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.