A menacing, spellbinding little monstrosity from Pre-Code era Hollywood, Island of Lost Souls is perhaps the only early-sound American horror film to challenge the supremacy of Universal pictures for its unprecedented monopoly on the genre through the ’30s (the ’40s were much less kind to a company that increasingly became a corporate sequel-shill, but Val Lewton was there to save the genre from total oblivion). Kicking off an under-respected tradition of great, forward-thinking, alert, provocative HG Wells adaptations through the ’30s (even Orson Welles got involved), Island of Lost Souls is about as fine a beginning to a legacy as you could hope for. Dealing with the monomaniacal and the perverse with equal artistry and frankness, Erle Kenton’s film appears urgently modern, free of restrictions, and alive with discovery.
Of course, if it is free-thinking and modernist by the standards of the time, it is also often aloof, alien, and somewhat cringe-inducingly dated, lost in the misplaced memories of its own time period. But it is an act of divine intervention that the film inoculates itself from harm here to; everything dated and indulgent about the film only serves to accrue it an arcane, mystical, alien quality, like an artifact from another world that hides how directly and piercingly it speaks to ours. The end result is no brilliant film, but it is deceptively compelling, nervous, blighted cinema to this day. It is a work that feels momentary and prescient precisely because it gives off a vibe from the discarded past, or somewhere out of this world.
With a breathless set-up involving adventurer Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) stranded by a captain (Stanley Fields) who expresses discontent toward him, we soon find ourselves lost with Parker on the Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s a magisterial place, thick underbrush disguising a brutishly under-furnished quality and a certain barren masquerade locking away vast egos dripping amidst the density of the shrubbery. Egos all belonging to Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) of course, proprietor of the island’s madness factory and excavator of humanity playing in god’s realm (this is a 1932 horror moral parable after all, and god’s realm and the naughtiness of sexual proclivity are de facto shrieks on the faces of the humans both in front of the screen and behind it). Moreau’s flamboyant frills hide an un-parsimonious ego of grand ambition and little concern for morality, manifested most vocally in his collage of pseudo-man-beasts tearing the island asunder. He exhibits a particularly maniacal form of anomie, a detachment from society filtered less through inward soul-searching than through self-serving enslavement and torture.
Moreau cares not for Parker’s worries or concerns, and cares for nothing really except his own success, and thus is the foundation of one of horror’s greatest types (a type that had been explored in seemingly every single German Expressionist horror film from the silent era and was still thick-on-the-ground at the tail end of the Hammer fifty years following). Great mad scientists are a sunken treasure of the cinema. They are just one of those things modern films don’t “get” anymore, nor even attempt, and any film that dives so eagerly into the realm of gods and Monsters should be cherished like a long-lost friend or a particularly ghoulish memento recently unearthed.
Speaking of monsters, it’s easy to reduce the quality of the practical special effects for Moreau’s Monsters – the special effects being probably the most apparent aspect of the film to today’s audiences – to their turgid, failed qualities, and at some level, we absolutely should. The fact of the matter is the creatures created by Dr. Moreau are failures, turgid creatures born in the vast cavern between humanity’s ego and its fallibility, its graceless inability to recognize limitation, and its over-zealous corruption. They are tactile grotesques, monstrous conglomerates of failed human dreams and nightmarish fancy, along with the occasional staple or stitch. They look like patch-work, serving as a testament to the surface-level superficiality of a man’s feeble attempt to create. They are permanent, physical manifestations of his own cringing failure.
Still, while the practical effects are the subversive special pinch-hitter taking the film home, the visual filmmaking is surprisingly sharp and refined throughout. Everything is intricately composed to create a certain theatrical assemblage without ever sacrificing the lustful brash vibe that separates so much of Pre-Code Hollywood from the films that would be released immediately afterward. There’s a certain misty, arcane quality to the film’s literal grain and washed-over images, very much one with the soft-focus gauzy look of so much early Hollywood (owed primarily to the silent film look, taken to soul-baring heights with Dreyer’s Vampyr, released in the same year as Island of Lost Souls). Yet, despite the lost-and-found haze, it’s an experimental film that never quite loses the menacing vigor of a more urban film like fellow class of ’32 alums I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Scarface. If nothing else, the cryptic vibe to the Moreau’s island enhances the primal immediacy of the film by thrusting it right into our faces with envy.
Yet Lost Souls cannot be addressed without addressing Moreau himself, a man seeping up through the cracks of the patchwork jungle he calls slave, resorting to fey, monomaniacal verbal jests and gasps hastily scribbled on with spouts of nervous breath. He is his location’s master and greatest victim, yet he is also the man Laughton calls home for 70 minutes. And what an ostentatious, intimate, conflicted, well-worn, grandly elegant home he constructs in the process! Finding the man in the machine and the machine in the man, Laughton blends pushy realist gestures with overblown yet honest theatricality to create characters at once pressingly, intimately human and spell-bindingly fable-prone. It is one of the great horror performances, up there with Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster from the same time period, and probably the most tragically ominous of the triad.
Island of Lost Souls is very much one with that particular brand of Pre-Code world-weary cantankerousness that always managed to seem more youthful and restless than it probably should have. It is a devoutly constructed film, a work that could only ever be a film, and yet it feels less like a world of moral theater than a marker of hushed, untold secrets long lost to society. It feels aged yet relevant, almost psychotic in its sexualized proclivity and naughty, morbid curiosity yet always hidden and suggesting more than it states. It is the rare film that can convey crippling sanity and troubled madness, and to always reveal without ever actually locking anything away in the first place, even if it is always game to feign back-handed illusions and white-hot stagecraft simply for the thrill of the show. In the best spirit of the Pre-Code, it is secretive and predatory, open and closed, a work for which its deadened, frantically re-discovered quality is one with its perpetual liveliness, for it always seems to be struggling to let its life be known.