Island of Lost Souls, The (1933)

“Are we not men?”

Island of Lost Souls

Synopsis:
A shipwrecked sailor (Richard Arlen) tries to escape from the clutches of mad Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who has created a race of pseudo-humans from animals.

Genres:


Response to Peary’s Review:

Based on H.G. Wells’s 1896 sci-fi novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, this atmospheric adventure film is surprisingly “shocking, gruesome, [and] fascinating.” As indicated by the movie’s slightly altered title, director Eric Kenton seems primarily interested in exploring the potential humanity of these half-beasts: if they’re human enough to have “souls”, then surely they merit a better existence than the slavish one they’re subjected to on Dr. Moreau’s island. Indeed, it’s difficult not to cheer for these pathetically odd-looking creatures once they finally gather the courage to rebel.

An intriguing subplot in the film focuses on the doomed attraction that the sexy “Panther Woman”, Lota (Kathleen Burke), feels for Arlen — who, after kissing her on the lips, “does quite a double-take and looks ill.” Burke does an remarkably effective job portraying a feline sensibility in a female body, but Laughton steals the show in the lead role; according to Peary, he based his sadistic characterization of Dr. Moreau on his dentist (!).

P.S. Although the title has been changed, this early film ironically remains the most faithful version made so far of Wells’s novel.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Charles Laughton’s stand-out performance as Dr. Moreau (which Peary nominates for an Alternate Oscar)
    Island Lost Souls Laughton
  • Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman — check out the subtlety of her “feline” movements
  • The wonderfully convincing, “hideous-looking” half-beasts

Must See?
Yes. As Peary points out, this movie’s daringly “offensive” storyline makes it an unusual, must-see part of early film history.

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2 Responses to “Island of Lost Souls, The (1933)”

  1. Must-see.

    Yes, atmospheric (remarkably so) – almost gothic, with terrific lighting design. This is one creepy flick.

    I have not read the Wells story. And I have not seen the version with Burt Lancaster as Moreau. But I have seen John Frankenheimer’s 1996 film – which many hated for one reason or another – and it’s quite interesting to compare Laughton’s performance with Brando’s. Laughton’s approach is (understandably) quite clinical; a smart interpretation. Brando, on the other hand, reveals a different take on ‘the mad scientist’, also uncovering a benevolence toward his experiments. It’s possible that Frankenheimer’s audacious film is under-appreciated.

    But this early version is quite striking and moves like wildfire. A whole lot happens in 70 minutes. It’s almost as though everything occurs within the space of two days. It’s a bit refreshing that some of the backstory is left to the intelligence of the audience. There are no lulls and the result is chilling.

    You would almost not know Bela Lugosi is in this (he does get his moment to ‘shine’ near the end). But this is Laughton’s film all the way – and one of his best performances.

  2. The Wells’ book, it seems to me, was mostly targeted at colonialism. The film shifts the emphasis more on to the arrogance of the powerful who think they can treat humans as their playthings.

    One “leader” type the film may have been thinking of were the dictators of the period when the film was made. For example, Mussolini called people clay for him to mold. Another type of “leader” are doctors. The film in many ways foreshadows the horrors of the camps with their grotesque medical experiments (the only other film I can think of that anticipated that is ‘I was a Prisoner on Devil’s Island’).

    Director Erle C. Kenton toiled away for may years in Hollywood and most of his films seem impossible to find. I’ve only seen just under twenty – and it’s not for the wont of trying! Nothing I’ve seen has matched ‘Island of Lost Souls’ although ‘Bare Knees’ (1927) is a nice, risque comedy and ‘The Devil’s Playground’ (1937) is a tense submarine drama.

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