a resounding cry of "yes! finally!" went out across the land this week as the criterion collection released a feature-packed edition of erle c. kenton's masterpiece, island of lost souls (1932). this first, and still greatest, adaptation of h.g. wells' the island of doctor moreau has never seen a dvd release until now. for collectors of classic horror cinema this represents a significant gap being filled. it is one of my favorite examples of pre-code filmmaking, regardless of genre, and one of the most unsettling films ever to come out of hollywood's golden age.
it is a forbidding and claustrophobic film from start to finish. it opens on the ocean, aboard the cargo ship covena, completely shrouded in fog, moves to an overgrown jungle and then into the zoo-like compound of the good doctor. there isn't a single significant setting that provides characters any room to move. it is suppression and control at every turn. navigating that initial fog bank, the steamer comes upon a derelict vessel carrying the lone survivor of a shipwreck, edward parker. he is taken aboard ship and nursed back to health. fighting through his fever, parker asks the doctor to send a wire on his behalf to his fiancée to let her know he is safe. plucked from the ocean, on the mend and equipped with a wireless, his fortunes seem to be on the upswing. "i'm in luck", he says. i don't know that i would go that far.
parker's intended receives the good news and is left to bide her time until they make it into port. meanwhile, back on board, parker runs afoul of the captain of the vessel. captain davies is transporting a virtual menagerie to an uncharted south sea island and seems to be little more than just another animal himself. already drunk and on edge, the captain lashes out at m'ling, the servant of the doctor who ministered to parker, knocking him unconscious. parker comes to m'ling's defense, returning the favor and knocking the captain out, as cold as a mackerel. rushing to m'ling's aid, parker notices something a little odd about the man - a pointed, fur-covered ear.
strange things are afoot. parker lays low at doctor montgomery's suggestion and soon they meet doctor moreau to transfer the cargo. completing the transfer, davies brutally throws parker overboard and he is now left in moreau's diabolical hands. echoing a shot from when parker was rescued, the camera pans across moreau's crew and it becomes startlingly clear that something is terribly wrong here. the crew is populated by lumbering sub-humans, blasphemous by their very existence. they haven't even made it to shore before moreau has developed a devilish plan. parker is going to come in very handy. they repair to his compound and an elegant meal only to have it interrupted by the first of many ugly and horrifying screams. parker returns to his room as the doctor puts his plan into action. he intends to introduce his greatest creation, lota, to parker and let nature take its course. lota and parker begin to get comfortable as moreau lingers in the shadows, watching his latest experiment with a voyeuristic satisfaction that seems hardly scientific. more screams erupt and parker abandons the court and spark to see just what can be making such horrific sounds. stumbling onto the house of pain, he finds moreau in mid-vivisection.
in a textbook example of frying pan/fire, parker takes lota and flees into the jungle, where they stumble onto a colony of more man-beasts. led by the sayer of the law, a perfectly tortured bela lugosi, these creatures waste no time in moving in on lota and parker but moreau quickly puts them in their place. playing the plantation owner to the hilt, moreau, whip in hand, has his subjugated creations recite the code by which he keeps them in thrall. according to the law, it is forbidden to eat meat, go on all fours or spill blood. "are we not men?!", the beasts intone repeatedly at lugosi's urging, asking a question that they don't actually know the answer to yet.
the half-man, half-cat out of the bag, moreau lays it all on the surgical table for parker. all animal life is tending toward human form, he theorizes. his plan is to strip away all of those thousands of years of evolution. through the miracle of modern science he has created this race of miserable, tortured hybrids out of lower animal forms. "do you know what it means to feel like god?", he asks parker as he slinks almost lasciviously around his laboratory, sickening grin bubbling up on his face. lota, his most successful experiment so far, will play eve to parker's adam in this hellishly inverted garden of eden. the seduction is almost complete when lota's panther origin begins to aggressively reassert itself. parker rockets past guilt at betraying his betrothed into full blown confused disgust as the implications of the bestiality he wants to commit settle on his brain. he threatens to expose moreau but it is idle at best, as moreau holds all the cards, it would seem. at least it seems so until parker's fiancée, ruth, shows up. she managed to secure passage to moreau's island and is intent on getting her man back. blinded to the inherent dangers of all these interlopers, all moreau can focus on is the next unspeakable experiment made possible by ruth's arrival. parker, with his troublesome knowledge, is no longer of consequence if he can simply mate ruth with one of his abominations. he wastes no time in putting that plan in motion but it goes awry and parker and company decide they can no longer wait. they must escape now. they send the captain who ferried ruth to moreau's island back to the ship but he is waylaid by one of moreau's things. moreau instructs the beast to kill the man, a direct violation of the law. it is the thread that begins moreau's unraveling. he has developed a beast with enough intelligence to understand his hypocrisy. this violation means one thing. law no more!
