Island of Lost Souls


(9/10) In a nutshell: Island of Lost Souls (1932) is probably the most refined of the sci-fi horror films of the thirties, and probably the best acted. The H.G. Wells tale about a mad doctor trying to create humans out of animals by surgical means is still thoroughly creepy today.

Island of Lost Souls. 1932, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Philip Wylie & Waldemar Young. Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke. Cinematography: Karl Struss. Make-up: Charles Gemora, Wally Westmore. Produced for Paramount. Tomatometer: 96 %. IMDb score: 7.6

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau being attacked by his creations.

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau being attacked by his creations.

”Not to walk on all fours! That is the law! Are we not men?” chants Bela Lugosi in heavy manimal make-up in as scene from the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, that has since become a classic. Although it is often clumped together with the Universal horror pictures of the time, like Frankenstein (review) and Dracula (both 1931), it was in fact made by Paramount, who also made Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931, review). In both these Paramount horrors, you can see a sort of refinement and style that was lacking from the Universal pictures, Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) perhaps being the exception.

The film is based on the lauded novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, written by the father of modern science fiction, H.G. Wells, in 1896. It was Wells’ third novel, after The Time Machine and The Wonderful Visit (both 1895). For more on Wells, please see my introduction to the roots of sci-fi. The Island of Dr. Moreau starts with Briton Edward Prendick (whose last name seems to have been changed in every film adaptation, for some reason) and two other men shipbroke in a dingy. Prendick is the narrator, and in a short, but important, prologue he tells about the horrible situation of being eight days adrift without water. Finally the marooned mates decide to toss coins – the one who loses, it is implied, will be killed and used for drinks. Prendick initially would rather sink the boat, and guards himself with a knife, but later succumbs. The coin toss leads to a struggle between the other men, who fall overboard and drown – at which Prendick laughs, and adds that he now feels ashamed of it. This chapter is short and seems like a throwaway prologue, and I have an inkling that it bore greater significance at some point – perhaps making Prendick kill one of his fellow passengers, but that either Wells himself or the publisher might have not wanted to lay that baggage on the protagonist. However, the scene illustrates one of the major themes of the book – the will to survive, the eternal struggle for survival, be it of the individual, or of life itself.

H.G. Wells in 1907.

H.G. Wells in 1907.

Prendick gets picked up by a boat and is left on an uncharted island with Mr. Montgomery, and his boss, the once brilliant doctor and scientist Moreau – and his strange looking servants. Moreau treats him pleasantly and hospitably, but at night he is locked into his room and hears strange noises. In the morning he hears screams from another room, and is shocked to find the doctor performing a horrible vivisection without anaesthetics on what looks te be a human. He concludes he himself must be the next victim and tries to flee, but is in turn faced by ”the natives” – horrible man-beasts that he surmises must once have been men, but are now deformed by the actions of Moreau. One of them is the Sayer of the Law, who recognises Prendick as a being with five fingers as himself. He then teaches Prendick the laws of humanity, including not to walk on four legs, not to lap one’s drink, not to eat meat and not to kill other beings. Moreau reaches him at the shoreline, and convinces him that he means him no harm by handing him his gun.

Later Moreau explains that Prendick has misunderstood – the creatures he has seen have actually been animals to begin with. Morau says that he was smoked out of the scientific community for his experiments and theories, and found this island to conduct them on. According to Moreau, the human being is the pinnacle of evolution, and all living things strive toward the human form. Therefore, what he has done through the use of surgery, has simply been to speed up evolution in order to not only perfect the animals, but the human being as well – to create a perfect race of humans. But it all goes awry as one beast, the Leopard Man, is caught killing a rabbit – forbidden by the Law of the island, as a measure of security so the manimals won’t turn into flesh eating beasts. The humans hunt down the Leopard Man, and the chase ends up with Prendick killing it to spare it further pain in the House of Pain (which is the universal punishment). But this is a bad idea, since the manimals have now seen one of the men break the Law by killing another creature, thus rendering the Law meaningless. The situation further escalates when a puma that Moreau works on breaks free – Moreau chases it down, and they end up killing each other, which leads to Montgomery breaking down, leaving the manimals leaderless. He also destroys all boats on the island, and is later killed.

