Hard-up 1930s Depression-era cinema-goers were eager to escape the everyday in a tantalising world of the strange and uncanny. The success of Universal’s Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) saw other studios keen to carve themselves a bloody slice of the action. Paramount seized H.G. Wells’s anti-vivisectionist novel The Island of Dr Moreau, adapted to become Island of Lost Souls (1932). Designed to combine grotesque thrills with jungle drama (another hot genre at the time), it was knocked out quickly by work-a-day director Erle C. Kenton. Little did the studio know that the end product would be one of the weirdest, creepiest films to emerge in the pre-Hays Code era and would defy time to become a transgressive horror classic.
Finally out on DVD after years of fuzzy bootleg VHS copies, Island tells the tale of square-jawed Edward Parker, marooned on the eerie South Seas island of sinister scientist Dr Moreau (the wonderful Charles Laughton). Parker is shocked to discover that Moreau has created a shambling experimental race of half-human, half-animal creatures, some cloven-hoofed, some sprouting hair in unusual places, who live in the jungle, obedient to Moreau lest they be summoned to his sadistic ‘house of pain’. Moreau’s latest creation is the sensual Panther Woman. Looking rather unlike Moreau’s other creations – more like an alluring animalistic Betty Boop – she has never seen a handsome man before. In the name of science, Moreau unleashes her on hunky Parker - and that’s when the trouble starts.
As mad Moreau, Charles Laughton dominates proceedings with an incredible performance that veers expertly between quietly understated and the edges of overblown. Like Colin Clive’s Dr Frankenstein, he compares himself to God; but Laughton’s Moreau is not a misguided would-be do-gooder; he is a cheerfully unhinged genius who revels in doing evil. Beaming proudly at the screams of his botched animal-human hybrids, cracking his whip over the awful monsters he’s created, lounging decadently across his vivisection table like a modern day Roman emperor, or simply oozing creepiness as he offers a guest a cup of tea, Laughton plays his part with delicious relish. Somehow he convinces the viewer that despite his odious transgressions against nature, humanity and God, he’s rather a fun fellow really; despite the fact that he is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, we remain sympathetic to him right to the end. This creepy moral paradox is central to the film’s unique, unsettling, perverse power.
Bela Lugosi, the ‘Sayer of the Law’, the chief experimental-reject responsible for conveying Moreau’s orders to the beast-men, deserves mention (as always). Despite sporting a mighty brush of facial hair that would infringe upon anybody’s expressive powers, he turns a lemon of a minor part into lemonade, delivering a convincing, memorable portrayal through pure energetic force of will. â€œAre ve not men?â€ he demands of his savage brethren, in that inimitable distinctly un-South Seas voice of his. And he means it. Some of the so-called ‘civilised’ characters are equally fascinating - from the booze-addled, neglectful skipper who thinks nothing of heaving Parker from his boat, before later attempting to chat up his fiancée, to a pipe-puffing disgraced medic, who finds hope of redemption in Moreau’s demise.
It all looks terrific thanks to legendary cinematographer Karl Struss. Like many of the early sound horrors, it has that distinctly creepy quality, an indefinable spookiness that faded away somehow as horror got glossier towards the 1940s. Struss’s camera is always moving, pulling back and forwards through crowded, labyrinthine sets. From the fog-shrouded ship-bound scenes to the steamy verdant undergrowth, he takes us to a distant place. We feel the oppressive claustrophobia of the jungle. In one justly renowned sequence, a succession of imaginatively made-up horrors lurch vengefully towards the camera to attack their master (British make-up specialist Wally Westmore gives Universal’s Jack Pierce a run for his money here). Briefly glimpsed, gangly, dark and hairy, they strike a potent contrast with glistening, corpulent, baby-faced Laughton in his vivid white suit, before they gleefully turn on him in one of the most gloriously twisted finales to grace a 1930s horror.
Wells was outraged by what they’d done to his novel and disgusted by the insertion of a sexual, sensual edge. The British censor banned the film outright for many years; and, even today – perhaps especially today, in these times of genetic experimentation - this tale of man messing with nature retains its creepy potency. Throw out your VHS, the DVD looks great. This is absolutely your best chance to see whether – as is rumoured – Buster Crabbe, Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott really make unbilled appearances as beast-men. Let’s hope some of the other great forgotten horrors of this era can get a similarly lavish make-over. Can we start with White Zombie (1932)?