While IMDb lists two movies with the title The Island of Dr. Moreau (a 1976 one with Michael York and Burt Lancaster as well as a 1996 one with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer), neither of them marks Hollywood’s first attempt to turn the H.G. Wells book into a film. In 1932 Erle C. Kenton directed Charles Laughton as Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls which is now out on Blu-ray in a Criterion Collection edition.
Although it may have a different title from Wells’ work and may not follow the story plot point by plot point, Island of Lost Souls‘ source material is unmistakable (not that it attempts to hide that, Wells and his novel are credited). The story here finds the evil Moreau obsessed with turning animals into humans via surgery and torture. As you would expect, it is your classic sort of science-gone-amok tale and it is handled in the same sort of style as many a horror film from the period with lots of screaming and hand-wringing and a clearly evil scientist pontificating on all the wonders that might exist in the world. It is, in the simplest sense, a cautionary tale about the evils of science and what happens when someone is allowed to “go too far.”
The new release gives second billing in the movie to Bela Lugosi, who only appears in a couple of scenes in the film. Credited as portraying the “Sayer of the Law,” Lugosi is in a significant amount of makeup and looks rather like the Wolfman. The Sayer’s job, as the character name implies, is to recite the various rules that Moreau has established for his creatures. The basic problem that Moreau faces with his experiments is that no matter how good a job he does at taking the animal out of them, slowly it returns. He therefore has established a set of rules to help ensure that the creatures act in human, not animal, fashion. Lugosi’s Sayer is the creature tasked with leading the chant through the laws. While he gives it his everything and the makeup is excellent, it is not really his movie in any way.
Opposite Laughton, and the other main star of the film, is Richard Arlen as Edward Parker, a poor soul who finds himself caught up in Dr. Moreau’s horrific experiments after his boat sinks and his rescuer leaves him with Moreau’s men. Moreau forces Parker to stay on the island to see if his finest creation, Lota (Kathleen Burke), can fall in love.
One of the more odd moments in the film occurs when Parker realizes that Lota used to be an animal. Parker confronts Moreau and explains that he could have forgiven the mad doctor all the other experiments if he hadn’t changed Lota from animal to human as well. At this point in the film, Parker has seen dozens (maybe hundreds) of male animals turned to men, but the notion that Moreau would have done it to a female animal is one Parker can’t abide. It is difficult to imagine the condoning of the torture of a great multitude of males but drawing the line at a single female.
Island of the Lost Souls never in any way breaks out of the classic evil scientist framework, but rather relishes the simplicity and obviousness of the tale. Laughton is excellent as the evil, demanding, unbending Moreau, and more than one characteristic of the character here are what Laughton would later bring to the table as Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Unquestionably, Island is worth watching for Laughton’s performance alone.
It is a little difficult with a nearly 80-year-old movie to rate the quality of the audio and video presentation. Inevitably, one ends up facing the question of whether those getting it ready for the release gave it their all or if issues seen on screen/heard on the soundtrack are simply due to the quality of print that they had to work with, and that’s not a great question to ask. The monaural soundtrack is certainly a gem. One would worry heading into such an old movie that they were going to be treated to horrible amounts of static and various types of distortion, but none of that is really present here. It is not as crisp and perfect as a soundtrack today (honestly, are you surprised?), but no complaint can be levied against it – everything is audible and clear. The visuals, while certainly still good, are not as good as the audio. The amount of grain present in some scenes is incredibly distracting and really takes away from the image. However, those scenes are not the majority of the film; the majority of the film looks very impressive for its age and is another testament to how well Criterion presents their releases.
As one would expect for such a release, the majority of the extras present are talking heads/interviews with industry people/historians about the work and what surrounded it. One interview features David Skal (a historian) discussing the book and the film’s relation to it. There is also a piece with Gerald Castle and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo talking about the film’s influence on them (a short film they made is also included as a bonus feature), and another with Richard Stanley, who was the original director on the 1996 version of the film. Perhaps the most interesting discussion is one piece with John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns looking at several different aspects of the film from character to direction to costumes and makeup. The three are engaging and informative, and at 17 minutes it’s definitely worth watching. A stills gallery, commentary track done by Gregory Mank (another historian), and a booklet with an essay by Christine Smallwood are also included.
If classic horror and/or tales of science run amok are your thing, you definitely ought to check out Island of the Lost Souls. The film is an excellent example of the genre and this is a great presentation.