Prendick – marooned and alone – learns to live in some kind of harmony with the manimals – becoming sort of a substitute Moreau, but they start regressing to their animal ways, and Prendick is forced to shoot one of them as it attacks him. By chance he happens on a boat, and is later picked up by a ship. Back home, he describes how he is unable to readjust to society, as he no longer sees his fellow men as humans, but rather as animals, just inches away from retorting back to their primitive ways.

Edouard Mouchy's 1832 painting showing the vivisection of a live dog - practice H.G. Wells detested.

Edouard Mouchy’s 1832 painting showing the vivisection of a live dog – practice H.G. Wells detested.

First and foremost The Island of Dr. Moreau is a protest against the vivisection of animals in the name of science and commerce. In the late 19th century there was a growing movement of resistance to animal cruelty, and Wells put himself as one of its spearheads with his book, which was actually written as a pamphlet. But the (short) novel also deals with a number of more philosophical questions, including such as social darwinism and the moral limits of science. At the end of the 19th century – although we were still 40 years away from Doktor Mengele and his cruel human experiments – eugenics was a hot topic. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, some scientists in the late 19th century started recommending sterilization of certain mental patients, and promoting the idea of refining the human race. In Britain Wells would also be aware of the way none-whites were still considered by large parts of society as inferior beings, almost half animals. Wells himself was fiercly anti-racist and opposed colonialism. The way in which he portrays the ”natives” of Moreau’s island clearly mirrors the way many colonialists viewed the original inhabitants of the colonies. Literature of the age was also filled with this image. Even authors who were basically sympathetic of these other cultures still painted an image of non-westerners as primitive and dumb. And of course the way Moreau and Montgomery run the island, subjugating the manimals, is also a commentary on both colonial policies and on slavery – as well as on the class society, the main theme of Wells’ earlier book The Time Machine, and one to to which he would constantly return. Lastly, there is also the philosophical question of what ”man” really is – of course also a hot topic for debate after the publication of Darwin’s theories some decades earlier. Is the human simply a refined animal, or is she even refined at all? Does she simply wear a thin coat of civilisation to hide her real animal self? Is man really a more moral being than her animal counterpart? The answer is clear on the point of Moreau, but is Prendick – really – any better himself, or is he simply trying to cover up his real self?

The ending of the book, with Prendick seeing his fellow humans as animals on the brink of regressing, clearly mirrors another book that deals with the notion of the “superior white man” – Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver’s last journey is taken to the land of the Houyhnhnms – intelligent horses, supremely more noble and moral than most men. The savages of this land are the filthy, brutal Yahoos, a sort of man-ape, and Gulliver is first mistaken as a Yahoo and treated with disgust by the Houyhnhnms. As Gulliver returns home, he is no longer able to stand the sight and smell even of his family, as they are in his eyes now merely lowly Yahoos in contrast to the noble Houyhnhnms.

Richard Arlen as Prendick and Leila Hyams as Ruth in one of cinematographer Karl Struss' brilliant shots.

Richard Arlen as Prendick and Leila Hyams as Ruth in one of cinematographer Karl Struss’ brilliant shots.

H.G. Wells hated the movie – which is not too surprising, since he hated most of the movies based on his works – with the exception of James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933, review), and, one can presume, the 1936 film Things to Come (review), for which he wrote the screenplay himself. In Wells’ opinion Island of Lost Souls laid to much emphasis on the horror elements instead of the philosophical ones. He may have had a point, but was in my humble opinion quite too harsh on the filmmakers. Indeed, the book just screamed out to be made into a horror film – and it is without doubt one of the most thoughtful horror flicks of the era. It is also one of the few that are still very creepy today – as compared to a Dracula or a Wolf Man. And in fact, if you dig a bit deeper below the frights, the film still retains most of Wells’ philosophical ponderings, and indeed even adds a few of its own – such as the story concerning the Panther Woman, which we will get to later. But Wells was never one for subtlety, as vividly demonstrated by the propagandistic moral soufflé that is Things to Come.

