Island of Lost Souls Review
When Paramount Pictures released Erle C. Kenton's adaptation of H.G. Well's novel (1896's The Island of Dr Moreau) to British audiences in 1933, the BBFC adjudged it too horrific for the delicate sensibilities of the British public, and decided to ban it outright. A number of other countries followed this stern lead, imposing their own bans. What's notable about Kenton's 1932 picture in comparison to some banned or controversial films of recent years is that the American director's feature was a challenging and unsettling viewing experience with something to say; the tropical island based tale used its ability to shock as a vehicle to drive home a message, and to provoke thought. In this sense, its merit is superior to many modern films which have had the benefit of years of filmmaking to build upon, yet have failed to match this murky treasure from the early decades of film.
Indeed, whilst to a modern viewer, many horror productions from the thirties can be unintentionally humorous or quite simply dull (outside of an academic interest, at least), what's surprising about Kenton's film is just how brutal it is. Of course, it's far less shocking in certain respects (gore, for example) when placed alongside a controversial film of today, yet it still presents a hard-hitting and unsettling portrayal of man's interference with nature, and its disastrous consequences. The grimly enthralling tale of the shipwrecked Edward Parker and his unintended arrival (thanks to a particularly repugnant drunken captain) at a remote desert island too small to be featured on the map, portrays not only the brutality of man against his own kind and others, but also man's utter lack of moral responsibility amongst an exponential accumulation of scientific knowledge - and power. In fact, such is the perverse nature of some men's scientific endeavour that they - in this case Dr Moreau - will perform obscene experiments on living beings just to see what happens; an appalling abuse of man's knowledge if ever there was one.
H.G. Wells' 1896 novel had certainly stimulated much debate around these issues years before the film was produced, and two years after his book, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was formed. The film presents this debate with considerable visual impact; Moreau's island is inhabited by his fusions of man and beast, and at his whim the Doctor whisks his beings off to the 'House of Pain', a sinister lab where Moreau and his assistant, Montgomery, perform live experiments which appear to be as much a grisly deterrent to the other 'manimals' as the furthering of any genuine scientific pursuit.
Kenton's film does make a significant departure from the novel in one key respect however, a departure which raised Wells' ire considerably. The film wove an overtly sexual theme into the fabric of the story - presumably to capitalise on the growing popularity of such themes in horror cinema of the period - yet rather than detract from the core elements of Wells' original story, this seems to amplify the obscene horror of Moreau's grotesque island. The Doctor revels in the opportunity for his new arrival - Price - to engage sexually with his only female creation, Lota, the 'Panther Woman', and he positively encourages a physical union between the two beings, prying salaciously and gleefully from behind a gate in the hope that contact - and some diabolical output - will occur.
So Wells didn't care for Philip Wylie's joint reworking of his novel into a script with Waldemar Young, but the script is strong and the story is guided forward by the efficient and engaging dialogue. Kenton's direction is surprisingly assured for a man who was often considered somewhat pedestrian in his approach, and he carves out a film that flows in a manner which is considerably ahead of its years. Kenton can't take all of the credit for this though, and it's not just the solid script that helped the director produce such an intriguing film. The performances he garners from his assembled cast is impressive, although some may argue that the talent at his disposal formed even more of a platform for him than the solid script. Charles Laughton revels in his role as the lascivious and morally bankrupt Doctor Moreau, ironically resplendent in his bright white suit, and his lurid performance is shudder-inducingly brilliant. Richard Arlen is decent enough as the tough, morally upstanding yet fallible Edward Price. Bela Lugosi, a man who felt perennially undersold in his horror roles, was facing an impecunious future, yet in his performance here, he demonstrates just why he secured so many such parts, with a brilliant performance as the 'Lord of the Sayers'. And Kathleen Burke acquits herself well as the 'Panther Woman' Lota, a disturbed, tense, and troubled role which she makes her own.
Kenton was fortunate to gain further support from the stunning cinematography of Karl Struss, who develops imagery which is unremittingly stunning and memorable. The early shots of the ships in the mist are dreamlike and vast, and his work on the island itself is similarly admirable, with the darker scenes in the jungle at night looking sharp and detailed despite the limitations of the equipment of the time. The special effects make-up also deserves enormous credit, as Wally Westmore creates a myriad of convincing and genuinely disturbing beasts, tearing around the jungle island with hairy, mutated faces and gazes of barely concealed anxiety and pain.
