Hairy Tale: Island Of Lost Souls Revisited

Censored for decades, Erle C Kenton's taboo-flaunting 1932 adaptation of HG Wells' The Island Of Dr Moreau is finally being given a UK DVD release next week. David Pollock asks, Are We Not Men?

As far as reasons for banning a film go, that it’s "against nature" would be viewed as a positive selling point in many quarters. The legend which says that was the reason given by the BBFC for denying Erle C Kenton’s adaptation of HG Wells’ The Island Of Dr Moreau a release is debunked in one of the bonus features here, an interview with film historian Jonathan Rigby, but that’s essentially what concerned them. More precisely, the "against nature" quote is attributed to the wife of leading man Charles Laughton; censors used the tamer description "too horrible".

Part of Island Of Lost Souls‘ problem – and it isn’t an artistic one, given that this first UK DVD release still stands up as a malignantly sinister piece of work on the verge of the film’s 80th birthday – is that it so skilfully tapped into the fears of the day while trying to sensationally outdo its most outré horror successes. Rigby notes that MGM had released Tod Browning’s Freaks earlier in the year, and so Paramount Pictures’ thinking behind …Lost Souls was, "How can we out-prurient that?"

They succeeded, more or less, with a pageant of gory (for the time) violence, over-the-top pulp sexuality, suggested bestiality, a distasteful colonial fear of miscegenation and a tale rooted in belief in the concept of Darwinism – by then not so much a bête noir as in Victorian times, but still a matter to stir controversy. Should you wish to scratch below the surface you might also find blasphemy, class commentary, a creeping fear of proletarian revolt and the kind of theories of scientific determination in breeding which were interesting the then-rulers of Germany. The picture harnessed the ugliness of the 1930s and presented it in an eerie and briskly paced science fantasy pill.

Richard Arlen, star of 1927’s Academy Award-winning Wings (the first and only silent movie to win Best Picture until The Artist), is square-jawed and identikit as Edward Parker, a sea traveller who finds himself shipwrecked, rescued by a freighter and then deposited on an uncharted South Seas island alongside one of its residents, Mr Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), after a bout of fisticuffs with the freighter’s boorish captain.

This is the island of Dr Moreau, a scientist with a Luciferian beard and an intense stare you’d cross the street to avoid, both features at unsettling odds with his chubby, waxy faced youth – Scarborough’s Laughton, already an acting powerhouse by then, was only in his early thirties when this was filmed. His accent is cut-glass Oxbridge, his manner that of a small-time colonial governor, stern and brow-moistened with sweat.

Aside from Montgomery, who came to Moreau in London as a former medical student facing "a prison term for a professional indiscretion", the island’s other inhabitants appear to be a horde of hirsute tribesmen, shambling and unintelligent, many of them disfigured. We find out before long, of course, that these animal-men have been created as a result of Moreau’s unhinged experiments. He too left London after reports of his work got out, "the newspapers at my heels and a roused England crying for my blood," and he now leads a Kurtzian existence churning out animal-men in tortuous experiments in his ‘House of Pain’.

What most significantly separates this version of Wells’ book from any future adaptation is the presence of Lota the Panther Woman, who, according to a particularly cheesecake advertising poster of the time, ‘Lured Men On – Only To Destroy Them Body And Soul!’ In reality Lota – an iconic cinematic figure of the era thanks to her striking eye make-up and a mini-sarong and bikini bra top which might have been considered unseemly in the 1960s – was Kathleen Burke, a young dental nurse and model from Chicago, who had won her debut role in a contest.

This is where it gets weird. Moreau, curiosity piqued, decides he wishes to mate the alluring, almost-human Lota with Parker, and sabotages the only boat off the island in order that isolation and boredom might force them together. Laughton’s performance is stunning: a blend of scientific detachment that goes beyond conventional morality, and a grubby excitement at the mechanics of this intended procreation. If he’s evil, then it’s a bland sort of evil, coupled with an antisocial voyeurism which might have seen him branded the local pervert had he stayed in Blighty.

The combination is by turns hilarious and sinister. "Well I’ll leave you two young people together," he toodle-pips on first introducing the pair, and later cattily declares "I hope you sleep well" to Parker, as he sends him off for a bout of hoped-for inter-species fornication. Yet one of the most infamous lines is delivered with a steady but barely concealed megalomania, Moreau’s eyes glistening like onyx in monochrome close-up as he breathes, "Do you know what it means to feel like god?"

One of the most patronisingly dated exchanges is also defused masterfully by Laughton’s crisp wit. "To have created a thing as tragic as that girl," blusters Parker, all patriarchal melodrama on behalf of Lota, "an animal with a woman’s emotions, a woman’s heartbreak, a woman’s suffering – it’s criminal." Moreau bats back, "You’re an amazingly unscientific young man."

The film looks stunning, with cinematographer Karl Struss (known in horror circles for 1931’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde and also for FW Murnau’s seminal Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans in 1927) creating a striking, mist-swept Pacific emptiness at the beginning – even though the movie was shot on California’s Santa Catalina Island – and a procession of clear and distinctive jungle chase scenes towards the end, backgrounds awash with flame as the animal-men cast off their obedience to the whip-cracking Moreau.

In this latter respect is where the monster creations really come into their own, with one memorable barrage of shots seeing the creatures move one by one into big close-up as they advance on the horrifically doomed Doctor, grunting a chilling chorus of "Part-Beast. Part-Man. Thing." Not since we first see them on Montgomery’s boat, a shambling underclass of grimly low understanding but fierce curiosity, have the animal-men appeared so fearsomely human.

Of course, by its very age the film has dated, and much of it doesn’t appear so horrible after all. Yet the revenge of the beasts is a tableau which is garish bordering on the unpleasant, and the final scene is a cracker: a freshly-lit cigarette and the gruff instruction, "Don’t look back." There are also two curios in one with the appearance of Bela Lugosi as mightily bearded beast the Sayer of the Law, whose barked, cultish mantra here was the inspiration behind Devo’s new wave classic Jocko Homo and the title of their 1978 album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! In describing Island Of Lost Souls as a "really intense movie" compared to the "wussy" versions of the tale which would follow, the band’s singer Mark Mothersbaugh summed up its unexpected ability to shock to this day.

The uncut Dual Format Edition of Island Of Lost Souls, containing both DVD and Blu-ray versions, is out Monday May 28 through Masters of Cinema/Eureka Entertainment, who are also releasing the 1935 Charles Laughton title Ruggles Of Red Gap.

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