his abominations explode in open revolt as they begin to understand that he, too, can die. they pursue him into the compound and finally bring him to the house of pain where his hideous shrieks ring out as they use his own implements to cut him to ribbons while still alive. our protagonists use this opportunity to make good their escape and moreau's hell on earth literally burns to the ground behind them as they row to freedom, moreau's former assistant imploring them, "don't look back".
the great horror movies succeed often because of a perfectly sustained mood. the texas chain saw massacre (1974) is so effective because the entire second half is a raw nerve. it turns your cerebellum into a jangling fire alarm that simply does not stop. audition (1999) works so well because it sits in your stomach not like sickness, but the anticipation of sickness. it's that feeling where you try to kid yourself that if you just lay still and think of something cool it will all be alright when you know nothing could be further from the truth. this film succeeds because it is a seventy minute bruise. i don't know if i know another film that is so drenched in pain, definitely not one from this era. instead of glorious black and white it should be in purple and sickly yellow tinged with green. the stifling settings, the lack of a score, everything about it contributes to one prolonged howl of miserable agony. you have never heard screams like the screams you hear in this film. they are truly horrifying and heart-rendingly sad. they make you sick to your stomach because they impart such pain.
charles laughton is pitch perfect in the lead role. he is utterly charming and sadistic beyond measure. he takes the blasphemies that preceded him and obliterates them for sheer pleasure. the transgression of frankenstein (1931) is that henry frankenstein dared to know things beyond the scope of mortals. moreau is not satisfied with that. he must make it not only transgressive but perverse. forbidden knowledge is not enough. there must be immeasurable suffering as well. why on earth would this doctor elect to never use anaesthetic? he treats his creations with callous disregard, handling them like things, like meat. laughton is utterly convincing. there is a glee bordering on sexual euphoria that flashes in his eyes every time he strikes upon a new way to manipulate, miscegenate or amputate another cog in his diabolical machine. he is seductive and repulsive in equal measure. his ego is beyond control and yet he seems intimately acquainted with the idea that man's control over nature is tenuous and temporary, at best.
this movie hasn't lost a step. the potential for allegory abounds - old testament god/satan, british colonialism, american slaveholding, employer/employee relations and on and on. the wicked implications of moreau's methods and madness cast long, sick shadows over every mad scientist that followed in his wake. bestiality, rape, murder, eugenics - heady stuff, be it 1932 or 2011. at its core, though, it remains so powerful simply because it is so painful. the horror comes directly from that, undiluted.
i would have been thrilled for this to get a dvd release at all. no more scrambling around trying to record the occasional televison showing, no more need to employ dying vhs technology. to have criterion issue it, though, is a godsend. in addition to the pristine, uncut restoration it is full of treats. gregory mank contributes a commentary track with plenty of anecdotal delights. there is a conversation with john landis, rick baker and bob burns in which their enthusiasm for the film makes it possible to picture them as the kids who fell in love with movies far before there was even an inkling that it might become their profession. there is an extended interview with david j. skal, one of my favorite horror film historians. richard stanley, originally slated to direct the version that was eventually completed in 1996 by john frankenheimer, gets out his scalpel and dissects what exactly went wrong with that whole process. my favorite feature, though, is the interview with gerald casale and mark mothersbaugh of devo about what a profound impact the film had on them. i, as i am sure a number of other geeks can, relate to their story on a number of levels: the thrill of discovery via the local late night horror host, the encouraging feeling that someone else is speaking your language, the way things that find you like this have a way of taking on a significance you could never expect. if you have been lucky enough to have an experience like this, it's easy to relive as they describe theirs. the whole package makes for great viewing and great fun. this one is essential.