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Universal dominated the horror market of the 1930s, but every once in a
while the other studios would produce a classic of their own. `Island of
Lost Souls,' produced by Paramount, is one such film. It's tight, fast, and
The most striking thing about `Island' is its claustrophobic, nightmarish atmosphere. Some people criticize the hero, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), as bland and colorless, but I think this works in the film's favor. Since he has no personality of his own, he can be more of an Everyman; he also has no strength to draw upon and is therefore powerless against the horrors around him. He sees the perverse monstrosities Moreau has created on his island, finds himself attracted to and then repulsed by the cat-woman Lota, and then struggles to free himself from Moreau's manipulative control. It's like those nightmares where you try to run away from something terrible but your feet won't move.
Charles Laughton steals the show as Dr. Moreau; his disarming, cherubic exterior somehow enhances his aura of menace. He may not look as blatantly evil as Bela Lugosi, but after a few minutes you just know there's something terribly wrong with this man. The irony is, the creatures Moreau creates are far more humane than he is. The creatures themselves live in a tight society, bound by the laws Moreau has given them; instead of dwelling on their physical awfulness, the film imparts them with a curious dignity and innocence. When the inevitable rebellion comes, I found myself cheering the creatures on, much like I felt my heart go out to the Frankenstein Monster or King Kong.
`Island' is one of those movies you need to watch on a humid summer night, when your clothes cling to your skin and every breath feels like it's coming through a wet towel. Feel the suspense and the terror seep into you, and then try to tell me the old horror movies weren't infinitely better than what passes for horror nowadays.
I first saw this film in 1933 when I was 7 years old. My 20 year old
who was also my nanny, used to drag me to these things (also took me to
equally horrifying Trader Horn and King Kong) instead of taking me to the
playground. Even after 67 years, I remembered the scene when someone was
lashing the rebellious half-animals.
I checked it out from my video store last year for a re-run. Absolutely magnificent Laughton. Still scary.
The 1930s was a great decade for horror with classic titles like 'Dracula', 'Frankenstein', 'Bride Of Frankenstein', 'Freaks', 'King Kong', 'The Invisible Man' and 'White Zombie'. I always thought 'Bride Of Frankenstein' was the best of the lot, but a VERY close second would have to be 'Island Of Lost Souls'. It truly is an extraordinary movie and still able to chill the blood and fire the imagination! It's easily the best version of H.G. Wells' 'The Island Of Dr Moreau' to date, and literally years ahead of its time. Many of the 1930s films made before the self imposed censorship of the Hays Code are quite startling and really pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on screen. This movie is seventy years old but it still pretty disturbing even now. At the time it must have been something else! Especially the super sexy Lota The Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke). Charles Laughton plays Moreau and he is one of the greatest of screen villains. The quintessential megalomaniac mad scientist figure. Richard Arlen is pretty good as the hero, Edward Parker, who finds himself trapped on Moreau's island, and horror legend Bela Lugosi is unforgettable as the Sayer of the Law. I watched an old video copy of this movie with a lousy transfer and was still utterly transfixed. If this is available on DVD with the care and attention given to it that Universal have taken on their classic horror titles I will add it straight to the top of my (ever expanding!) "must buy" list. 'Island Of Lost Souls' is one of the greatest horror movies I've ever seen, and one that I can't recommend highly enough to any horror buff whatever your age or taste.
This controversial adaptation of H.G. Wells' short novel, was outlawed
in many nations around the globe due to the unpalatable ethical and
religious issues it raised. The film was produced before the infamous
Hays Code was set up and thus was able to introduce radical scenes of
horror and deviant sexuality that would become taboo until the
liberalisation of movies in the early 1970's.
Universal were raking in the money and even some critical accolades with their literary monsters series in the 1930's - Dracula, FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN - so Paramount threw in the gauntlet and produced the huge box-office hit DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Buoyed by this massive hit they financed another horror novel and chose THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (the title was later changed to ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) and Charles Laughton, at the time he was still a relatively new stage actor from England who had previously appeared in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, was cast in the title role. However, the film proved to be a box-office failure and the press mauled it whilst the religious right voiced their anger at the idea that Man could create Man by splicing flesh of various living animals. The possibility of taming animals by grafting humanity into their flesh and the suggestion of bestiality were repugnant to the Church and the film was eventually pulled from release and largely forgotten.
The story, about a scientist playing God on an uncharted South Seas Island, was shocking even on the written page but the filmmakers took it one step further and produced a shocker that even H.G. Wells denounced upon seeing the finished film. Charles Laughton, a close friend of H.G. Wells', was an animal lover who was so traumatised by the scenes of vivisection and barbarism that he would never again visit a zoo for the remainder of his life because it made him ill.