Although often called the first film adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau – the film in fact isn’t. The very first (known) adaptation is an 1911 French silent film called L’ile d’épouvante, more known in the States as The Island of Terror, as it was released in 1913. L’ile d’épouvante is a loose reworking of The Island of Dr. Moreau and the novel Le Docteur Lerne – Sous-Dieu (1908) – literally Doctor Lerne – Demigod, but translated into English as New Bodies for Old in 1923, written by Maurice Renard. The book itself seems loosely based on The Island of Dr. Moreau, and author Renard even included a dedication to Wells. Although not as famous as his idol, Renard also made quite an impact on sci-fi and horror films with a few of his better known novels – most famously Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac, 1921), which has been turned into four big screen films and one French TV adaptation. He also wrote novels about a man receiving ”electroscopical eyes” after being blinded, about aliens living in the strata, about invisibility, cloning, shrinking humans and slowing time. Many of his books have been translated into English and have, no doubt, had a heavy influence of sci-fi films, sadly uncredited for the most part. Well, that about that.

From a German review of L'ile d'épouvante from 1913.

From a German review of L’ile d’épouvante from 1913.

Island of Lost Souls is not based on Le Docteur Lerne, one should point out. But it is inspired by the many jungle adventure films that were extremely popular during the early decades of film – and that very often contained a beautiful savage girl, preferrably in a modestly revealing leopard dress. As often was the case with Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau is completely devoid of women. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first examine the plot of the film.

As noted earlier, the film actually follows the book in broad terms. The screenwriters were not just any hacks. Waldemar Young had previously worked on Tod Brownings’s (Dracula, Freaks) London After Midnight (1927) and would go on to write for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934). Philip Wylie was a noted author whose 1930 novel The Gladiator was one of the main inspirations for the Superman comic. In 1933 he wrote When Worlds Collide, made into film by George Pal in 1951 (review). He wrote a number of novels discussing societal issues and issues of gender and sexuality, and was both heralded as a feminist forerunner and, interestingly, a misogynist, which has been vehemently denied by his daughter. Wylie also worked (uncredited) on another Wells adaptation in 1933 – The Invisible Man.

Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman.

Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman.

Again – the film follows the book quite well – Prendick – now renamed Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is shipwrecked and picked up by a boat carrying animals, and is taken to Moreau’s island where he is first well received until he finds out that Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton) is performing horrendous vivisections in ”The House of Pain”. When trying to leave he is confronted by the manimals, led by The Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), who are frightened into submission by Moreau who threatens them with The House of Pain unless the Law is upheld. The creatures revolt after they see Moreau kill another human. The ending doesn’t have Parker living with the manimals, rather fighting them and escaping (with his girlfriend).

There are a few additions, most notably the Panther Woman Lota (Kathleen Burke, initially uncredited). Lota is introduced to Parker as a sort of an adopted daughter of Moreau’s, and when Parker remarks that she doesn’t look like the other ”natives” she replies that Moreau ”brought her” to the island. Moreau encourages her to spend time with Parker, and, unsurprisingly, they fall in love. Now, this may at first glance just seem like a Hollywood ploy to stick a scantily clad native girl into the film, and it partly is. The Panther Woman isn’t even referred to as ”the Panther Woman” in the film, but she featured heavily in its marketing strategy – even with false advertising such as ”The Panther Woman lured men on – only to destroy them body and soul” written on the posters, which has nothing at all to do with the actual plot. It is later revealed, of course, that the woman was originally a panther – Parker notices this as he is making out with her, and gets stung by her claws that have begun to grow out again. When he confronts Moreau in anger, the doctor explains that Lota is his most perfect creation, and he had hoped to see if a manimal could fall in love with a human being. At first he is enraged as he thinks his experiment has failed, but seeing her devastation at her own ”ugliness” which prevents her from having Parker, she first comforts her, takes note of her claws and hairy ears, and notes that it is the ”stubborn animal flesh creeping back again”. He then threatens to take her back to the House of Pain to ”burn out all the animal” in her. This is a thoroughly creepy scene with Charles Laughton doing a splendid job – and it isn’t made less discomforting by Moreau first patting her with a combination of lust and fatherly love, and then orders another of the manimals to rape her, as Parker won’t make her pregnant.

