Thursday, March 31, 2016

Son of Saul

Son Of Saul (2015)
Dir. László Nemes
Written by László Nemes, Clara Royer
Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Todd Charmont, Urs Rechn

“And I don't think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It's like, how many have there been? You know, we get it - it was grim, move on. [But]... I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust - guaranteed Oscar,” says Kate Winslet in her 2005 episode of Extras. She subsequently went on to win a Best Actress Oscar three years later… for a film about the Holocaust. Incidentally, this one also won. Ain’t life too funny? But yuks aside, she’s not wrong, Holocaust films are only slightly less ubiquitous than Dracula adaptations these days. And yes, we get it - it was grim, and --if movies are to be believed-- usually also it inspired heartwarming acts of compassion. Is there really a lot more to say about this? SON OF SAUL answers Kate directly: yes, there is. At least a little bit more, and especially if said with this degree of stylistic verve and audacity.

This --holy cow-- debut feature of Hungarian director László Nemes somehow finds an intriguing new angle on abject human suffering, depicting Saul, a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner in Auschwitz. Saul has been commandeered into a job as a Sonderkommando, a forced laborer whose job primarily consists of helping the Nazis recover valuables from, and dispose the bodies of, gas chamber victims. This work has clearly taken a significant toll on his mental health, and the brilliant 35mm camerawork by Mátyás Erdély (THE QUIET ONES, JAMES WHITE) emphasizes his self-protective myopia by maintaining a tight shallow focus on Saul and leaving everything outside a few feet from his head a hazy blur. I should say, maintaining a radical tight focus; virtually the entire movie follows Saul and his perspective --and frequently just the back of his head-- as he wanders through a mercifully blurry hellscape which had become horrifyingly routine to him. But Saul’s numb withdrawl is broken when he finds a corpse of a young boy who he insists (despite some evidence to the contrary) is is son, and he becomes singlemindedly fixated on finding a rabbi to give the boy a proper burial. This task --difficult enough in a death camp-- is further complicated by a burgeoning prisoner revolt which requires Saul’s increasingly unstable help, substantial language barriers, and the ever-present danger of getting shot or thrown into the gas chamber with everyone else. Against all odds, then, SON OF SAUL is actually more thriller than weepy-eyed melodrama, a harrowing race-against-the-clock by a man who literally has nothing to lose, and will risk his own life and anyone else’s in this final, clumsy, fanatical gesture towards not entirely losing his soul.  

As Saul, Hungarian-born Bronx-based poet Géza Röhrig (who had acted only twice before, in two late 80’s TV productions) brings a stubborn, stoic intensity to a complicated and not always entirely sympathetic role. Saul is so single-minded in his pursuit of dignity for the dead that he frequently abandons the living, giving us something maybe genuine new in a Holocaust film -- some deliberate moral ambiguity. He’s had to endure unimaginable horrors, but he’s also not a passive victim or a saintly martyr, he’s a flawed but fierce man dealing with being pushed to the outermost extremes of the human condition the only way he’s able. It ensures the film is about more than a simple revolt against the forces of inhumanity, and it makes Saul’s redemption arc all the more uncertain.

These nuances are good, because as upsetting as it is, Nemes crafts such kinetic, intense scenes with his showy, relentless handheld-camera takes that the movie actually threatens to be exciting. Fortunately it’s about stuff too, so we’re not put in the uncomfortable position of recommending an art film set in Auschwitz simply because it’s inarguably an edge-of-your-seat white-knuckled thrill ride. Please don’t credit me on the poster with that quote, thanks guys. But seriously, there are sequences in here so wildly immersive that you’ll forget you’re supposed to be all reverent about this and simply get lost in the wild abandon of the filmmaking. At its best, though, it does both -- a sequence where Saul accosts a group of new arrivals marching to their deaths in a corpse-strewn firepit is as nightmarish and gut-wrenching as anything which has ever been put to celluloid, but also packed with both powerful human moments and a terrifying, desperate urgency which can’t help but be thrilling even as it is utterly repulsive. Cinema doesn’t get much more powerful than that. It’s a sequence which I expect to remember very vividly many years from now.

