Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Starring: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Stanley Fields, Arthur Hohl, Kathleen Burke
“Do you know what it means to feel like God?”
On the surface, Island Of Lost Souls is a rip-roaring adventure, full of shipwrecks, drunken sailors, a mysterious off-the-charts Polynesian island and its primitive, dangerous inhabitants.
On the other hand, if you want to go there, it’s got a lot to say about human nature, about colonialism, about man playing god and just what it is that divides man from beast.
Based on H.G. Wells’ classic 1896 novel The Island Of Doctor Moreau, Erle C. Kenton’s film doesn’t stray too far from its source material, but ups the horror quotient, much to the consternation of the author himself, who felt that the subtlety of his work was being lost in the name of sensationalism.
He may have had a point, but those themes and ideas are still very much present and go some way to making Island Of Lost Souls the gripping watch that if remains to this day.
When Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is rescued after being shipwrecked, he finds himself on a freighter delivering a cargo of animals to an isolated and uncharted South Seas island owned by Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton).
After an altercation with the freighter’s captain (Stanley Fields) Parker overboard into Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and Moreau’s boat, leaving him no choice but to disembark at the Doctor’s island.
Parker soon discovers the true nature of Moreau’s work, something he describes as “bio-anthropological research”, operating on animals via transform them into people through plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, and ray baths, with the intention of turning them into people.
Realising that the brutish natives are the results of the Doctor’s experiments and the attractive young woman Lota (Kathleen Burke) he’s found himself drawn to is actually a genetically modified Panther, Parker realises he must escape from the island before it’s too late…
There’s few horror films from this golden era that are quite as nightmarish in their concept as Island Of Lost Souls. Obviously we have Wells to thank for the most part, for giving birth to that awful concept of the mad scientist playing god with the inferior species, knowing that he alone can raise them up to equal humanity, whether they want it or not.
Moreau is a truly repellent character and brilliantly realised by Charles Laughton. He’s charming and warm at times, if a little slimy, but in truth rotten to the core. In his white suit and bullwhip he’s the epitome of old world colonial rule, a man who looks down on the “primitives” he’s there to correct and educate. He’s a man who revels in cruelty and control in the name of science, whether operating without anaesthetic in his “House Of Pain” or cracking the whip on his failed experiments as he makes them recite his laws.
Laughton is brilliant here, really giving us a believable, rounded villain who would be one-note in most other actors’ hands, particularly in the scene where he is about to give up his experiments before noticing that Lota is crying. His response isn’t one of remorse, or concern, even pity. It’s pride, its sheer, hubristic delight that his work has evolved to a level that he can make one of his evolved animals shed tears. It’s horrific and absolutely sums up how morally reprehensible Moreau is, but Laughton makes him feel real too. Amazing stuff.
Those evolved animals are well-realised too. Poor doomed Lota is still very feline in her mannerisms, but in her personality too. She’s human to all intents and purposes, but there’s something simple about her. She’s been raised up, but she’s still a cat when it comes down to it, which makes Moreau’s less than subtle plans to let nature take its course with Parker all the more odious.
It’s the beast-men that really disturb though. From Bela Lugosi’s wolf-like Sayer Of The Law (“Are We Not Men?”) to the even more primal and ape-like Ouran, despatched to forcibly mate with Parker’s fiancé Ruth (Leila Hyams) on Moreau’s orders, they’re a reminder of the dark side of human nature, those primal urges to eat, kill and mate unfettered by human morals or ideas. At the same time though, they’re victims, every one of them, so their final revenge as natural order reasserts itself is completely justified and you can’t help but feel empathy for them.
Island Of Lost Souls plays with some big ideas, but never loses sight of its mission to thrill, horrify and entertain and sometimes, that’s all you really need.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy