Island of Lost Souls (The Criterion Collection) Review

Once an art form has been honored with a commemorative stamp, it can be easy to forget its origins as a lawless medium nurtured into omnipresence by thrill-seekers, transgressors, and outright voyeurs. Prior to the Hays Code, the only thing restricting the content of motion pictures was public backlash, and it is surprising just how much subversive content Prohibition-era audiences readily embraced. Though the most notable example of this would probably be the hedonism that defined the Biblical pictures of this era, there are strong themes of sadism, bestiality, and necrophilia in the horror pictures produced before 1933 that would stand out against even those released today. Of these, Island of Lost Souls might be the most jarring, because it is the most direct assault on the most prized value of American society: the sanctity and sophistication of first world society in contrast with those of developing nations.

The plot of The Island of Doctor Moreau should be familiar to anyone who saw either of the subsequent remakes (or the Simpsons parody), and despite its alternate title, Island of Lost Souls makes relatively few changes. Even if you haven't, it isn't too hard to figure out Dr. Moreau's (Charles Laughton) grand scheme well before our white-bread protagonist Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) does; the staggering beast-men who populate the island and serve Moreau should be a dead giveaway. The imagery evokes the spectre of colonialism almost effortlessly (it would be another thirty years before major European powers withdrew from most of their tropical holdings): the leisured master constantly wearing white and proficient with a bullwhip, the tropical manor, the impoverished village set aside for labor. Though anathema to our modern sensibilities, the link between people of color and animals was commonplace well into the twentieth century, and served as justification for any number of colonial intrusions, as well as the "White Man's Burden"; the belief that it was the sacred prerogative of white men to master their non-white subjects and convert them to Christianity.

The White Man's Burden probably never found as zealous a practitioner as Dr. Moreau, whose interpretation of the ethos extends it into the whole of the natural world (he also grows mutant avocado several hundred times their normal size). But outside of the confines of society at large, Moreau's civilized nature has grown indistinguishable from his megalomania, to the degree that he no longer intends to serve as the practitioner of God's will, but to dictate God's plans for the Earth itself. Island of Lost Souls appeared a mere seven years after the Scopes Monkey trial, when man's place as the sole inheritor of the world (and the sole creature crafted in His image) was challenged, and Moreau seems to add another wrinkle to that concern: that if entirely natural laws did govern the world, then man could plausibly unlock them, and assume a position previously reserved for the Almighty.

Parker provides Moreau with the ultimate opportunity to test his hypothesis by mating him with Lota (Kathleen Burke), a thinly dressed woman grown from a panther who feels an authentic lust for Parker. Though Parker's fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) is fast on her way to Edward's rescue, he also feels a reciprocal lust towards Lota, only for it to morph into disgust when he learns of her true origins. He is disgusted with Moreau, for his own morbid fascinations and his manipulations, but primarily with himself, and the thought that he could be so quickly and easily drawn astray by his own animalistic instincts. It is here that Island of Lost Souls makes its boldest statements, nominally placing the goals of Dr. Moreau within the context of scientific reality. For all its third act bluster, Lost Souls never assuages us with the idea that such a coupling would be impossible, or that, had he not been interrupted, Moreau would have failed at his designs.

The voice of morality that stops him comes not from Parker or his betrothed, but from the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), one of the most advanced of Moreau's creatures who proselytizes to them about the value of walking on two hind legs ("are we not men?" he implores them, thus inspiring the name of the first Devo album). He is as humble and devout as Moreau is self-satisfied and indulged, a perfect image of the noble savage. Even more than the reckoning at the end of Freaks (released the same year), the melee that concludes Island represents a true cry of the dispossessed, a violent dismantling of a system held in place by cruelty and disenfranchisement. They inherit the law, and moral right along with it, its original author proven unworthy of it.

Only the following year, much of Island of Lost Souls would have been inadmissible, and probably would have been lost to studio vault purges. As is, it is a remarkable document of just how anarchic an industry can be when trying to find its boundaries. Even now, its absence of a comfort zone is a more invasive gesture than most horror is willing to make. 

Blu-ray Bonus Features

If this proves anything, it's that fans of this film range far and wide, and they're all eager to talk about it. Of these, perhaps the most notable is Devo, whose album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! references the film. They discuss the film in one of many video pieces, and also include an early short film called In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution. The rest of the interviews are focused on general film enthusiasts and industry professionals such as John Landis (director), Bob Burns (genre expert), Rick Baker (makeup artist), David J. Skal (horror academic), and Richard Stanley (original director of 1996's adaptation). There is also a stills gallery and a theatrical trailer.

"Island of Lost Souls (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale October 25, 2011 and is not rated. Horror. Directed by Eric C Kenton. Written by Waldemar Young, Philip Wylie. Starring Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Kathleen Burke.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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