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[Note: This piece was first published by One Perfect Shot in 2015.]

By all accounts, author H.G. Wells was appalled by 1932’s Island Of Lost Souls, the first official screen adaptation of his 1896 novel The Island Of Dr. Moreau, and he wasn’t the only one. Denied a certificate in England, it went unreleased there until 1958, and since the Production Code wasn’t yet being enforced, state censors took it upon themselves to removes scenes and dialogue they considered offensive or blasphemous. (And since the film is a brisk 70 minutes as it is, these cuts shortchanged ticket-buyers in more ways than one.) Funny how a science-fiction story that was intended to be read as an anti-vivisection tract was itself cut to ribbons by those unwilling to accept it in its altered form.

Part of the horror boom that followed in the wake of Universal’s twin successes with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Island Of Lost Souls was one of Paramount’s fleeting forays into the genre. Directed by journeyman Erle C. Kenton, who went on to helm some of Universal’s monster mash-ups one decade later, this was a useful training ground for him since it features a menagerie of all kinds of beast men, many of which boast makeups that continue to impress today. As genre expert and noted “gorilla guy” Bob Burns says in one of the featurettes included on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, “You bought these guys as real animal men.” High praise, indeed.

A film can have the greatest makeup effects in the world and still be unwatchable, though, if the writing and acting aren’t up to snuff, as was the case with subsequent attempts to bring Wells’s story to the big screen. (Richard Stanley, the original director of the infamous 1996 remake, channeled his disappointment with the creature effects in Don Taylor’s 1977 version into his own take on the story, the tortured production history of which he recounts in an interview that is essentially a capsule version of the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley's Island Of Dr. Moreau.) Island Of Lost Souls, on the other paw, excels in all departments, telling a streamlined version of the novel that barely pauses to catch its breath once shipwrecked traveler Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is deposited on the uncharted island where preeminent mad scientist Moreau (Charles Laughton, delivering a subtly sinister performance) has been carrying out his obscene experiments far away from prying eyes and the disapproval of the scientific establishment.

For the most part, what goes on in the House of Pain is kept from the viewer’s eyes as well. We just see the pitiable results of Moreau’s meddling with nature, from the hirsute Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi, bringing an innate dignity to the role) to the alluring Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), described by Moreau as “a pure Polynesian” to Parker, with whom he hopes she’ll mate. Needless to say, that wouldn’t sit well with Parker’s fiancée, Ruth (Leila Hyams, late of Tod Browning’s Freaks), who charters a boat to find him, accompanied by an intrepid sea captain who isn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he says you can “see some funny sights in these islands.”

Thanks to Criterion’s restoration of the uncut theatrical version of the film, it’s possible to see those “funny sights” more clearly than ever before. Co-winner of the first Best Cinematography Oscar (for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, shared with Charles Rosher), director of photography Karl Struss accentuates the menace lurking around every corner and behind every tree on the titular island, whether he’s shooting interiors at the mad doctor’s walled-in compound or exteriors at the torch-lit encampment inhabited by his abominable creations. It’s in the latter scenes that Island Of Lost Souls earns its place in the cinematic pantheon since the call-and-response between the whip-wielding Moreau and the Sayer of the Law (“What is the law?” “Not to go on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?”) is as frankly disturbing as the title characters’ chant after the wedding of Hans and Cleopatra in Freaks. (Moreau’s gruesome -– albeit unseen –- fate in the House of Pain is also reminiscent of the rough justice Cleopatra experiences at the hands of the freaks she unwisely derided.) Once the Production Code Administration got its act together and started cracking down on the studios in 1934, American horror films became a lot less interesting.

Special Features:

In addition to Richard Stanley and Bob Burns (who’s part of a roundtable discussion with John Landis and fellow “gorilla guy” Rick Baker), Criterion’s stellar release of Island Of Lost Souls is supplemented by interviews with film historian David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror, and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who discuss the film’s importance to the development of the band’s mythology. Also included is Devo’s 1976 short film In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution and a gallery of production stills. The best feature, though, is the commentary by historian Gregory Mank, who cheerfully makes note of every last cut that was made in the film. Much like the beast flesh that bedevils Moreau, though, it always creeps back.

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Craig J. Clark

May 2017

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