But there are quieter moments, too, which are no less powerful. Saul can be a difficult character to entirely understand or identify with, but there’s no missing that there’s a lot going on behind his eyes. In fact, just before the scene I just described, there is another, almost equally intense scene, on a much more intimate scale. Saul is tasked with picking up a crucial item from a fellow conspirator named Ella, who he says he doesn’t know. But when he sees her, it becomes obvious they do know each other. Who she is, exactly, and how they know each other --let alone why he would lie about it-- we are never told. But they have a fraught, emotionally painful conversation with just their eyes, in total silence. Much of the movie evokes the searing, virtuosic depictions of chaos and horror in things like COME AND SEE and CHILDREN OF MEN.* But it’s impressive that Nemes can find such rich and mysterious feeling in smaller moments, too. It’s this sort of brilliant evocation of both the subtle and the grandiose that helps SON OF SAUL transcend pigeonhole labeling. We may not need any more film about the Holocaust, but this is simply a great film -- and we need all of those that we can get.

*And I don’t mean it’s derivative; comparing anything to COME AND SEE is among the highest compliments one can pay.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Spotlight (2015)
Dir. Tom McCarthy
Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Starring, woah, all the peoples. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, James Sheridan, Billy Crudup

Ah, the curse of success.

Now that this won Best Picture (beating out some very, very deserving competition) I suspect people will quickly start to turn against it as unambitious, as pedestrian, or, worse, as Oscar-baity “issue-of-the-week” pandering. It’s just the way of things, and the Oscars have not exactly helped themselves by cultivating such a rich history of boring, unimaginative monuments to predictable mediocrity slinking by under the guise of being “about” something. They chose DANCES WITH WOLVES over GOODFELLAS, you know. They gave best picture to A BEAUTIFUL MIND*, marking the exact last moment in history any human remembered A BEAUTIFUL MIND existed, outside the context of mentioning how lame the Oscars are. So it’s not surprising that people look at this --a simple, straightforward drama about a real-life tragedy and the heroic journalists that uncovered it-- and smelled a rat.

I guess that’s their prerogative, but they’re wrong. I actually really dug the hell out of this one. It’s just such a solid, fundamentally well-constructed movie that a lot of its strengths sneak by. It’s not showy. There aren’t really any big showstoppers or set pieces. Only one big yelling scene, and it’s a short one. Instead, it’s a classic example of a kind of film we mostly don’t get very much any more: a straightforward drama, well-written and well-assembled with a bunch of excellent actors, which is 100% confident that the story itself will be interesting enough to keep us engrossed without any kind of hook or postmodern trickery or stylistic gimmicks.

For me, anyway, it worked. I was absolutely absorbed for every single second of runtime. But the superficial simplicity makes it look so easy that I think a lot of folks underestimate the immense challenge the film sets for itself. Somehow it effectively articulates a huge structural problem (systemic abuse of children in the Boston Catholic church), the equally complex inner structure of the newspaper staff trying to expose the problem (the Boston Globe, whose “Spotlight” investigative team lends the film its name), a sprawling cast of Bostonians from every walk of city life (from victims to lawyers to power brokers), and an equally sprawling twisty-turny years-long investigation, and synthesizes all those disparate threads into a completely streamlined, digestible, and totally engrossing format, all without any obvious shortcuts or tepid exposition or reductive shorthand. By God, that’s something to admire.