The passing of time has not dulled the power of the film and the very effective make-up designs remain as fresh and exciting as when they first appeared in 1933. There is no dating here and the film speaks to us across the great divide of decades. For those who have seen the European serial-killer film FUNNY GAMES (1997) they will not forget how the murders took place off-screen and the viewer was only privy to the unbearably horrific sounds of pain. Well, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS employed this technique very effectively back in early 1933. The power of suggestion is more profoundly disturbing than a full visual revelation of the violence.
The film moves at a cracking pace and every second of the 71 minutes running time is well utilized, the production values are high and the sets look fabulous, the performances are very good, especially Laughton who resembles a seductive and effeminate Mephistopheles whilst Bela Lugosi, as the Sayer of the Law, is totally convincing in his role as the island elder. His makeup resembles the Wolf-Man and it is impossible to recognise him except through that rich and extravagant voice of his. Lota the Panther Woman, played by the winner of a Paramount publicity audition contest (where over 60,000 hopefuls were tested), is played by Kathleen Burke. Every time she appears the screen sizzles with creamy eroticism. Her body moves like an athletic cat and yet she is very innocent and tender. The moment she uncurls her fingers and reveals her clawed fingers in the moonlight will shrivel the most aroused male member of the audience. The script, although it does deviate from the novel in places, is literate and intelligent. There is a great deal of subtext on display - Laughton dressed in his immaculate white hat and suit and wielding a bull-whip over the animal-natives is a great metaphor for slavery and the invasion of Paradise.
Now, as far as I am aware, this film is currently not available either on VHS or DVD for some strange reason. I was very fortunate in tracking down an extremely rare double-bill Laser-Disc which contained the Universal production of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE on the first platter. This is an interesting combination because we have two separate production houses releasing a double-bill, in this case Paramount and Universal.
The transfer of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a bit soft and there is print damage in places. However, this very aspect gives the film an edge of authenticity and makes it even more riveting. The print looks like newsreel footage of a real event and this gives the drama added realism. The sound is crisp but does occasionally warble in places. Again, it lends the visual horror a documentary eeriness. The packaging is lovely, a gate-fold sleeve opens up to reveal production photos and a detailed commentary on both films. The disc also features a trailer which contains an alternate angle of a shot in the film but this one is decidedly raunchier!
This timeless movie has been neglected for far too long and the time has arrived for it to be remastered for a DVD presentation. Forget the Burt Lancaster and Michael York version from 1977 and the misbegotten 1996 release starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. The 1933 film beats them hands down and is right up there with FREAKS (1932) in terms of naked human horror.
From the H.G. Wells story, "The Island of Dr. Moreau," this film is part horror story, part science fiction, and part moral fable. If the film works, it's because of Wells's writing and because of the simultaneously comforting and disturbing presence of Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau. He is another sort of Dr. Frankenstein, a scientist whose hunger for discovery transforms genius and egotism into a pathology. Moreau has discovered a means of accelerating evolution by hundreds of millennia. His experiments with plants were harmless enough, but, banished to a tropical island, he forces beasts to evolve into men through sessions in the operating theatre he calls the House of Pain. The creatures are given the law, which they chant responsively: "Are we not men?" Into this scenario comes an innocent outsider, Parker (Richard Arlen), who rejects Moreau's vision and stands for truth and dignityArlen is a typical 30s hero, a bit of a stick figure, really, with good posture and a pretty fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) who shows up on the island to save him, and in turn to be saved herself, but he's not a great actor. On the other hand, Laughton is. He invests the part with a complex mix of charm, sprawling awkwardly on an operating table to show how fully at ease he is, or smiling with a boyish expression of amusement, not unlike Fatty Arbucklebut he's also able to exude menace by holding absolutely still, an effect emphasized by shadow, and by saying terrible things with a bland expression. Also remarkable is Kathleen Burke as Lota, the Panther Woman, Moreau's most advanced experiment: she weeps, she loves, she protects her beloved and dies in the effort. The beast-peopleParker and Moreau call them "natives," Parker sincerely and Moreau ironicallyare disturbed, and Moreau says "They are restless tonight." Is this the origin of the familiar phrase? When they discover Dr. Moreau is willing to break the law, ordering the death of an intruder, they realize he can die, too, and take him to the House of Pain. Rowing away from the burning island, Dr. Moreau's assistant, the repentant Dr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) tells them, "Don't look back." Another source for yet another familiar phrase? The story is not really about political events of the 30s at all--the story was written much earlier--but about the human limits of science, a theme dating back at least to Faustus and Frankenstein.
