erik lundegaard

Movie Review: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Thirty years ago I remember my friend Craig telling me he liked to begin his plays with characters entering the stage and basically saying, “Whew, glad that’s over.”

“Island of Lost Souls,” based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and which I watched, yes, because it was referenced in “Paterson,” begins similarly. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a ship, the S.S. Covena, half mad on a life-raft, and for a moment I wondered if we’d get his tale in flashback. Nope. This is his “Whew.” His previous ship sunk, he seems to be its only survivor (no thought is given to the rest of the crew), and aboard the Covena he recovers nicely enough to deck the captain, a drunk piece of work named Davies (Stanley Fields). As reward, Davies sucker-punches him and deposits him, along with Davies’ cargo of wild animals, at their first port of call, which, earlier, he’d called “An island without a name. An island not on the chart.”

Thanks for everything, Julie Newmar
I’ve never read the novel, nor, before this, seen any of the story’s roughly half-dozen screen versions—from Germany’s “The Island of the Lost” in 1921 to John Frankenheimer’s 1996 remake with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer—but I knew the basics: a doctor plays god with man and beast on an island. Island of Lost Souls (1932) reviewBut I had always assumed Moreau was tinkering with both man and beast—that he was mixing genetic pools. Nope. Or not here anyway. Here, he takes animals and speeds up their evolutionary processes, which, he says, always tend toward the human. Apparently it’s not just apes that evolve into man; it’s everything.

Since his knowledge is incomplete, so are the results. He gets mostly missing links—hulking, hairy, monosyllabic creatures—although M’ling (Tetsu Komai) is a half-dog houseboy, while Lota (Kathleen Burke, film debut), Moreau’s most successful creation, is, as her film credit goes, “The Panther Woman.” Indeed, in the movie poster, she incorrectly gets all the credit. And the blame:

THE PANTHER WOMAN lured men—only to destroy them body and soul!

This is, what, eight years before Catwoman appeared? And 10 years before Simone Simon in “Cat People”? So we were already on board with that cat fantasy. Poor dogs, they get scraps. No superheroes, mostly pejorative metaphors.

Ever the scientist, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) decides to throw Parker and Lota together. Can she seduce him? Will he fall in love? Will she? At the same time, like an idiot, he keeps experimenting on animals in the “House of Pain,” and since one cries out (in pain), Parker investigates. He draws the wrong conclusion: “They’re vivisecting a human being!” Like an idiot he confronts Moreau, who, like an idiot, explains everything. He even ends the macabre lecture in half-shadow, intoning ominously, “Do you know what it means to feel like a God?”

Way to go, Doc. Cards close to the chest, Doc.

In the midst of all of this, there’s a truly creepy moment when Parker and Lota flee, and they’re surrounded by the creatures in the jungle. She’s about to be assaulted by the hairy-faced Lawgiver (Bela Lugosi) when Moreau appears with a whip and we get this call and response:

Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?

Yep, that’s where Devo got it. I never knew. Apparently “Island of Lost Souls” was particularly popular among bands of the ’80s and ’90s . Cf., “House of Pain.” 

Banned in Britain
In the nearly 100 years since its release, what we want out of a horror film hasn’t changed much—this thing is still way creepy—but what we want in a leading man certainly has. Arlen is that 1930s all-American male: blunt, uncharismatic and unimaginative. You watch him act and think, “B pictures,“ which is where he wound up, despite co-starring in the award-winning “Wings” only four years earlier. He continued to act in movies and on TV into the 1970s

I did like Leila Hyams as Ruth, the smart fiancée who tracks down Parker (she stopped making movies in 1936), and Paul Hurst as the captain of the ship who reluctantly joins the search (he died in '53). At Moreau’s, he’s plied with liquor, takes it all with a smile, and turns out to be not drunk at all. “Oh, you oughta see me when I’m real...” he says with a wink.

But it’s Laughton’s show. There’s a moment when he tells Parker the lengths it took to get his creatures to talk. Then he smiles a pleased-with-himself smile and says, “Someday I’ll create a woman and it’ll be easier.” I love that it’s both a joke (because women talk a lot, ha ha) and an inside joke (since he’s already created Lota), and Laughton manages to capture both of these feelings.

The ending is poetic justice. Moreau orders one of the missing links, Ouran (Hans Steinke), to kill Hurst before he gets to his ship. Since this goes against the Law, and since Ouran gets away with it, the creatures know the Law is bullshit. So they go after the one they truly hate: Moreau. They get him, strap him to a table, break out the knives. Cue scream. That, and the vivisection, got “Island of Lost Souls” banned in Britain until 1958, and even then it was censored. The original Paramount version wasn’t available in England until 2011.

So are movies like this where so many Americans get their anti-science bent? ”Lost Souls" understandably focuses on the horror of what Moreau does but not enough on the fact that, you know, he actually does it. He takes a panther and turns it into Kathleen Burke. I'm not saying he's not the villain, but give the man his props.

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Posted at 07:29 AM on Thu. Jul 20, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  

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