“The stubborn beast-flesh creeps back!”
Our Summer-End Weekend Reviews of older films continue with this 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, which significantly influenced later SF– and the recently-concluded Orphan Black. Less well-known that Universal’s horror movies of the period, it actually holds up better.1
Indeed, its horrific content earned it a ban in some countries, while other audiences watched a censored version for many decades.
Title: Island of Lost Souls
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Writers: Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie
Adapted from The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells.
Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau
Richard Arlen as Edward Parker
Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law
Kathleen Burke as Lota
Leila Hyams as Ruth Thomas
Arthur Hohl as Montgomery
Stanley Fields as Captain Davies
Paul Hurst as Donahue
Hans Steinke as Ouran
Tetsu Komai as M’ling
Buster Brodie as Pig Man
George Irving as the Counsel
A shipwrecked man finds himself on a remote island where mad genius Dr. Moreau rules over Beast Folk created through vivisection in the House of Pain.
Predictably, Island of Lost Souls is creaky in places. The actors perform in the theatrical way typical of the era, and Lugosi, in particular, resorts to histrionics. Dated ideas inform the film, including Victorian notions of science and progress, while certain unsurprising but unfortunate ideas about gender and race inform certain aspects….
…but it holds up remarkably well. Kenton makes as effective use of light and shadow as any later noir director. Certainly, he does far better here than he will in his contributions to the Universal monster movies. The film’s images, the Beast Folk scurrying around the island, and the central confrontation, are the stuff of nightmares. The final confrontation with Moreau feels like Community Theater Night at a Madhouse, and the conclusion of that scene leaves its full horror to the imagination, where it can do the most damage.
The appearance of Ouran in the background of certain scenes remains unnerving.
Originality: 3/6 The film begins much like the novel; it makes significant changes to the conclusion, and it frames the story in conventional Hollywood trappings. Wells complained about the film, which emphasized horrific elements over his novel’s philosophical ones. The philosophical ones remain, to a degree and, if the science is dated, the implications for science are not.
Effects: 5/6 The make-up and effects hold up remarkably well, assisted by grayscale and darkness. Even the back-projection looks good. Two brief moments look absurd: the effect used when Moreau whips the advancing Beast Folk, and the momentary appearance of a standard Hollywood gorilla costume, next to real animals.
Acting: 4/6 One has to make adjustments for the era. Even then, performances vary, though Charles Laughton does a great, cultured but deranged Classic Hollywood mad scientist: “Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?”
Story: 5/6 Well’s criticisms remain valid, but the story holds up, and it moves with lively pace to its conclusion.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Overall: 5/6 The film has had a strange, lingering influence on popular music. Quintessential 80s New Wavers Devo referenced it on their debut album and the accompanying short film, “The Beginning was the End: the Truth About De-Evolution.” A few years later, Oingo Boingo quoted the “Saying of the Law” scene in their song, “No Spill Blood,” and the Meteors in their eponymous “Island of Lost Souls.” Van Halen had a song called “House of Pain,” which was also the name of a 90s hip-hop group.
In total, Island of Lost Souls receives 32/42
1. Paramount made the movie, but Universal bought the rights in the 1950s, so the film retroactively becomes a part of the Golden Age Univeral Horror Movies.