I have noticed some commenters found the movie boring or slow. You have to
remember that it was made in 1933! The pacing and suspense probably felt
very quick to an audience that had never seen TV, and whose primary source
of entertainment was radio (for drama, suspense, horror and comedy).
The aspect I find most interesting about this definite classic of the horror genre -- aside from the excellent acting, atmosphere, script (the only adaptation of "Island of Dr. Moreau" that is faithful and the only one that's good) and makeup -- is the way it chronicles the development of film, from silent movies to talkies. Perhaps the reason some viewers find it boring is that one thing the film lacks is any musical soundtrack. I noticed this quite strikingly in some of the long pans that take place, and also in the chase scenes. I may be wrong, but I think this is a holdover from silent movies, when the music was supplied by a live musician playing piano in the movie theater. Certainly some of the emotional reaction shots, and in particular the shots of the group of half-men approaching the camera near the end, which are repeated several times, have the feel of silent movie technique. In fact, the overall feeling I get when watching this movie is that of a silent movie, with talking added in. This movie just seems to me to have been made exactly on the cusp of a time when filmmakers were adjusting their techniques to the use of sound, but hadn't fully arrived there yet.
Of course the movie is also excellent as pure entertainment. Charles Laughton was the perfect Dr. Moreau, and all the other players were well done too. And we all remember the quotes of the Sayer of the Law. I remember another one, though, by the Captain that brings the girl to the island. "No long pig?" he asks, grinning. We are chilled to learn that long pig refers to consumption of human flesh. And the final line, "Don't look back." Overall, this is a frightening look at the way science can be perverted by people with no conscience.
This chilling adaptation of the H.G.Well's novella, "The Island of Dr
Moreau" remains unsurpassed, despite two later wretched attempts to improve
upon it. Banned in England upon release! An exotic, but sinister atmosphere
pervading Moreau's privately-owned island
is enhanced by filming in Black & White, whose shadowy contrasts imbue the
setting which a dark, suspenseful tone. Moreau amorally attempts to "play
God" by creating "manimals" - hybrid humans and animals - via surgical
vivasection and blood transfusion in his laboratory, The House of Pain.
Charles Laughton has never been more campily devilish as when playing
Moreau - an exquisite performance by a great actor.
Bela Lugosi plays a small, but effective part as "The Sayer of the Law": "Are we not men?" Kathleen Burke as the beautiful, erotic "Panther Woman" who develops an ill-fated romance with the protagonist, Edward Parker (played by Richard Arlen). Crisp direction by Erle Kenton, with nice make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The cutaway from the grisly ending when Moreau is about to be subjected to "surgery of the most fatal kind" in The House of Pain is most appreciated and is what I consider to be an exercise in directorial restraint and finesse. My imagination more than filled in the horrific details. Kudos to Mr. Kenton!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For those unfamiliar, Island of Lost Souls (1933) is the earliest and
easily the superior version of H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau. This is a
beautifully filmed movie that still supplies the creepy moments almost
70 years after being made.
The basic story: A man rescued at sea is dropped off at an uncharted island owned by Dr. Moreau. The island is filled with strange "natives". The man soon learns that the natives are actually the creations of Dr. Moreau. Dr. Moreau is a god to his creations. But, once the "natives" learn that Dr. Moreau is not a god, they turn on him with horrifying consequences.
Charles Laughton delivers one of the best performances in the history of horror as the mad Dr. Moreau. Dressed head-to-toe in white, he is as sinister as you get. A brilliant acting job. The rest of the cast is fine. Bela Lugosi, in a very small supporting role, is quite good. Kathleen Burke (Lota the Panther Woman) is also a stand out. But, this is Laughton's film and he makes the most of it.
The very simple creature makeup is effective. The cinematography, etc. are also quite good. For example, there are several scenes with Moreau standing in the shadows that are especially effective.
This is a film not to be missed. While it may not appeal to the hack and slash crowd, Island of Lost Souls is a wonderful horror movie. For what it's worth, I'll give this one 10/10. (It's a shame Paramount didn't make more horror films in the 30s.) One final thought, the ending of the film is very reminiscent of the ending of Freaks (1932) with the same savagery on display.
I'll be brief: If you've never seen this definitive, influential horror film, see it. After all these years, it still has the power to shock. Good performances all around (Charles Laughton in particular). Small wonder this thing was banned in the U.K. for so long. Now that it's been remade (at least twice), it's worth taking a look at the original.
This fantastical horror movie based on "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is not necessarily scary by today's graphic standards. However, it still manages to touch on the terror of "humanity's inhumanity." It also provides a classic mad-scientist performance which still gives me the creeps. The makeup isn't perfect, but it is far superior to typical fare of the time.
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