It is about an “issue,” of course, and it certainly gives its central issue a worthy exploration. But that’s not all it is; in fact, I think it’s much more interesting as a drama-thriller-news-procedural full of interesting twists and turns which gradually lay bare not just the details of a tragedy, but how a whole system at every level conspired –mostly without actual malice– to facilitate and perpetuate that tragedy (including, unwittingly, the very people who eventually take the time to uncover it.) It’s the storytelling and the razor-sharp eye for detail which makes this an experience worth undertaking, not its function as journalism or muckraking. I take umbrage, then, at the implication that SPOTLIGHT is selling itself as an “issues movie,” which is to say it’s a work which exists to draw our attention and concern to a particular tragic issue and raise “awareness.” Because if that’s all it is, it’s pretty needless. This was one of the biggest news stories of this Millennium. I think it’s not much hyperbole to say that nearly everyone on Earth heard about this this particular story. I suspect you could go to rural villages in China, and if you asked them about Catholicism they’d bring it up. And it hasn’t faded with time; despite the events of this movie being over a decade old (and a lot of the events exposed being decades older than that) it’s still very much a part of our current discourse; hell, jokes about priest molestation have become so ubiquitous they’ve lost all meaning. There’s not a lot more “awareness” to raise, even about the particulars of the case.

So while the movie does concern itself with a true story, frankly, I think the movie would be just as strong –and hell, maybe even stronger, because it wouldn’t have the same baggage– if it was about a fictional event instead of a real one. Like The Wire --a comparison I do not make lightly--, the strength here is in the startlingly clarity with which it allows us to see both the large scale and the intimate scale, and how they’re connected. It’s so efficient at making these connections that you hardly even notice how much complicated information is crammed in there — but compare it to something like THE BIG SHORT (which spends most of its time having celebrities directly describe to the camera what we’re supposed to learn) and it should be immediately clear how remarkably strong director Tom  McCarthy’s (THE STATION AGENT) command of screenwriting, editing, and directing is. That takes real mastery to do, and appropriately there’s a strong nuts-and-bolts focus on fine-tuning the details here until they’re just right, ‘til the whole thing just sings, even when it has to do near-suicidal things like stop cold to acknowledge that 9/11 happened right in the middle of everything.

Aiding McCarthy, of course, is a ridiculous dream cast of pretty much every distinguished actor working right now (they even have an uncredited Richard Jenkins cameo, that’s how committed they were to getting everyone) led by a rock-solid Michael Keaton, but with plenty of room for everyone to shine. Mark Ruffalo gets probably the showiest role as something of a twitchy oddball, but I could spend all day rattling off terrific little details about everyone here. I love the way Rachel McAdams somehow conveys her complete spiritual exhaustion entirely through her eyes. Her character is a total pro, a cool cat, someone who is not going to get rattled or let you see how deeply this is getting to her, even in the scene where she admits it aloud. But you already know, because you can see it in those deep, haunted eyes. And then there’s Stanley Tucci’s pugnacious, cynical idealist lawyer who can’t stop fighting even though he’s long ago given up any hope of actual justice. And John Slattery's curiously petulant editor, who maybe would prefer not to know, despite his professional cooperation. And Billy Crudup and James Sheridan as complicated assholes who are definitely part of the problem but probably don’t see themselves that way. And maybe most of all, an effortlessly spellbinding Liev Schreiber as the quiet, seemingly nonchalant new editor who calmly decides his paper is going to tear down one of the most powerful institutions in the world. They all communicate so much subtle detail about their characters, mostly without ever saying a word out loud. In a movie this loaded with plot, there is not a lot of time for languid emotion, but there’s so much texture in each of these roles that there’s no need to pause for it, it’s both obvious and unobtrusive in every single scene who these people are and how they deal with the horror show they’re unmasking.

It’s this sort of rigorous, unflashy attention to detail which makes a film inherently cinematic. I’ve read reviews that criticize the film as “bland.” To me, that represents an almost insultingly narrow view of what film should be. I love highly stylized, visually expressive cinema, of course, but while film is primarily a visual medium, it’s also a terrific narrative medium –and that’s what the focus is here. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shot THE GREY, he shot BLACK MASS. He knows his way around visual fireworks when he wants them. Here, McCarthy elects for a simple visual aesthetic, probably more than anything to avoid distracting from –or abstracting– the great complexity of plot. That’s an artistic choice, not a flaw. This is unapologetically set in the real world, the mundane one which we all inhabit. Is it really not enough just to have an interesting story, well told? Is it less ambitious a work of art for its focus on acting and storytelling rather than cinematic razzmatazz? Is it less interesting because it’s depicting a real event? I don’t think so. I simply refuse to believe we’re incapable of finding a story fundamentally gripping without a flashy enough package. Honestly I walked out of this one positively aglow with the magic of cinema. It really bums me out to hear people dismiss it under the assumption that it’s one of those cynical big-screen Lifetime Movies that wants to grab unearned Serious Artist cred just by recycling a real-life tragedy. I mean, I hate those too. But I don’t think this is one. I think this is closer to the movie it understandably get compared to a lot: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Yes, it happens to tell a true story which is still very much a part of the zeitgeist, but more than that it’s also a great, timeless example of top-notch writing, acting, and directing.