Charles Laughton and Kathleen Burke.

Charles Laughton and Kathleen Burke.

The addition of the Panther Woman must have been extremely difficult to bear for some studio executives, and would never have passed the Hays Code, enforced only two years later. It actually brought in even heavier philosophical material than Wells himself dared to poke at with a stick – such as love between man and beast, sex slavery, rape and the notion of an incestual relationship between Moreau and Lota. It is also interesting to see that Parker doesn’t seem to mind much that Lota is actually not human – as he is ardent about taking her with him as he escapes. John Stapledon would cause outrage 12 years later with his novel Sirius about a woman and her (presumably platonic) love relationship with a super-intelligent dog. These are issues that are of course still highly sensitive.

Another addition is Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams), Parker’s girlfriend, who is waiting for him at a harbour town when he is shipwrecked. Moreau’s assistant Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) – believing that he will continue with the ship to land, radios in a message from Parker to Ruth from the ship. As Parker isn’t on board when the ship arrives, Ruth confronts the captain who dumped him on the island, after a fight, and he reveals the coordinates of Moreau’s secret hideout. Instead of playing the damsel in distress, Ruth arranges for a rescue party to go and bail out her hubby in distress. The screenwriters (presumably Wylie first and foremost) also don’t have her screaming and fainting at the sight of the deformed inhabitants serving as waiters and manservants, rather she seems to keep her calm a lot better than her boyfriend. The character doesn’t really bring anything essential to the plot, but as a composed woman of action she is a very welcome addition to a genre prone to portraying women as fainting, tripping scream queens. (I mean seriously – why do women always trip over their own feet in these movies?)

The third major change is having Moreau die at the hands of the manimals taking their revenge, rather than being killed while heroically fighting a puma. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes we see a throng of man-beasts dragging Moreau to the House of Pain, they start picking up scalpels and surgical tools, and we hear Moreau screaming in pain off-screen. This of course, is inspired by Frankenstein’s monster taking his revenge on his maker.

Arthur Hohl (as Montgomery) and Charles Laughton in a beautifully framed shot by camera man Karl Struss.

Arthur Hohl (as Montgomery) and Charles Laughton in a beautifully framed shot by camera man Karl Struss.

The film could still have sunk into obscurity, had the role of Dr. Moreau been played by a Lugosi or a Karloff – no ill will against them, but they had a knack for hamming away roles like this. Instead Paramount scored a jackpot when they got British Shakespearian actor Charles Laughton. Although few except film buffs remember him today, he was one of the greatest stars of British and American cinema from the thirties to the fifties. He brings a mad talent to the role of Dr. Moreau, fully equipped in a crumpled, white plantage owner’s white suite, a whip and a gun at his side, portraying the stern but ”just” father figure of the manimals. In fact, he is the god of his own little kingdom that he has created for himself. His Moreau has a British refinement and elegance, juxtaposed by the brutalities he exercises. But despite his cordial and generous manners, there is from the beginning, even before his atrocities are revealed, a sense of smug self-satisfaction and haughtiness about him, and when explaining his experiments to Parker, he is desperate to show off, boastingly asking if Parker knows ”how it feels to be God” (a remark that the sceptic Wells hated). The total command of the manimals, and the assuredness that nothing can harm him, is rendrered all the more tragic when his creations finally exort their revenge. Laughton brings a class to the acting that few, if any, other early horror/sci-fi films had.

Laughton also brings a much needed lightness to the film, cracking little sadistic jokes and knowing one-liners, and finding the whole situation thoroughly amusing. He underplays, rather than overplays, Moreau, adding a touch of a pampered upper-class bully, making the doctor out as a rotund, deviant devil. But what is worth noting is that the rest of the film is completely devoid of humour. Indeed there is no Una O’Connor running around like a headless chicken, screaming the ears off everyone in the audience (see The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein).

The other scene stealer of the film is Bela Lugosi, as the tortured and haunted Sayer of he Law. Under his heavy make-up one can glimpse the genius of a Lugosi in top form, not restrained by the laughable scripts and roles he was offered later in his career. He has very little screen time, but is often the best remembered actor of the film. The scene where Moreau confronts the manimals when they are about to attack Parker is pure film legend.

