Home Video Hovel- The Island of Lost Souls
It’s hard to imagine that a movie made nearly 80 years ago could still be as shocking and frightening as it was when it was released. In a time when shockers like Human Centipede can repulse and revolt, it’s easy to write off a 70-minute black and white picture from 1932 as irrelevant or out of date, but this would be a travesty. During the horror heyday of pre-Code Hollywood, some of the most innovative and boundary pushing films were produced. Universal made a name for itself with gothic horror pieces like Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein, and soon other studios wanted to jump on the horror bandwagon. The following year, two of the most controversial scare pictures of all time were produced. Browning’s Freaks released by MGM depicted real people with real physical deformities, something which could never be allowed today, and the film was banned in several countries but has been available on DVD for some time. The other film is only now getting a release on disc and is still considered one of the most controversial films of all time: Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls. What’s fascinating about this picture is that it manages to offend and shock purely through suggestion and situation. In truth, it’s one of the most effective films of its kind ever produced.
Based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls tells the story of a shipwrecked man, Parker (Richard Arlen), who is picked up by a passing ship carrying wild animals. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) tells Parker they’re for research he and his boss are conducting. After a scuffle with the ship’s captain, Parker is thrown overboard onto the boat of Montgomery’s boss, the mysterious Dr. Moreau, played with sinister, sadistic glee by the great Charles Laughton. Moreau takes Parker to his island where he lives in a lavish mansion and does some sort of scientific work with animals. Parker notices that the natives on this island are all hairier than usual and have strange physical characteristics. Moreau seems to have some ulterior motive for bringing Parker to his island and introduces the young man to Lota, the only woman on the island, whom Moreau claims is a “pure Polynesian.” There is something strange about Lota, though Parker cannot tell what. Eventually, Parker hears horrible screams coming from Moreau’s lab, which Lota calls “The House of Pain,” and Parker soon learns the horrible truth: that Moreau is experimenting on animals in order to make them human.
The central conceit, blurring the line between men and beasts, is still strong today. What makes humans sentient and not animals? Is it just as simple as a little bit of surgery? The film’s title references the crux of the issue: whether or not animals have souls. Dr. Moreau rather glibly compares himself to God as he says humanity is the endpoint of thousands of years of evolution and that he is merely speeding up time. His island is full of “failed” experiments, all of whom are beasts that can think. Like Moses bringing the Ten Commandments from the mountain, Moreau stands over the encampment of his creations and reminds them of the law – HIS law. The leader of these poor creatures is the Sayer of the Law, played by the legendary Bela Lugosi, who constantly repeats the mantra, “Are we not men?” There is also the Dr’s fiendish plot to see if Parker would mate with Lota, not knowing she is in fact a panther woman and, failing that, to have one of his hulking creations attempt to rape and impregnate Parker’s fiancé when she arrives to rescue him. It was this implication of bestiality, as well as the remorseless blasphemy, that caused the film to be banned outright in several countries, including Great Britain, and to be cut severely in several other markets.
Now, 79 years after its theatrical release, though it did come out on VHS many years ago, Island of Lost Souls is finally available totally uncut on DVD and Blu-ray, as part of the Criterion Collection. As is common with Criterion, the release offers a gorgeous, digitally-restored version of the film and the black & white is as crisp as if it were made yesterday. The extras on the disc are plentiful and of high quality. They include a conversation between director John Landis, make-up effects guru Rick Baker, and actor and genre expert Bob Burns. The three discuss the impact the film had on audiences and the innovative yet simple make-up effects of the beast people. It’s always nice to hear people who understand movies discuss a particular film and this is the best of the extras here.
The disc also includes several single-camera interviews. The first is by author and film historian David J. Skal. Skal has written several books regarding horror and science fiction films from this period in history and was instrumental in getting Freaks restored and released a few years ago. Skal talks at length about the history of Island of Lost Souls as well as about some behind the scenes anecdotes that are entertaining. He’s thorough and knowledgeable and enjoyable to listen to. Another interview is with filmmaker Richard Stanley who was the original writer and director of the ill-fated 1996 version of the film. He is sort of a weird guy, but has a lot to say about H.G. Wells (who hated this film), his original novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and about how and why the various versions of the film don’t quite live up to Wells’ original vision. He also speaks frankly about why he was fired from the 1996 production and how it was ultimately ruined by Marlon Brando’s escalating fee and John Frankenheimer’s desire to turn it into an action movie.
The third interview is with Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, the founding members of the New Wave band Devo. They discuss how seeing Island of Lost Souls on the Saturday night Ghoulardi show in Cleveland was integral to their core beliefs of de-evolution and wanting to offend everyone in the world. Also included with this is their ten-minute 1976 short film, In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution, a Lynchian musical journey that includes the song “Jocko Homo,” which takes its theme and chorus from Island of Lost Souls. (“Are we not men?/We are Devo.”)
Rounding out the special features are a photo gallery, trailer, and a feature-length commentary by historian Gregory Mank. Mank takes us through every single aspect of the film and even about which specific lines were cut for which markets and how each of the actors responded to the material in the film. Most tragic is the story of acting novice Kathleen Burke who played the Panther Woman and how this role effectively ruined her chances at a lasting career in Hollywood. This is a very informative commentary that sadly does repeat some of the same material spoken about by David J. Skal in his interview. The liner notes of the DVD also contain an essay by Christine Smallwood which gives yet another opinion about the film and its importance not only to horror cinema but cinema as a whole.
Island of Lost Souls is a fantastic film, and one that likely would not be seen by anyone if not for Criterion. The ideas and themes brought up are still way ahead of their time. This is real horror that is handled most effectively. Laughton and Lugosi are brilliant and terrifying in their own separate ways and the rest of the cast is quite good as well. This is a must for any fan of film history, horror films, pre-Code films, and of a good story told well. Do yourself a favor and pick up the Criterion release of Island of Lost Souls.