There’s no overstating this: It takes an enormous amount of discipline to make a film like this work so well, and yet it’s so unflashy that I actually think, regardless of the awards it’s been winning, that McCarthy isn’t getting enough credit for his work here. There’s a presumption of maturity at the center of this film, a consistent refusal to hand-hold and spoon-feed the audience, and a quiet confidence in its staid, direct storytelling, which simply feels too rare these days to ignore. Is it better than FURY ROAD, or THE REVENANT?** Eh, I don’t know; I’ll almost certainly return to those before I watch this again. But is it really a competition? They’re different, and they’re all great. Despite the ripped-from-the-headlines (ten years ago) subject matter, SPOTLIGHT has a timeless quality which may actually give it some life beyond the usual hyped-and-forgotten Oscar-bait cycle. At the very least, I think it deserves it. Plus, McCarthy made THE COBBLER this year. The fucking COBBLER. There’s something wonderfully appealing to me about the idea that McCarthy made both the uncontested worst film of 2015 and --just maybe-- the best.

(I do wish it had a better name, though. I get why it’s called SPOTLIGHT, but that’s a little generic.)

*In an admittedly miserable year for movies which included MONKEYBONE, PEARL HARBOR, GHOSTS OF MARS, JURASSIC PARK III, and fucking FREDDY GOT FINGERED for God’ sake. But there were plenty of better options, including A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, THE SCORE, THE OTHERS, TRAINING DAY, MONSTERS INC, ROYAL TENENBAUMS, LoR:FotR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, GHOST WORLD, MEMENTO, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, OCEAN’S 11, SESSION 9, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER. I never saw IN THE BEDROOM, maybe that’s good too. I guess MOULIN ROUGE, too, at least it’s unique. Some real strengths there. I dunno if I want to call any of those an all-time classic, but any of them would have been a better choice than fuckin’ BEAUTIFUL MIND, obviously. Actually the genuine best movie that year might have been the little-seen Keanu Reeves Little League Baseball dramedy HARDBALL. Jesus, what the fuck were we doing with ourselves back in 2001?

Outside America, incidentally, the year went much better. AMELIE came out that year. And THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, KAIRO (PULSE), FULLTIME KILLER, INTACTO, SPIRITED AWAY, and THE TAILOR OF PANAMA . But none of those would have been eligible for best picture.

** Yes, I know you all hate THE REVENANT. Whatever.

Monday, March 28, 2016


Anomalisa (2015)
Dir by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Puppets, David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Saying a film is “surprisingly simple” seems wrong in a film wholly populated by puppets, virtually all of whom have the exact same face and voice (Tom Noonan, ROBOCOP 2), especially when I tell you it’s full of strange metaphors (the hotel is called The Fregoli) and startling moments of dreamy surrealism. But when the writer / co-director is Charlie Kaufman, it’s almost stranger to have a film with no bizarre high concept hook than it would be to have a film about an office building equipped with a shortcut into John Malkovich’s brain. Surprisingly, though, ANOMALISA is a fairly small-scale personal drama, and Kaufman seems as comfortably at home here as he was in his last film, the crazy mind-bending metaphysical nightmare SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. Turns out when you clear away all the cleverness and high-concept weirdness which define his other movies, there’s still a real sad, thoughtful human core, which shines through here. And a surprisingly adult one; this is one of the most singularly grown-up love stories I’ve seen in a good bit, presenting complex, well-rounded characters and fully, frankly, probing their dense inner worlds and the way those worlds connect and contradict each other over the course of two nights in a hotel room.