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?

Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?

A furry Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law, one of his best and most memorable roles.

A furry Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law, one of his best and most memorable roles.

All the more potent then, is the scene before the whole thing explodes, when the manimals confront Moreau, and he asks them if they have forgotten about the House of Pain, and the Sayer of the Law replies: ”You! You made us in the House of Pain! You made us … Things! Not men! Not beasts! Part man … part beast! Things! Things!”

Charles Laughton and Richard Arlen.

Charles Laughton and Richard Arlen.

All in all, the film is very well acted across the whole board. Richard Arlen is not a very famous actor, but got his claim to fame in 1927 in the silent Academy Award winner Wings, playing a daring pilot. Back in the silent days, when a square jaw was sometimes more important for the romantic lead than being a good actor, he looked as if slated for fame, but for some reason he was never able to transcend into A-list films, Island of Lost Souls being one of the few exceptions. He is often lambasted for being non-descript in this film, ”wet noodle” is a phrase I’ve seen used – which simply isn’t fair. Of course he is outshone by Laughton and Lugosi, but that is partly because of his role – there is only so much you can do as the moral, goody two shoes leading man in a picture filled with sadistic mad doctors and beast men. As a matter of fact, Arlen brings a good deal of humanity and emotion to the role – and he does what a good actor does: he makes his co-actors look good. He listens, and he reacts. And it’s these reactions to the horrors that go on around him – naturalistic, real reactions, rather that overplayed, that makes the sadism of Laughton or the ugliness of the creatures all the more horrifying. (Arlen’s only other sci-fi exploration seems to be the deplorable Z-film The Human Duplicators from 1965, starring Richard ”Jaws” Kiel. EDIT: actually, he also stars in the 1944 mad scientist film The Lady and the Monster, in the lead, no less, review.) Arthur Hohl as the self-loathing Montgomery is absolutely brilliant, as is Paul Hurst in a tiny role as the captain of the ship that brings Ruth to the island. Leila Hyams, as said before, plays a composed, strong female character. Even Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman does a great job of fleshing out a role that might have just been played for the exploitation value. As far as the acting goes, this is beyond a doubt the most impressive of all the horror films of the thirties, The Invisible Man, The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein included.

Karl Struss apparently wearing his 12 year old son's pants.

Karl Struss apparently wearing his 12 year old son’s pants.

Director Erle C. Kenton had a long career that spanned both silent films, talkies and TV-series. Curiously enough, Island of Lost Souls towers supremely as his most accomplished picture. Much of his film work included light comedies (he did two with Abbot and Costello), dreary melodrama and C-grade westerns and thrillers. Toward the end of his film career he directed some of the regrettable swansongs of the Universal horror franchise, like The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), The House of Frankenstein (1944, review) and The House of Dracula (1945, review). Soon after that he moved into television, where he remained for the rest of his career. Thus it is a bit surprising that this film looks as good as it does. One of the reasons, I suspect, is the director of photography, Karl Struss. New Yorker Struss worked with greats such as F.W. Murnau, Cecil B. DeMille, Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. He was awarded with the first ever Oscar for cinematography for Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), and was nominated three more times. He filmed Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross and Robert Florey’s Hollywood Boulevard, as well as the early colour film Aloma of the South Seas (1942). But he also moved about genre cinema. In 1931 he, alongside director Florey, proved that sound didn’t have to mean static shots with the praised version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Fredric March. He also filmed Rocketship X-M in 1950 (review), the alien computer film Kronos in 1957 and the sci-fi classic The Fly in 1958.

Charles Laughton relaxing between takes.

Charles Laughton relaxing between takes.

