“Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?”
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Man and beast combined to create disgusting abominations of nature!
- The word “Jackass” is used.
- We see a rather vivid vivisection.
- A woman takes some time removing her stockings, which, according to the commentary track, wasn’t cut by any censors surprisingly.
- Murder-a-plenty, including Panther Woman actually killing a beast with her bare hands, on screen no less!
- Our kooky villains becomes obsessed with getting our hero to knock boots with a cat woman.
- When that plan fails, it’s time to chide an ape man into raping a white woman. Our villain is one charming bastard, I tell you what.
- There’s some not-so-subtle sexual imagery with Dr. Moreau, almost as if he’s fucking everyone over.
- This film is notably an influence on the bands Devo, Blondie and Oingo Boingo. Yeah, let’s see Going My Way do that!
- Also, this film has got to have the grizzliest end to a villain I’ve ever seen, Pre-Code or not. Yikes.
“Don’t look back.” The last words of Island of Lost Souls ring ominously in your ears. What happened there was a grim cavalcade of man’s savagery and brutality, as well as a rare, twisted communion with the animal nature.
But the film’s story begins before that, when things seemed more simple. Shipwrecked sailor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) finds himself stranded upon the island of eccentric Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) and his reluctant attache Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl).
The island is populated by a bevy of freaks, all some combination of half man and half beast. They’re smart enough to speak, but they’re still trying to comprehend free will. Their fear of Moreau, after he’s brutally created them, is the only thing that keeps them in line.
It’s an island filled with shadows, madness, and deep primal anger, but which boasts one notable attraction for Edward: Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke, not actually a panther woman). As her name would suggest, she’s also been transformed from a beast, but she’s a special project of Moreau’s. He’s gotten bored of just trying to create life with the surgeon’s knife in the aptly named House of Pain; he wants to see if he can get a human and an animal woman to reproduce the old fashioned way.
If you find that even the least weird or disturbing, you’ve discovered just one piece of this film’s menagerie of disgust. As Moreau grows bolder, he goes from trying to politely arrange one inter species coupling to trying to force another: it’s enough to make your skin crawl eight decades later. Even for Pre-Code, which is filled with rape, attempted rape, and implied rape galore (which is a hell of a sentence if I’ve ever written one), this film still pushes that line into a more twisted and sinister direction.
There are a lot of things you can read into the film, and picking apart the film’s metaphors can be quite a treat. Laughton, in his prim white suit and pointed goatee, resembles quite keenly a sort of rotund version of Satan, and film historian Gregory Mank notes in the film’s commentary that his attempts to mate Lota and Edward on the lush island bears a certain resemblance to the story of Adam and Eve. Certainly the steaminess drives this point home during the second act of the film.
Others have noted how Moreau’s subjugation of the men he’s tormented and created can be seen as a direct take on colonialism or slavery. Certainly Moreau living in a marble mansion while his beast men live in dingy huts is meaningful, as is the sway he holds over them with the law that he’s forced upon them, creating in them a subservience that they don’t understand but must obey. The Sayer of the Law is the leader of the beasts, and his authority (helped by being played by the ever-formidable Bela Lugosi) keeps Moreau on top.
And, as a lover of history, it’s interesting to watch this film’s scenes set in the South Pacific. Edwards fiance Ruth (Leila Hyams) is waiting for him on the island of Abia, which is dominated by white people dressed nicely and the islands obvious inhabitants, dressed in kimonos and sometimes Western dress themselves. Colonialism seems so damned quaint now, but watching the film show it so casually really made me step back and remember just how much of the world was still in the hands of a few rich white nations. I think those few scenes really set up the film as a critique of colonialism, which flabbergasted me since you never really imagine how many people must have opposed it nowadays.
Watching Island of Lost Souls for the first time in five years and for the first time not on a dingy old VHS, it’s remarkable how much a good presentation benefits the film. It’s often cloaked in darkness, and director Eric C. Kenton‘s flourishes with both uncomfortably close close-ups and crane shots are used to great effect. I really liked that those crane shots are used, since the first two times they are to reveal to the regular humans the beasts below them, but, for the last time, it brings the camera down to the both Moreau and the monster’s levels, showing that things have become dangerously equal.
Laughton’s Moreau has pomposity and a morbid glee about him, but it’s by his performance that the movie sinks or swims. My issue with him is that he’s plays his character without gravitas. Sinister, yes, but every time Moreau begins to talk about his divine abilities and desires to create, it’s undercut by the silliness of his stranger urges. He’s supposed to be a God, fierce and demented, but comes across half the time as Pan piping on his flutes. Both sides are necessary to create a rounded character, but Laughton’s handling of it undercuts the horror just enough to make it unsatisfying for me.
Our intrepid sailor Edward is kind of a dullard as is his straitlaced fiance, but these characters are just a vessel to propel the audience through the pseudo-scientific weirdness. Mind you, eight decades later and anyone who uses the internet greatly is well acquainted with modern phenomenons like furries, Second Life, and bodily modification that can turn a chubby thirty-year-old into an honest-to-goodness cat person. H.G. Wells was off with Moreau, because rather than anointing ourselves as gods, some are instead making themselves subservient to our own twisted animal natures. It’s a strange inversion, and one that I think removes the immediacy of Island, but this isn’t really something want to ponder for much longer than this.
The new Criterion version of Island of Lost Souls came out recently, and is definitely worth a view. There’s an excellent commentary by the aforementioned Mank, and a couple of okay interviews with fans of the film. The real treat is the visual scrubbing, and this is probably the best looking version of a film from the 1930’s as you’re going to see any time soon. If my screenshots for this article look cruddy, I’m afraid I had to turn to YouTube for them as my computer doesn’t have a Blu-Ray player; so, ignore the attached screenshots here, this movie looks amazing.
I may not ever be fully satisfied with Island of Lost Souls, but that’s just my personal taste. As one of the most stylish, dangerous, and strangely sexy horror films to emerge from the Pre-Code era, its shocking depravity will make anyone sit up and take notice. Anyone who has a taste for the macabre will get a kick out of it, one way or another.