Kaufman handles the puppet angle beautifully (with a co-direction from Duke Johnson, longtime Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole stop-motion expert), getting rich, interesting performances out of the stop-motion faces and just barely flirting with the deeply strange artifice of it (which is the perfect amount -- to ignore it completely would make it feel meaningless, but to overplay it would feel gimmicky). It looks absolutely gorgeous, an entirely believable little world with just a light dusting of surreal dreaminess. But all that is hardly a surprise for Kaufman. What did sort of bowl me over is the real sympathy --maybe even affection-- Kaufman seems to have for these characters. People were never really his thing before, and his movies tend to be populated by bracing, sometimes abrasive emotionally stunted intellectuals. But here even Michael – a successful inspirational speaker who is fighting his crushing emotional isolation by trying as hard as he can to cheat on his wife while he’s traveling-- if afforded a surprising amount of dignity and sympathy (probably more than he deserves) even while the movie never soft-pedals his serious character flaws. I mean, when you come down to it he’s a real asshole, but maybe he’s trying to do the best he can with what he has, and he certainly suffers at least as much misery from his own actions as he inflicts. The way David Thewlis voices him –with a tender resignation which makes it sound like every spoken word takes enormous effort just to drag itself out of his mind into reality– makes it impossible to really hate him. He’s a pitiable character, someone who probably wants to do the right thing but is so hopelessly lost in his own failures and desperation that he barely even knows which way is up anymore.

Even more surprising, though, is how kindly Kaufman treats Lisa, the other major character here. She is an insecure young woman who inexplicably becomes the subject of Michael's erotic and existential fixation -- a role she finds baffling but not entirely unpleasant. Kaufman does nothing whatsoever to brush over her flaws, but I think he finds a certain real heroism in how middling and unspecial she is. Jennifer Jason Leigh -- a universe away from her delectably loathsome HATEFUL EIGHT role-- instills her with a wonderful vulnerability and an unexpected resoluteness. I like that, SPOILERS FOLLOW, it turns out that while Michael may have ruined plenty of lives, especially his own, here’s one case where he actually improved a life, albeit without really meaning to. There’s nothing at all actually special about Lisa --and she knows that so thoroughly it’s probably her defining characteristic-- but her night with Michael actually gives her a different way of imagining herself, not better than she is, but good as she is, on her own terms. It’s a surprisingly upbeat ending for a mostly downbeat film, and I actually like that about it. It feels like maturity on Kaufman’s part; I think a younger version of him would have thought it would be hipper to end with another nihilistic jab at the pettiness of it all. ANOMALISA Kaufman actually seems kind of happy to have brought a little bit of good to his characters, even on a very small scale. END SPOILER.

I think it is an interesting open question whether the movie’s conventions (animation, everyone having the same voice, Michael’s tacit understanding that he’s a puppet) are stylistic ways of conveying his alienation, or if this is the literal way he’s perceiving the world, and he actually is mentally ill. I tend to think, given Kaufman’s output, it’s more likely to be symbolic, but it’s certainly possible to argue otherwise. And there’s plenty of stuff in there like that. The one female voice in the movie which is not Leigh is the voice of an animatronic geisha that Michael seems inexplicably drawn to. Is this representative of the mechanized, objectified way he views women and sex, or is it a representation of his own empty, mechanized facsimile of humanity? Or something else entirely? These are rewarding question to ponder, but honestly the movie’s at its best in small, human moments, including, um, the sex scene. TEAM AMERICA thought puppet sex was hi-larious sport, but in the sensitive hands of Kaufman and Johnson, things are a little different. They’re very normal-looking “people” --and that’s normal for real life, not for movies, which is code for “they’re a little overweight compared to pretty much anyone you might see in a movie taking their clothes off”-- but it’s not staged for comedy, they’re both really into it, their excitement overcoming the inherent slight awkwardness and nervousness of the situation. It feels as frank and honest a depiction of sex in all its tender complexities as I’ve seen in an American film in a very long time.