Charles Laughton made his bones as a praised stage actor in London, and started appearing in short films starring his future wife Elsa Lanchester in 1928. One of them was especially written by H.G. Wells himself. Lanchester, of course, would later go on to horror sci-fi fame as the title character in the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein. In the thirties Laughton and Lanchester made the move to Hollywood, although they continued to appear in British films. Laughton quickly shot to fame as one of the greatest actors of Hollywood, and despite not looking like a traditional leading man, went on to play the lead in a number of high profile films, many of which won Oscars. Laughton himself won an Oscar, and was nominated for two more. He is perhaps best known for the title role in The Secret Life of Henry VIII, (1933), directed by the great Alexander Korda – the film became his calling card for great roles (and it gave him his Oscar), and as Captain Bligh in Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), for which he was nominated for an Oscar and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. He played Rembrandt van Rijn in Korda’s 1936 film Rembrandt, starred in Hitchcock’s last British film Jamaica Inn (1939) and played Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame the same year. In the forties he made films for Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, Jean Renoir and Irving Allen. In 1953 he played King Herod in William Dieterle’s epic Salome, and was nominated for an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe for his work in Billy Wilder’s 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution. He was again nominated for a Bafta for his last film, Otto Preminger’s Advice and Consent (1962). The three-time Academy Award winner and legendary method actor Daniel Day-Lewis has said that Charles Laughton is his greatest inspiration as an actor. Laughton and Lanchester were married throughout their lives, although in her autobiographical book, Lanchester confirmed what had long been rumoured, that Laughton was in fact gay, and the marriage, although not necessarily an unhappy one, was partly help together to make Laughton “acceptable” in the homophobic film industry of Hollywood and London.

Leila Hyams had a short film career spanning merely 12 years from 1924 to 1936, but was well received by audiences and critics alike. Her background was as a vaudeville performer with her parents and a model. She quickly shot to fame as a capable female leading star in dramas, but is perhaps best known for her two horror roles, both in 1932 – as the wisecracking, but sweet circus performer in Tod Browning’s Freaks, and Island of Lost Souls. Hyams was considered for the role as Jane in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, but the role went to Maureen O’Sullivan – seen in 1930 in the sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine (review). She retired of her own will in 1936.

Kathleen Burke taking a break in a floodlight.

Kathleen Burke taking a break in a floodlight.

Even shorter was the film career of Kathleen Burke. 21-year old Burke was a dentist’s assistant who had some modelling and acting experience from radio and stage when she submitted her photo to a competition looking for the actress to play the Panther Woman. She was chosen out of over 60 000 contestants. But the role meant she was typecast as the exotic temptress, often relegated to play ”the other woman”. Despite appearing in a few A-list films with actors like Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, she decided to call it quits just six years later, in 1938, seeing that her career wasn’t progressing.

Arthur Hohl (Montgomery) was a noted stage actor who also played small roles in a number of films, often as a villain. Hohl’s two performances seen most often today are the nasty boat engineer in the 1936 film version of Show Boat, and the one in Island of Lost Souls. He teamed up with Laughton again in Cleopatra, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Sign of the Cross, and appeared in Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947). One of the manimals, M’Ling, Moreau’s loyal servant, is played by Japanese-born actor Tetsu Komai, who played a number of small parts, mostly villainous characters, for many decades in Hollywood. He had small roles in two sci-fi serials: Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941 and Captain Midnight in 1954. The future Flash Gordon, Buster Crabbe (1936, review), and fifties movie great Alan Ladd are said to have appeared as beast men, but this is unconfirmed.

Island of Lost Souls was not as successful as the previous horror films made in 1931, for reasons perhaps best left to others to speculate about. I have a hard time seeing why – perhaps it didn’t have the iconic monster of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and The Invisible Man released in 1933. Or perhaps the audience simply saw it as too horrific. Neither did it get the same sort of rehabilitation as many of the other early horror pictures when the DVD format was introduced. For example even Universal’s and Hammer’s Z-grade films got lavish re-releases long before Island of Lost Souls. It has, however, gained some recognition during the last few years as Universal has bought its rights, and included it in its horror franchise. Nevertheless, it was far from a flop when it was originally released, and has not exactly been a ”hidden gem” in any way.

Moreau's lab.

Moreau’s lab.

