Question: Are we not men? Answer: We are Judge Paul Pritchard!
Our reviews of Island Of Lost Souls (1974) (published March 10th, 2006) and Island of Lost Souls (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published November 4th, 2011) are also available.
"Are we not men?"
As the first film adaptation of H.G. Welles' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls was refused a certificate by the BBFC on three separate occasions in 1933, 1951, and 1957, due to its themes of science gone mad and images of men being dissected. When the film finally passed in 1958, it was subjected to a series of cuts in order to earn an X-certificate—which had recently been introduced to replace the earlier H (for Horror)—thus blocking anyone under the age of 16 from seeing the film. Long forgotten by all but the most ardent fans of the genre, Island of Lost Souls is brought to DVD and Blu-ray (fully uncut) for the first time in the UK by Eureka, as part of their "The Masters of Cinema" line.
Facts of the Case
Following a falling out with the captain of the ship he is traveling on, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) finds himself dumped on a boat tasked with delivering supplies to an isolated island in the South Seas. The island is owned by Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton, Mutiny on the Bounty), who initially proves to be a most amiable host; welcoming Parker into his home, and introducing him to Lota (Kathleen Burke), a naïve young woman who lives on the island and finds herself attracted to the newcomer.
But Parker soon realizes Moreau's intentions are far from noble. After hearing a series of bloodcurdling screams, Parker stumbles upon the "House of Pain," a hidden lab where Moreau carries out bizarre experiments. Here Moreau defies the laws of nature, as he carries out genetic engineering that turns animals into men. Fearing for his own life, Parker attempts to escape the island, unaware that his girlfriend (Leila Hyams, Freaks) has arrived to find him.
Considering the hysteria it seemed to cause at the time, Island of Lost Souls now finds itself with a PG-rating, suggesting it's suitable for children. In these post "video nasties" times, a film like this feels rather quaint. Considering how the horror genre has become far more graphic in its depictions of violence, modern audience are likely to be nonplussed by all the fuss.
To fully understand the furor Island of Lost Souls caused, one must appreciate the power of suggestion. For example, when actor Richard Arlen enters Moreau's House of Pain and screams, "He's vivisecting a man!" we get only the briefest shot of the doctor hunched over a nondescript body. The mere thought of a mad scientist "chopping a man to pieces" would have been enough to shock audiences in 1932, but with director Erle C. Kenton then going so far as to actually show it—albeit with no detail—boundaries were pushed that made the film entirely unacceptable. Now, stripped of its power to shock due by the intervening decades (even family movies like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows contain more elements of real horror), Island of Lost Souls plays as more of an adventure movie with mild terror overtones.
In fact, having lost its power to provoke, Island of Lost Souls can now be more readily accepted for the excellent film it is. Fans often point to the cinematography of Karl Struss as evidence of its quality, and it's to his credit that Moreau's island generates such claustrophobia. There's a genuine feeling of being trapped and the way Moreau's creations appear from the island's undergrowth can be genuinely unsettling—especially in the case of one hairy brute who takes it upon himself to break into the bedroom of a terrified Leila Hyams, holding a gaze that sits uneasily between genuine wonder and unquenched bloodlust.
Charles Laughton, as Moreau, appears to be enjoying himself to no end. With a mischievous glint in his eye, Laughton delivers a performance that's equal parts sinister and camp. He practically lights up the screen every time he appears, and the film suffers when for his absence. In the pivotal scene where Moreau unveils his nefarious plan, Laughton instills such calmness—and, one could argue, confidence—it doesn't seem at all odd he should offer his adversary a cup of tea, rather than make an attempt on his life. Richard Arlen is given less to work with, cast as the bland screen hero, his good looks carrying the performance even if he is less interesting than the dastardly doctor. Faring less well is Bela Lugosi (Dracula) as "The Sayer of the Law," head of Moreau's subhuman tribe. Lugosi's screen presence is almost completely lost beneath a rudimentary Wolf Man makeup job, leaving one with the feeling that such an iconic actor is being wasted.
Presented in 1.37:1/1080p high definition full frame, the transfer is as good as one could expect, considering the film's age. There is a high level of grain evident, which I some viewers may not care for, but I never found distracting. The detail does frequently appear soft, but is not hindered by the clear ravages of time. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio mix lacks range, but features clear dialogue and effects.
The screener copy of Island of Lost Souls sent by Eureka featured only a handful of extras. Filmed exclusively for this release, actor and Charles Laughton biographer Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral) discusses the film from a personal perspective. In another exclusive interview, film critic Jonathan Rigby delivers a more technical analysis. We also get an original theatrical trailer. The final retail copy promises more bonus material, including a booklet featuring rare production stills, and a standard definition DVD copy.
Though lacking great substance and genuine scares, Island of Lost Souls is a remarkably fast-paced, almost action-packed adventure that's far more entertaining than I dared hope.
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