I’ve always been a fan of Kaufman, and I’ll be delighted to see what he does next to blow our fuckin’ minds with some weird deconstructed razzamatazz. But here’s hoping that ANOMALISA isn’t as anomalous as its name would suggest. Turns out when he can set his feet down somewhere closer to reality (while still not quite settling for something so mundane) Kaufman has a real gift for unravelling unglamorous --but deeply human-- failing. It’s unsentimental and unflinching, but not altogether unsympathetic, and the light touches of surrealism somehow actually makes it feel all the more real, full of the messy subjective cloud of personal fantasy that perpetually separates us from reality, and from each other. Really, the only false note in the whole thing is the bizarre idea that a world populated by nothing but Tom Noonans wouldn’t be a super awesome place to live.

But I suppose you can’t have everything.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Dir. Erle C.Kenton
Written by Philip Wylie, Waldemar Young, from the novel by H. G. Wells
Starring Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi

As far as sci-fi authors who’ve had their works adapted into movies go, H.G. Wells has been served shockingly well. While the CIA spends their time ruining any movie Philip Dick was remotely involved with, C’thulu destroys the minds of anyone who attempts Lovecraft, and, honest to God, William Gibson has only ever been adapted to the big screen twice (and one of those was JOHNNY MNEMONIC), Wells, by contrast, enjoys a handsome surplus of well-regarded adaptations spanning basically the entire history of film, including the Méliès classic A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), INVISIBLE MAN (1933), the now-partially-lost THINGS TO COME (1936), KIPPS (1941), one part of the anthology DEAD OF NIGHT, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), THE TIME MACHINE (1960), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), and even recent big-budget bouts like Spilberg’s 2005 WAR OF THE WORLDS.

By classic sci-fi author film adaptations standards, that’s a record which is something close to miraculous. But even Babe Ruth didn’t bat 1000. For every WAR OF THE WORLDS, there have been a couple EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. For every THINGS TO COME (1936) there’s been a THINGS TO COME (1979). But his most tragically mishandled story surely must be the one with which we concern ourselves here, the 1896 anti-vivisectionist novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. For such an indelible and well-known genre classic, it’s had a rotten run of adaptations, from the 1977 Burt Lancaster misfire to a series of no-budget Filipino knockoffs to the legendarily disastrous 1996 production with Marlon Brando in the title role. For fuck’s sake, Charles Band did a version. In fact, for years I’d said that the final segment of The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror XIII was the only good adaptation of the tale. But I was wrong.

In 1932, a hack director (Erle C. Kenton, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, making only his second-ever sound film) working from a script by pulp writer Philip Wylie (When World Collide, later adapted into a 1951 film) and Brigham Young’s grandson (Waldemar Young, scenarist for the famously lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT), somehow managed to craft Wells’ notoriously adaptation-resistant novel into something of a masterpiece. How this happened, I have no idea. Not a one of them seems to have another notable work (though Wylie is a somewhat celebrated pulp writer, and his 1930 novel Gladiator is thought be be a major inspiration for the 1938 creation of Superman), but somehow they seemed to have pooled together their entire creative and artistic lifetime funds and poured them all into this one film.* Associate producer E. Lloyd Sheldon had a few brushes with success, having produced Josef Von Sternberg’s silent crime classic UNDERWORLD and 1931’s early noir CITY STREETS (he would later produce 1934’s romantic classic DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY), but boy, there’s nothing in any of their filmographies which would suggest they would be capable of something this good, especially in this genre.