It has spawned four remakes. The first one is a cheapo exploitation horror flick in 1959, called Terror is a Man, directed in the Philippines by Gerardo de Leon and starring Francis Lederer. This film subsequently spawned two sequels directed by Filipino director Eddie Romero. One of these was actually more of a remake than a sequel, when Romero returned to the original story with a (slightly) larger budget in 1972 (made by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, no less). That film was called The Twilight People, and starred actor/producer John Ashley and a young Pam Grier as the Panther Woman. In 1977 the story was given a considerably larger budget and for the first time filmed as The Island of Dr. Moreau. This version starred Michael York (of Logan’s Run fame) as Edward Prendick, although now renamed as Andrew Braddock, Burt Lancaster as Moreau and Barbara Carrera as eeeh … the Panther Woman, but not really, since the filmmakers edited out all notions of her being created by Moreau. Except for a fraction of a second, where her make-up as the Panther Woman can be seen if you don’t blink. Which makes the film utterly confusing. And of course there is the infamous 1996 remake with Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis and Fairuza Balk. Thewlis (one of my favourite actors) here plays Edward Prend … err Edward Douglas, as he is apparently called now. Brando has been universally lambasted for his role as Moreau, but I watched the film the other day, and can’t honestly see why it is seen as such an outrage. OK, so he sticks an ice bucket on his head in one scene and dresses in white robes, but apart from that his portrayal isn’t any more outrageous than that of Charles Laughton’s (in fact if you want to see it as such, he is also doing a brilliant self-parody of his role in Apocalypse Now. The film also has Kilmer doing a brilliant parody of Brando.) Perhaps it was just that back in 1996 it was a pastime to see Brando so you could lambast him, as it was with Lugosi in his latter years. Well, we shall return to that film (hopefully) some time later. (Wow, 1996 in sci-fi film seems very far off as I’m stuck here in 1932 …)

Two of the brilliant make-ups of the beast men.

Two of the brilliant make-ups of the beast men.

Damn! I almost forgot to mention the make-up, which would be a cardinal sin. One of the most prominent features of the film is the amazing make-up for the manimals, making them look really frightening with snoots, hoofs and fur all over – but still retaining much of their human features. The casting agent also used a lot of actors with unusual or deformed faces, adding to the creepiness. Working on the make-up for the manimals were Charles Gemora and Wally Westmore. Filipino émigré Gemora started out in Hollywood as a sculptor, working on many silent films for Universal,

Charles Gemora and his gorilla suit.

Charles Gemora and his gorilla suit.

such as Phantom of the Opera and Noah’s Ark, before using his talents to design gorilla suits for films. He realized that his short stature made him perfect for playing gorillas, so he donned the suits – and others that he created for a number of films. He played gorillas in dozens of films, becoming universally known as The Gorilla Man. He appeared as a gorilla in high profile films such as Gunga Din, Around the World in Eighty Days and The Ten Commandments. He also created the memorable alien of the 1953 film War of the Worlds (another Wells adaptation, review). He can be seen as a caged gorilla in he beginning of Island of Lost Souls, but was presumably too busy doing make-up to appear in the rest of the film. Wally Westmore racked up a seriously impressive record of working with make-up on over 500 films – best remembered are the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Island of Lost Souls.

Ah oh: a bit of trivia to finish off: the film is credited for coining the term ”The natives are restless tonight”, which is true – although it is a bit of a misquote, like ”Luke, I am your father”, or ”Play it again, Sam”. The original dialogue goes like this:

Ruth Thomas: [hearing chanting] What’s that?
Dr. Moreau: The natives, they have a curious ceremony. Mr. Parker has witnessed it.
Ruth Thomas: Tell us about it, Edward.
Edward Parker: Oh, it’s … it’s nothing.
Dr. Moreau: They are restless tonight.

Island of Lost Souls. 1932, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Philip Wylie & Waldemar Young. Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke. Leila Hyams, Arthur Hohl, Stanley Fields, Paul Hurst, Hans Steinke, Tetsu Komai, George Irving, Buster Crabbe (unconfirmed), Alan Ladd (unconfirmed). Cinematography: Karl Struss. Make-up: Charles Gemora, Wally Westmore. Art direction: Hans Dreier. Visual effects: Gordon Jennings. Produced for Paramount. 

20 thoughts on “Island of Lost Souls

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