  2. An absolute classic of sci-fi horror. Kind of lies in the shadow of Frankenstein, Bride..., King Kong and Invisible Man but is easily their equal and, in my opinion the better HORROR film. Thanks for this.