And yet, here it is, in all its nightmarish, pre-code glory. The story has been disassembled somewhat, but all the major players are here: shipwreck survivor Edward Prendrick (called Edward Parker here, for some reason, and played by Richard Arlen from WINGS and about a million Westerns) ends up rescued by a boat carrying a Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl, long-suffering character actor in everything from SHOW BOAT to MONSIEUR VERDOUX) and a mysterious, beastial manservent (long-suffering Japanese stereotype actor Tetsu Komai, who at least isn’t playing Chinese here). As in the book, the captain of the ship turns out to be a total dickhole who maroons “Parker” with the the odd couple, leaving them no choice but to bring him to their home, a tropical island owned by disgraced British vivisectionist Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION). He’s barely on the island for five minutes before it becomes obvious that Moreau is conducting weird, painful experiments to create animal-human hybrids, over whom he rules with a combination of fear and religious devotion to his “laws” regarding proper conduct, enforced by the shaman-esque “Sayer of the Law” (Bela Lugosi, hidden behind a full bigfoot’s compliment of facial hair, see below).

All this is more or less exactly as described in the novel. But you know how Hollywood is, wanting to commit genocide against white males etc, so they gotta force some women in there. Feminazis and all that. So ruining Wells’ all-male animal sausage fest are Leila Hyams (FREAKS) and Kathleen Burke, a former dental assistant who won a talent contest to appear in the film and would go on to make 20 more films in her brief 6-year career, before retiring at 25. Hyams has a thankless and utterly unnecessary role as Parker’s fiance, who has to try and drum up support on the mainland to look for him. Except for providing us with some cheerful assurance that the asshole captain who marooned Parker got what was coming to him, I can only assume that the part was written specifically so we don’t think Parker is some kind of swishy fairy when he doesn’t immediately and without question bang the hell out of Kathleen Burke when stranded alone on an otherwise all-male island with her.

About that: Burke plays Lota, a gentle soul inexplicably living amidst Moreau’s house of horrors. She’s immediately smitten with Parker, and Moreau encourages her, which is reason enough to immediately be suspicious. See, unbeknownst to Parker, Lota is one of Moreau’s creations, too -- a panther, transformed through "plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, and ray baths" into a human -- or nearly so. She represents Moreau’s greatest achievement, but also his most frustrating failure: despite the lengths he’s gone to create a perfect replica of a human, the animal nature gradually re-asserts itself. But he has an ingenious plan: if Parker can be tricked into fuckin’ the cat lady, perhaps their offspring will be… something different? You know, for science.

OK, so that’s a pretty major departure from Wells (and probably one reason why he himself reported loathed the movie, but whatever dude, send your jars of tears to Philip Dick and see if he sends you a nice bunch of roses) and just screams about a studio note that the script needed sex appeal. But you know what, it works great here, for the same reason that the movie itself works: Charles Laughton.The guy is just fucking phenomenal; he’s hammy and a little mincing, but with a imperial demeanor and God complex which are legitimately overpowering. Despite his portly build and small stature, he totally and effortlessly dominates everyone in the movie, even when he’s not on-screen. You really believe he is absolutely smarter than everyone else, and sadistic, and insane. And a little perverse. That last bit adds some spice to a mad scientist trope which was already a bit old hat even by 1932, distinguishing Laughlin from the million other actors --even good ones-- to try their hand at mad science. Take Cushing’s turn as the mad baron in Hammer’s Frankenstein movies: yes, he’s a cold, amoral megalomaniac, but he’s still fundamentally just a maverick scientist, driven to evil by his singular obsession with knowledge more than any fiendish ulterior motive. Similarly, Karloff in THE DEVIL COMMANDS only a decade seperated from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Laughon is different. He’s a genius, but you get the sense that there’s something more perverse driving him. Why does he want to see interspecies sex so badly? Yeah, yeah, its for science, but look at the gleam in his eye, man. There’s a manic, fevered ecstasy to his performance which makes the now-standard line "Do you know what it means to feel like God?" feel like it’s drenched in Freudian psycho-sexual overtones. It’s a magnificent performance and a completely unique character, unlike any other screen villain I can think of.

I think this poster art kinda says it all.