The climax of all of these elements - Kenton's steady direction, the committed performances of the cast, the captivating cinematography of Struss, and the glorious creations of Westmore - combine towards the end of the film to generate a truly disturbing scene. As man's interference with nature finally comes home to haunt him, the poor abused creatures gather together and rush towards the camera, seeking the source of their agony and pain, and seeking retribution. Their angry onslaught is captured brilliantly, and to devastating effect, and despite the chasm in years, it's a scene which many horror filmmakers of today should gaze at with awe and envy.
Whilst almost eighty years have passed since this reworking of H.G.Wells' film, his early shocker seems enduringly relevant today. The morality (or, indeed, amorality) of vivisection remains a hotly debated topic, and with human's ability to not only manipulate beings via genetics but also to produce multiple clones, Moreau's experiments seem less the product of deranged fantasy and more some sort of chilling prophecy. With its splendid visual presentation, solid performances, and delightfully chilling creature creations, Kenton's film remains one which is morally challenging, constantly unsettling, and eminently watchable.
Eureka have been pipped to the post by US rivals Criterion, who released a Blu-ray of the film on region A late last year to very respectable reviews, but British viewers won't be disappointed should they have been patient enough to wait for this version. The film arrives as a Blu-ray/DVD combi pack which will prove especially handy for those yet to invest in the high definition technology. As usual, the packaging looks fantastic and has been presented in suitably dignified fashion.
Naturally, the transfer maintains the native aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and is presented in 1080p resolution. Since the original negative of the film does not endure to this day, this presentation, supplied by Universal, is composed from three different sources, and the full details are noted in the enclosed booklet. From the different sources, the best quality or longest segments were selected and reassembled to present the film in as complete a version as possible, and digital processing techniques have been applied to clean up the image and give the best possible consistency throughout the 71 minute duration.
It's clear that a lot of love has been invested in the subsequent transfer, as the film looks incredible given its age, and the fact that it has been constructed from three different sources. Whilst there is naturally a high level of grain, noise, and flecks on screen, the image is nevertheless remarkably clear, and most unusually for a film of this age, you almost forget you are watching such an old presentation at some points.
The balance of black and white is also strong, and what should be troublesome darker scenes are still rendered with an accuracy and clarity which is impressive, yet natural. It's difficult to imagine how this film could have been made to look any better.
English SDH subtitles can be toggled on or off at the title screen, or during the film itself. The subtitles are clear, clean, and well positioned.
The monoaural soundtrack is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio, and, like the visuals, has been digitally restored from a combination of the best materials available, namely the 16mm screening print, and the 35mm nitrate source. Bearing this in mind, you should expect a modicum of hiss and extraneous noise, but on balance this recording sounds incredible. Play the scene where Price meets the drunken captain on the ship and listen carefully; you can clearly hear the waves crashing against the side of the ship, the barking of the dogs in the background, and every single word of the dialogue without exception. What's also impressive is the consistency the recording achieves throughout the film; the audio syncs with the film well, and never becomes conspicuous.
Those who dare to compare this release with the Criterion equivalent may consider the extras quotient a little light, although the quality level is kept at a satisfying high.
Eureka have included a well-presented 32 page booklet with this release, and it proves a real treat. Adorned with beautiful (and beautifully grotesque) images from the film and its making, and presenting some stills of the actors, the booklet also includes an intelligent essay by respected film critic Kim Newman, discussing the film in the context of horror of the era. The booklet also details the film credits, some information surrounding the transfer, and notes on viewing, to ensure all viewers attain the correct (native) aspect ratio.
An Interview with Simon Callow, appropriately presented in black and white, is a 12 minute piece filmed in London in 2012 exclusively for The Masters of Cinema series. The actor, who is also the biographer of Charles Laughton and author of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, discusses the man in the context of the film, and lends some insight into the actor's life, including his alleged (and suppressed) homosexuality, and the subsequent sexual overtones surrounding his performance as the amoral doctor (something not apparent in H.G. Wells' original text).
The second slot is an Interview with Jonathan Rigby, the film critic, historian, and author of American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema. This 14.30 minute piece was also filmed in London this year exclusively for The Masters of Cinema series, and is an enthralling quarter of an hour of commentary from Rigby, whose knowledge of horror from the era of the film is vast; this is a fantastic segment.
A sensationalist yet fascinating Trailer rounds up the small set of extras, and it's a case of quality rather than quantity here.
Eureka continue the high quality quotient in The Masters of Cinema series with Erle C Kenton's deliciously dark yarn from 1933, and it's difficult to see how the transfer of a film of this age could have been presented in any better splendour. With a couple of short but well formed extras surrounding a film that is remarkably enjoyable and surprisingly prescient, this release is highly recommended.