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Island Of Lost Souls (1932) Blu-ray review – a forgotten horror gem from Masters of Cinema

May 10, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

No wonder they brought in censorship to 1930s Hollywood, when they were making horror films as warped as this one.

Island Of Lost Souls 1933 Erle C. Kenton Charles Laughton

Island Of Lost Souls
(Erle C. Kenton, US, 1932)

If the notorious 1996 adaptation of The Island Of Doctor Moreau didn’t kill off the effectiveness of H.G. Wells’ novel as a wellspring for horror cinema, then South Park’s Dr Alphonse Mephesto – which played Marlon Brando’s performance for laughs – surely did the trick. And yet, with the first ever UK release of Hollywood’s first version of the story, it’s clear that Island Of Lost Souls might single-handedly restore respect 80 years after it was made.

This is a weird, creepy film, rich in febrile atmosphere and a disquiet composed equally of intellectual outrage and visceral horror. It was made in that tiny gap between the coming of sound and the implementation of the Hays Code, when studios discovered scary movies and set out to warp American minds. By 1933, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster were already on the loose; here, they were joined by Moreau’s menagerie of beast-men, products of genetic engineering from a time before DNA had even been discovered.

Wells’ novel must have been doing the rounds in Hollywood, since elements of its story and tone ripple through King Kong, Freaks and, later, Cat People. With so many rivals lapping at its heels, it’s no surprise that the screenplay actually goes further than Wells’ novel. The vivisectionist tortures that secured the film a UK ban until 1958 are faithful enough to the source, but the film creates the subplot around Moreau’s perverted desire to mate his pet panther-woman with hapless prisoner (Richard Arlen). It’s so stark and unambiguous in promising steamy inter-species sex that, in retrospect, the film seems hellbent on forcing American cinema into censorship by crossing as many taboos as possible.

And, by heck, it’s a film in a hurry. Only 71 minutes long, it’s a film that belies the reputation of early sound movies for being creaky and slow. Yes, the soundtrack – from the exaggerated chatter of crowds to the heavy footfalls on stage sets – is cumbersome, but director of photography Karl Struss (a protégé of Murnau) sweeps his camera through chiaroscuro jungle sets with real urgency. A ‘name’ director might have dwelt more on the ethical subtexts (and would probably have stifled the film in sermonising), but journeyman Erle C. Kenton trusts to the story, allowing the themes to emerge from the vortex of madness that sweeps up shipwreck survivor Parker as he finds himself trapped on Moreau’s island. Ten minutes after being rescued, he’s dumped into Moreau’s lap; another ten minutes, and he’s being pushed into getting jiggy with a cat.

The story’s topsy-turvy battle between civilisation and bestiality – and its subversive satire on colonial attitudes in the “taming” of wild natives – comes almost entirely from clever casting. As Moreau, Charles Laughton is a haughty, softly-spoken devil in white linen, puffed up with pride at his monstrous work; as the leader of the beasts is guttural, hirsute Bela Lugosi, still fresh off playing Dracula. The ethnicities of those stars alone spells out what’s going on, and a certain latitude is required to deal with the obvious stereotyping, but the allegory of racist exploitation is just too weird to fall into the usual trap of inadvertently coming across as racist. The prosthetics in particular are a masterclass in imaginative creature design; their variety and detail not only mask the identity of the actors but convincingly highlight the mad, free-for-all nature of Moreau’s work.

Island Of Lost Souls is released on Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema on 28th May, alongside another Charles Laughton classic, Ruggles Of Red Gap.  As per usual, it’s a triumph of pin-sharp restoration and informative extras, notably an interview with Laughton biographer (and Britcom Funeral attendee) Simon Callow on the place of the film in the star’s career.

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