Thursday, October 27, 2011

Are We Not Men?

Island of Lost Souls(1933)
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Cast: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Kathleen Burke

The finest adaption of H.G. Well's most terrifying novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, is also the most horrifying terror film of the 1930s. This film was deemed so shocking that it was actually banned in Britain for over 30 years and was unseen for quite some time. It wasn't until a few days ago, that to the delight of film fans, this was finally released to DVD and on Criterion, no less! Island of Lost Souls ranks along the truly great horror films, brimming with atmosphere and some of the finest genre performances. Undoubtably, it was the most anticipated horror film to get released to DVD. I've owned bootlegs and the VHS of this for years, but this was a must-have. Horror films of the 1930s were always creepy, and several still give me the chills, but this was one of the few that was genuinely frightening. Part of the reason is that the plot is just so disturbing and ahead of it's time, hinting at things that later versions didn't dare venture into.

The film follows the novel's structure, but emphasizes the more lurid elements to full effect, and then some. Richard Arlen plays Edward Parker, a shipwreck survivor who is picked up by a merchant vessel en route to the island of Dr. Moreau. We know something is strange since everyone speaks mysteriously about the island and Dr. Montgomery(Arthur Hohl) seems about as neurotic as Colin Clive in Frankenstein(1931). Parker gets in a fight with the drunken captain, after defending Montgomery's servant, and is thrown overboard at Moreau's port. Stranded, the young man is taken to Moreau's home, where he encounters strange "natives" and vegetation. Moreau(Charles Laughton) is in the midst of conducting some mysterious experiments and Parker is curious. He is introduced to a beautiful exotic named Lota(Kathleen Burke) and he is attracted, despite him having a fiance, Ruth(Leila Hyams). Parker hears cries coming from a room and peers in to see Moreau vivisecting a human being! Parker flees in terror with Lota, only to run into Moreau's manimal experiments, led by the Sayer of the Law, Bela Lugosi. They close in on them, until Moreau arrives and instructs them to recite the law, one of the most unforgettable moments in horror film history.
Lugosi leads them in how to act civilized, always ending with, "Are we not men?" It's a wonderfully chilling moment and the way Lugosi speaks his lines, and the satantic expression on Laughton's face is truly creepy.

Parker is rightfully afraid, so Moreau offers him a revolver and explains to him what his experiments are about. Moreau is trying to speed up the evolutionary process and had first experimented with plants and is now working on animals. He appears quite mad, looking off at one point to ask Parker, "Do you know what it feels like to be God?"
Moreau has plans for Parker, sabotaging his own boat so he can't escape. His plan is to mate Lota with Parker, knowing they already are attracted to one another. Lota turns out to be Moreau's most successful experiment, a panther woman. Meanwhile, Ruth has contacted the authorities regarding her fiancee, and goes to the island with a captain, looking for Parker. Moreau tells one of his manimals to rape Ruth and Parker shoots at the fiend, which causes the captain to get help. Moreau has the captain killed, which make the manimals realize they can kill and they turn on Moreau. In one of the most shocking classic horror endings, the monsters desend on Moreau and operate on him in the house of pain, where they were created. Parker, Ruth and Montgomery get away from the island, Lota sacrificing herself to save Parker from one of Moreau's creations, proving her humanity and Moreau's success.

Island of Lost Souls was not successful upon it's initial release. It was too shocking and was even too much for the original author, H.G. Wells, who rejected the film outright, though he was never too fond of his original work, either. Through the years, the film developed a cult following and finally, woidespread critcial acceptance, being regarded today as one of the finest horror films ever made.
First time director, Erle C. Kenton fills the film with atmospheric touches, reminiscent of german expressionism, like the shadows of the beastmen lurking through the night. His use of lighting and extreme closeups are genuinely creepy and unnerving and this must have appeared to be a sign of great things to follow, but Kenton was largely relegated to b-pictures later on, like The Ghost of Frankenstein(1942), which suggested none of the promise of this film.

Charles Laughton is extraordinary in this picture, creating the most frightening mad doctor character of the 1930s. This is a man so dedicated to his craft that he cannot see the harm that he causes others. His cherubic grin and soft tones, only make the character more menacing. His complete disattachment with life and his malevolent appearance are what make the film so disturbing. In many ways, it was Laughton's scientist that set the standard for so many of the truly mad doctors to follow, like Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing, who were far removed from the scientists of Frankenstein(1931) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1931).
Bela Lugosi has a small role, but it's a good one. Buried under some shaggy hair, Bela adds measures of both pathos and terror, particularly at the end, when he declares to Moreau what he thinks of the house of pain and his creation, "You made us in the house of pain! Not men! Not beast! Part man! Part beast! Things!"
It's one of my favorite Lugosi performances, despite his limited screen time. Like always, Bela makes the most of it and the results are indelible.
Kathleen Burke is remarkably exotic and sensual as Lota, setting a standard for the story, adding a sexual quality to it that never escaped, much like the sexual  aspect of Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde(1931) has been prevalent in every subsequent version. Her character is very sympathetic and Arlen and her have genuine chemistry, though we know the romance is forbidden. One almost wishes that Arlen would get her in the end, but the idea would have been too much for the period, even now.
Arlen is the standard leading man of the period, though a slight bit better than lightweights like David Manners in Dracula(1931) and The Mummy(1932). He is effective occasionly and plays the role of the confused, everymen fairly well, though some of his lines appear stilted. Leila Hyams is also in the same predicament, though she makes the most of her part, perhaps not as memorably as she did in the same year's Freaks(1932).
A special mention must go to Arthur Hohl, whose tormented, alcoholic Montgomery, really anchors the horror and he brings a brooding sympathy to his character that makes him stand out. As the island burns at the end, he speaks the final words to the young couple, "don't look back", and we wonder how many horrors he was involved with and forced to leave behind as he much prefers prison to that island.

Island of Lost Souls is a pretty ambitious thirties horror. It looks like it has a pretty sizeable budget and the amount of extras decked out in monster makeup, makes this the biggest monster movie of the decade. These are some creepy makeups, too, retaining an organic and subtly human look that no later versions were able to capture. It's part of what makes this so memorable. Buried among those manimals are supposedly, Buster Crabbe and Randolph Scott, along with Lon Chaney's stuntman, Joe Bonomo.
I was always fond of this story and this film was one of the most inspirational growing up. It's weird storyline, so ripe with meaning, ranging from various layers of socialism and complex psychology. De-evolution, vivisection, bestiality and cannibalism are among the topics covered and are part of what make this a consistently disturbing and compelling work, worthy of a spot in any true cinema buff's collection.

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