“Are we not men?” That question is at the heart of the 1932 Island of Lost Souls, the first adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel and (for all the changes from the novel) still the defining one. Until the Criterion release two years ago on Blu-ray and DVD, it had also been the hardest to see. Though it was released on VHS and on laserdisc, it rarely showed on TV or cable and it arrived on disc long after the classic horrors of the thirties – Frankenstein, Dracula, Freaks, The Mummy, The Black Cat and so on – had been released. As a result it’s more known about than seen, more often a footnote in conversations about the early days of horror, yet it remains one of the most transgressive films of its era. Which is saying something given what Hollywood got away with in the years before the production code was enforced.
Charles Laughton is Dr. Moreau, the mad scientist as warden-like ruler of his own private island dressed in the white linen suit of a plantation owner or a southern slaver. Once he cracks his ever-present whip to send the “natives” scurrying in fear, the resemblance is sealed, but that’s just the beginning of his brutal identity.
“Do you know what it means to feel like God?” he boasts, but he’s more a demon in the devil’s workshop transforming beasts into human-like creatures. Whether they are men is an open question, but they certainly aspire to manhood in their creation of community and adherence to laws. Whether Dr. Moreau, a vivisectionist who seems to enjoy the pain he inflicts, has sacrificed his humanity is more to the point.
Arrogant and unfeeling, he’s the proto Dr. Mengele, the master-race scientist who operates on his subjects without anesthesia or compassion in an operating room he calls “The House of Pain.” (In the era before DNA and genetic engineering, his operations are all grafts and transplants.) “This time I’ll burn out all the animal in her,” he swears as his prized project Lota (Kathleen Burke) reverts back to her feline roots. It’s as much a threat as it is a statement of purpose, a promise of terrible pain that evokes torture and hellfire. And as he plots to pair off Panther Woman Lota to his castaway guest (Richard Arlen) to procreate, he’s essentially experimenting with bestiality. No wonder this was banned in Britain for decades.
Though it is currently owned by Universal, Island of Lost Souls was produced by Paramount and its atmosphere is appropriately less Universal gothic than Paramount elegance. It’s directed by Erle C. Kenton, a journeyman studio man who began in silent short comedies and continued on with B-movies and low-end, budget-minded A pictures, including a series of Abbott and Costello comedies and a few minor classics of the monster mash-up movie genre: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein” (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Clean, efficient, to the point, Kenton got the job done within his means, and here he turned restrictions into a defining atmosphere.
Shot almost entirely within the studio, from ships in misty water tanks to a densely-fabricated jungle, it suggests the primitive and the perverse, a feral world as claustrophobic as it is intimidating. The villa compound, with its restraining walls and locked gates, isn’t civilization in the wild, it’s a safety zone on a prison island populated by prisoners of their own unsure identity.
You can probably chalk much of that atmosphere to cinematographer Karl Struss, who shrouds the horrors in a perpetual fog that hugs the sets and licks the sea like the lace of a costume, but Kenton casts a spell that extends across the production. Howls are heard through the fog and beyond the trees and screams cut through the night. The chants of “What is the law” and the repetitions of “Are we not men?” like a religious rite used by Moreau to elevate himself from warden to God-king. And while most of the animal men are simply figures in the distance, Bela Lugosi brings a dignity to the Sayer of the Law, a kind of high priest of Moreau’s religion. The cruel despot demands complete obedience and receives his just deserts in a satisfying yet grotesque twist of poetic irony. Because the law-giver cannot escape his own law.
On Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.