Friday, 13 August 2010

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Island of Lost Souls is a movie I’ve been lusting after for years. Now I’ve finally been able to to see it. And does it live up to my expectations? Oh yes.

With Charles Laughton playing Dr Moreau in an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau you really can’t go wrong. And this 1932 production was a Hollywood pre-code movie, and it shows. It’s delightfully perverse.

The story is familiar enough, and adheres reasonably closely to the novel. A shipwrecked passenger is cast ashore on a tiny uncharted island.The island is the private property of Dr Moreau. As we learn later Dr Moreau was forced to leave London after the nature of his medical experiments became a public scandal. Dr Moreau’s field is evolution (a hot subject in 1896 when the novel was published). He believes he can control and accelerate evolution.

The shipwrecked passenger, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), notices that the inhabitants of the island are rather strange. They seem very primitive indeed. But Dr Moreau is charming enough, and offers him the use of his schooner to complete his interrupted voyage Unfortunately the schooner meets with an unexpected accident and Parker finds himself stranded. He finds his surroundings increasingly disturbing, but there are compensations. Like the beautiful native girl Lota.

Lota is exotic but Parker can’t quite place her ethnic origins. And her child-like innocence seems a little excessive. But even though Parker has a girlfriend and he’s a decent sort of chap he can’t help but be attracted by Lota’s strange animal sexuality. He just doesn’t realise how animal her sexuality really is.

Dr Moreau is very much aware of the attraction between Parker and Lota, and it suits his purposes admirably. Apart from Moreau and his assistant there are no human inhabitants of Moreau’s island. They are all animals. But they are no longer merely animals. They have been scientifically modified by Moreau’s genius. They can walk and talk like humans. And they have an intermediary (played by Bela Lugosi) to remind them of the laws that Dr Moreau has taught them. And if they are tempted to stray from the Laws, he reminds them of the horrors of Dr Moreau’s laboratory (the House of Pain).

But the arrival of Parker has set in train events that will challenge Dr Moreau’s enclosed little world. Parker’s girlfriend is looking for him, and she will bring others.

Laughton is magnificent. He always enjoyed these larger-than-life roles and he really relished the opportunity of adding a very large dose of perversity to his performance. Richard Arlen is extremely good, and Bela Lugosi demonstrates his ability to add some depth to a monstrous role.

The movie was exceptionally controversial, partly because of the implication of bestiality (Parker is obviously sexually attracted to Lota and Lota is after all an animal, and Moreau clearly hopes for a mating between human and non-human). The movie also upset religious groups with its suggestion that science could usurp the role of God in creating life.

Island of Lost Souls is a worthy and intelligent adaptation of an important science fiction novel. It adds to the mix some very amusing elements of perverse sexuality which results in a strange and wicked but highly entertaining cocktail. Highly recommended.


Samuel Wilson said...

This is far better than the Seventies version of the story, which I remember being promoted mainly for the make-ups of the "Humanimals." I like to pair Island with White Zombie, not just because of Lugosi, but because they both show how convincingly and chillingly Hollywood could simulate the sub-human -- a subject that clearly fascinated people back then. Thirties horrors (throw Freaks in for extra measure)can be creepy in a way later decades really couldn't match.

Al Bruno III said...

Well written, this movie scared the crap out of me as a kid.

I wonder why it isn't on DVD?

dfordoom said...

Al, I think everyone would like to know why this movie hasn't had a DVD release.