Criterion // 1932 // 71 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // November 4th, 2011
Terror! Stalked the brush-choked island...where men who were animals sought the girl who was all-human!
A long-lost horror classic finally gets a legitimate DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of the Criterion Collection, the gold standard of home video releasing.
Shipwrecked sailor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen, The Lady and the Monster) is picked up by a freighter en route to a mysterious island located somewhere in the South Seas. After Parker has a scuffle with the ship's captain, he is abandoned on the island, which is run by the colorful Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton, The Big Clock). Slowly, Parker begins to realize that the island is home to cruel experiments in which animals are made into men (Part man! Part beast!), subject to the island's own "Laws" and sent somewhere known only as the House of Pain if the Laws are not followed. As Parker's girlfriend (Leila Hyams, Freaks) searches for him, he grows closer to Lota (Kathleen Burke of Murders in the Zoo, credited here as "The Panther Woman") the only woman on the island, who is beautiful, exotic and mysterious, hiding a secret of her own. As Parker grows closer to the truth, it begins to seem less and less likely that Dr. Moreau has any intention of letting him leave...
It's pretty incredible how timeless and transgressive some of the pre-code horror movies of the early 1930s are. Films like Tod Browning's Freaks and Rouben Mamoulian's take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are nearly as powerful today as they were 80 years ago, but that came at a price; the movies were censored and even banned in their time for the very same reasons they still feel relevant now. Having finally seen 1932's The Island of Lost Souls, which itself was censored, banned and hard to come by for decades, it's another title that can be added to that list. I understand why audiences weren't ready for it in 1932. That's a lot of why it still works.
Things start calmly enough. Our hero is displaced aboard a ship and finds himself landing on a strange, exotic island. Everything is covered in a dream-like fog. It's a lot like the original King Kong, really, except that instead of finding an oversized wonder of nature, our hero comes face to face with mad evil. It grounds the horror in a kind of real worldness not found in the more fantastic movies of the day. The horror of Island of Lost Souls is not immediately revealed, either; it's more of a slow burn, as we gradually come to understand exactly what's going on with the mysterious island. The movie builds and builds in intensity until a finale that's so aggressive and haunting I can only imagine it sent audiences running up the aisles. Moreau's creations are repellent -- ugly, disfigured, beastly. But it's more than just some scary man-animals that so upset people when the movie was released. It was the idea that these abominations were created on purpose; that a human being had used the knowledge and tools of science to bring something horrible into the world, and had done it again and again for no other reason than to see if he could. He was playing Creator. It's not just the visuals that director Erle C. Kenton has put on screen; there are ideas at work in Island of Lost Souls that terrified God-fearing, hard working audiences around the world. It makes the movie dangerous (as much as any movie can be), and that can be kind of thrilling.
Of course, the major reason why the movie still works (besides the intensity and the makeup and creepy atmosphere) is the central performance by Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau. The doctor is crazy, yes, and evil, sure, but Laughton doesn't play him as some mustache-twirler; instead, he's charming and intelligent and seems sort of tickled much of the time. It's a hammy performance, of course, because Moreau is such a larger-than-life figure -- as are all the best mad scientists. It's a good thing Laughton is so good, too, since he doesn't get a ton of support from either Richard Arlen or Kathleen Burke. The latter can't be blamed much, as she was cast more for a look and a vibe than any real talent (though she did win a nationwide talent search to get the role), but Arlen is one of the less effective heroes of classic horror. Like a lot of good guys, he's far too bland to go toe-to-toe with the villainous Laughton, but his is not just a problem of character. Arlen plays Parker like a bit of a wuss, and I'm pretty sure it's not intentional. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because it's not his show. The movie belongs to Moreau and his monsters, most memorably of all being Bela Lugosi in small role as the Sayer of the Law. Even buried under facial hair and makeup (and I'm not talking about a beard or mustache; Lugosi's entire face is enveloped in hair), it's unmistakably Bela.
Criterion's Blu-ray release of The Island of Lost Souls has already caused a small amount of controversy among HD aficionados and classic horror geeks, who have expressed some disappointment in the quality of the transfer. Let's overlook desire to respond with the knee-jerk "Let's be happy to have it at all," and consider just what an accomplishment this release actually is. No single negative of the movie still exists, which means that Criterion had to cobble together a usable print in order to create this HD transfer. Though the results are uneven, I was never less than satisfied with their efforts. The 1.33 full frame image shows a considerable amount of grain, giving it a nice film-like appearance. Contrast wavers from scene to scene (sometimes in the middle of a single scene, like in the long sequence with Parker and Lota), while detail is somewhat inconsistent even as a choice on the part of the filmmakers. Scratches and print damage surface from time to time as well, which is to be expected from a movie that's almost 80 years old and even more so with a movie with as much of a difficult past as this one. Again, there are certainly flaws in the presentation, but none of them are so distracting as to take away from the film's power. Not only should we be happy to have the movie at all, but we should be dancing in the streets to have a version that's as good as this one. Those that complain about the work Criterion has done are looking for something to complain about, and looking hard.
The mono audio track is pretty much what you would expect for a classic movie that's been treated well, delivering the dialogue clearly and cleaning up much of the muddiness that can plague older titles. Like on nearly every Criterion title, the supplemental section is a thing of beauty, both educational and entertaining, all serving to enhance one's appreciation and enjoyment of the movie. A feature-length commentary by historian Gregory Mank offers a good deal of background about the movie, and while some may find it dry, there's a ton of good information found here. The very best bonus feature, though, is one that horror movie geeks will go crazy for: a too-brief roundtable discussion with filmmaker John Landis, special effects wizard Rick Baker and the world's most famous monster movie fan Bob Burns. They cover as many aspects of the movie as they're able to in under 20 minutes, all with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. I could sit and listen to the three of them talk all day, so I guess I'll have to make due with what's been included here.
Author David J. Skal (who wrote The Monster Show, which, if you haven't read, you should rectify as soon as possible) is interviewed as well, covering the original H.G. Wells novel, the 1932 version and even manages to discuss Freaks (the movies have more in common than you might think). Skal is always an insightful, articulate subject, and his comments here offer more of the same. Eccentric filmmaker Richard Stanley, who directed Hardware and was the original director of the Marlon Brando/Val Kilmer version of The Island of Dr. Moreau before being fired and replaced with John Frankenheimer, is interviewed, and it's both interesting and very candid about his experiences on that film. Kudos to Criterion for including it here.
The remaining supplements aren't as strong, and a few are worth watching more as a curiosity than anything else. A full 20 minutes is devoted to an interview with Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of the band Devo, in which they discuss the influence of the movie. Basically, they're just fans and get the chance to talk about why. Stranger still is a short film the pair made, called "In the Beginning Was the End." A collection of production stills and the movie's original theatrical trailer round out the excellent special features section.
A true horror classic is rescued from obscurity, well restored and packed with bonus features. What's not to like?
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 71 Minutes
Release Year: 1932
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery