Monday, October 31, 2011

Monsterthon: Island of Lost Souls

Criterion Island of Lost Souls cover and Amazon Link

Happy Halloween! To cap this Monsterthon off on an appropriately scary note, we're going old school.

Genre fandom is sort of an incubator for critical appreciation. Metropolis was hailed as a masterpiece by sci-fi fans (including fan guru Forrest J. Ackerman) long before mainstream criticism did so. Island of Lost Souls seems to have taken a similar course; growing up, reading books on horror and sci-fi films, I was led to believe it was a well-regarded classic of the genre, but as late as the seventies, when psychotic killers and demonic possessions were the order of the day, it was considered something vulgar and trashy, and a minor film in comparison to other classics of the era. It's taken decades in the public domain and finally, a Criterion release to move from a cult item to a proper place in the horror canon.

Adapted from H. G. Wells' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls is a work ahead of its time, surreal and brutal on a level audiences in 1932 just weren't prepared for (said audience including Wells, who denounced the film and supported the UK's ban on it). The same elements which made it so transgressive are what make it powerful; it does what horror is supposed to, which is make us feel uncertain. Island of Lost Souls plays on our sense of the foreign and exotic and goes a step beyond, placing us in a nightmare far removed from anyone's idea of normal life.

Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), survivor of a ship sinking, finds himself on board a cargo vessel carrying a strange menagerie of animals. He, with them, ends up on an island owned by Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a mysterious scientist who lives with an assistant (Arthur Hohl), a strangely feline native woman (Kathleen Burke), and an unusual population of "natives". It doesn't take long for Parker to discover that the inhabitants of the island are actually Dr. Moreau's experiments, half-man-half-animals created through vivisection and grotesque surgery, fearing the doctor as their god and master. Matters are complicated when Parker's fiancee (Leila Hyams) arrives on the island, sparking jealousy in the Panther Woman, and the animal-men, despite the best efforts of the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) to keep order, are growing increasingly restless.

It's easy to see how the film provoked severe reactions in the audiences of the day. The world of Dr. Moreau is one of an inherent wrongness, more pronounced even than the deathly worlds of Universal's contemporary horrors. Even before we are shown what the animal-men are, there is something simply not right about them, the way they look and move, and the matter of fact presentation of such abnormality  anticipates Tod Browning's Freaks a few years later. Despite a couple of cutaways to the outside world, as Parker's fiancee searches for signs of her lost love, we are inexorably drawn into a nightmare realm full of surrealist architecture and impenetrable jungle, where, in Moreau's words, "night falls like a curtain" without the mercy of twilight. The picture simply never lets up, and its refusal to do so wears on the nerves of even the modern viewer.

Laughton provides a unique take on the mad scientist archetype, one that was still being developed in film. He is a man incredibly pleased with himself, seeming to derive some sadistic pleasure from his experiment beyond the pursuit of knowledge as a goal in itself. There's something of a sexual undertone to it, especially as he pushes the Panther Woman (the only female on the island until the fiancee arrives) onto Parker just to see if she's capable of mating with a human male. Lugosi also gives a magnificent performance as the Sayer of the Law, even buried under a mat of facial hair.

Running at a mere seventy minutes, Island of Lost Souls doesn't stop to explain very much, at least not in any great detail. That we don't know much of how Dr. Moreau manages his animal-man hybrids may have contributed to the outrage and censorship which greeted the picture on release; this is in fact one of those cases where what we can't see is more horrifying than anything that could be shown. It's a film where everyone is taut with anticipation of something that's about to happen.

Criterion has done their usual bang-up job bringing this to DVD and Blu-Ray, and as with the restoration of Metropolis last year it's the culmination of a long journey from infamy to just acclaim. Island of Lost Souls is one of the very best horror movies of the decade in which cinematic horror came into its own, and it honestly deserves to be considered as one of the all time great motion pictures, beyond genre or time. The film is a nightmare that has wormed its way into the cultural subconscious, and it's still good for a scare.

Based on the novel "The Island of Dr. Moreau" by H. G. Wells
Screenplay by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young
Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Grade: A

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