Laughton is far and away the best thing here, but the rest of the movie has plenty to offer. Arlen is pretty forgettable in his generic white hero role, but the supporting cast is also quite strong, especially Hohl’s Montgomery --who has a look of defeated self-loathing almost equal to Moreau’s pompous imperiousness-- and Lugosi, whose tendency to play to the cheap seats actually makes great sense for his character (full disclosure: he’s not in it much, and so unrecognizable under all his fur that I honestly forgot he was in there at all until the final credits rolled. Looks like he got over his aversion to makeup that cost him Karloff’s role in FRANKENSTEIN in a real hurry after that one.) Lugosi’s not the only unrecognizable character, either; there’s lots of impressive makeup effects, complemented by their wearers (who were chosen for their interesting or unusual faces since foam rubber hadn't been invented yet, meaning most of the animal effects are achieved through hair and actual facial makeup, not prosthetics). Most impressive, the movie look GREAT; cool sets filled with evocative shadows and strong geometric compositions. Its great art and great schlock.

But the moment that sticks with me most isn’t about the monsters, or the impressive sets, or the freaky psycho-sexual undertones. It’s the amazing scene where Laughlin’s face is lost in the dark as he murmurs --to himself, more than anyone listening-- about what he’s trying to accomplish. His plan is grandiose, megalomaniacal, insane, but Laughlin coos the words, softly, with a mix of hungry compulsion and tentative sheepishness, as if he’s trying them out for the first time, trying to see how these thoughts which have been driving him relentlessly for years taste upon his tongue, finally dragged out into the light of the world. His face is hidden in shadows, but some light somewhere is reflecting in his sharp, complicated eyes, turning them into flashing beacons full of glittering, naked madness. I don’t know if it was Laughlin or the director or simple chance that accounts for this, but it’s a remarkable moment.

Things like this, and the nightmarish, genuinely shocking pre-code finale transcend some of the superficially dated elements and achieve something unique, terrifying and timeless. Maybe someday someone other than Richard Stanley will make a more faithful adaptation of Wells’ original novel. But I bet this will still be better. Some movies are born great, but others have greatness thrust upon them. There’s little about ISLAND OF LOST SOULS that should work, but as Moreau discovers, there’s something a little more complicated to recreating things than simply grafting on the necessary parts. Sometimes things which superficially seem like they have all the right pieces never work right, and sometimes things which seem completely wrong somehow end up perfect. We couldn’t reverse-engineer something like this with the best minds in the world, but there’s no denying its greatness. Best just to enjoy it for what it is: not a perfect adaptation, not an especially articulate philosophical argument, but a strange and savage work of cinema which renders a sublime and completely unique nightmare.

* OK, Young had also done some at-the-time-huge, now-mostly-forgotten dramas with Cecil B. Demille, including THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and CLEOPATRA. But still.

Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: The poster highlights the “Panther woman” (spoiler) and offers us the come-on THE PANTHER WOMAN lured men on -- only to destroy them body and soul. None of that is right, but it makes great copy, donchthink?
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, a somewhat loose adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: The book has been adapted numerous times, but none appear to be a direct remake of this one.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Laughton had only started appearing in films four year prior in 1928, but he’d already racked up a dozen roles. He was not yet at the height of his fame, but certainly A-list, I would think.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Though Laughton didn’t appear in a lot of horror films, he directed a horror classic --his only film as director-- one of the best films ever made, 1955’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Yes, another one of those “animalistic native sexually menaces virtuous white woman” situations, which if I had to guess is the reason Hyams is in the movie at all. At least in this case, the “animalistic savage” is an actual animal, so it’s a little easier to stomach.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: We don’t quite see it, but there’s a total fuckin’ dismemberment at the end here, holy shit.
  • MONSTER: Many
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yeah, I think this is fair to say.
  • EVIL CULT: There’s definitely a cultish quality to the Manimals’ devotion to Moreau’s laws, especially with Lugosi dramatically reading them.
  • VOYEURISM: Yeah, the scary monkey guy peeps our pretty white lady/
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, not a huge hit at the time, but now a well-regarded classic. I got it from Criterion!
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Before there was the internet, if you wanted weird interspecies porn you had to buy your own island and conduct horrifying experiments to breed a race of manimals.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: There’s an island, I don’t know about the “lost souls” part, though.