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Banned in England when it first appeared in 1932, Island of Lost Souls is one of the Pre-Code horror films, along with Murders in the Zoo (1933) and Freaks (1933), that helped hasten the creation of Hollywood's self-censorship board headed by Joseph Ignatius Breen and strictly enforced by 1934. It wasn't well received by most film reviewers at the time either - many were repulsed by its disturbing imagery - but today it is generally considered the best screen adaptation of the H.G. Wells' novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wells hated the movie because it changed Moreau from a well-intentioned visionary to a sadistic tyrant but the thematic concept of man playing God and trying to alter the course of nature was strikingly presented in the guise of a mad scientist thriller.
Filmed on location on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, the film opens as Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), the sole survivor of a shipwreck, is deposited along with a shipment of wild animals on the private island of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), where he will catch the next freighter out. The island is inhabited by strange creatures, half man, half beast, the results of Moreau's "bio-anthropological research." It is the doctor's theory that just as man evolved from a lower species, animals can evolve into humans, through experimental skin grafting. Moreau's attempts to speed up the evolution process, however, are anything but humane and rendered through painful surgical procedures on the animals. It is also a way to control and dominate their savage impulses which are kept in check by group recitations of Moreau's commandments led by the "Sayer of the Law" (Bela Lugosi). Moreau also has an ulterior motive for wanting to keep Parker on the island. He plans to "mate" him with the exotic Lota (Kathleen Burke), a female panther in human form, and produce the first animal-human offspring. But Moreau's reign of cruelty, already on the verge of collapse, starts to unravel with the arrival of Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) and Parker's fiance Ruth (Leila Hyams) who have arrived to bring the missing seaman home.
The pre-production on Island of Lost Souls included a talent search contest for the role of "The Panther Woman." The winner, Kathleen Burke, also received a free five-week stay at the glamorous Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. For the role of Moreau, however, no contest was needed. Charles Laughton, the brilliant and versatile British actor, had already made his mark in Hollywood as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Island of Lost Souls, made the same year, was his fifth U.S. production. As Moreau, Laughton created one of the great horror film archetypes, which as the Herald Tribune later described it, was "an engaging combination of child, madman and genius," but his actual appearance was inspired by an unlikely source, according to writer Arthur Lennig. "With his little turf of beard, thin mustache, and soft, almost infantile face, Laughton modeled his makeup on an eye specialist he had visited several times." (from The Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi). As for Moreau's skill at handling a whip, that came from Laughton's training with a London street performer for a previous stage play.
Wally Westmore's extraordinary makeup for the half-human creatures was the talk of the Paramount lot and created quite a stir among the studio personnel during the early stages of production when the extras would take breaks and stroll around in all of their hairy glory. "I remember each horror and monster had more hair than the one before," Laughton recalled. "Hair was all over the place. I was dreaming of hair. I even thought I had hair in my food." Hiding underneath the mounds of hair were up-and-coming actors Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott though Bela Lugosi in the pivotal role of the "Sayer of the Law" is much more recognizable. His scenes with Moreau and his fellow creatures feature the film's most memorable dialogue, as emblematic and unforgettable as the chanting chorus of freaks - "One of us, one of us" - in the wedding party sequence from Tod Browning's 1932 classic. It was obviously an inspiration for Devo's first album as well - "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" (1976) - but was, in fact, not completely original. Wells was actually paraphrasing the song of the Bandarlog, the monkey people who figure prominently in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling:
The Sayer: Not to run on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
Moreau: What is the law?
The Sayer: Not to spill blood. That is the law. Are we not men?
Chorus: Are we not men?
Other than the time-consuming task of applying makeup to the actors, the actual filming of Island of Lost Souls went smoothly though there was one near-tragic accident when one of the man-beasts (stuntman Joe Bonomo who was Lon Chaney's stunt double in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1923) fell into a water tank and his foam rubber costume quickly absorbed a lot of liquid, almost drowning him in the process.
During the theatrical release of Island of Lost Souls, horror film fans enthusiastically endorsed the movie. Variety, in its distinctive showbiz lingo, predicted a hit: "Paramount will make money with this picture, and so will every exhibitor, including the first big runs, who pays some attention to its exploitation. Literally the proper title is "Island of Lost Freaks." It is decidedly a freak picture. But it is not in the class of freaks which have lost money." As previously noted though, most reviewers were hesitant to recommend the film due to its disturbing sexual undertones in the Lota-Parker relationship and the unrelenting sadism which is recurrent in the vivisection experiments. The horrific climax, in which Moreau is captured and dragged off to the "House of Pain" by his vengeful creations, welding surgical tools, has the intensity of a nightmare and retains its full power even today.
Many have since tried to remake the Wells novel on film but no one has yet to improve upon this 1932 version directed by Erle C. Kenton and photographed by the great Karl Struss, who shared an Oscar® with Charles Rosher for their work on Sunrise in 1927. Among the many versions are a 1913 silent French film, lle d'Epouvante (The Island of Terror), the 1959 Philippine horror Terror Is a Man (aka Blood Creature), Don Taylor's 1977 version The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Burt Lancaster, Michael York and featuring the makeup effects of John Chambers (Planet of the Apes, 1968), and the disastrous 1996 remake by John Frankenheimer which was plagued by behind-the-scenes difficulties, some of them caused by Marlon Brando and his co-star Val Kilmer. And, of course, other horror/sci-fi films have borrowed liberally from the Wells story such as the loopy 1973 Twilight People, directed by Eddie Romero with Pam Grier as the panther woman, and Sergio Martino's Island of Mutations (1979), starring Barbara Bach and Richard Johnson, which was later re-edited with new footage added and released as Screamers in the U.S.
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay: Waldemar Young, Philip Wylie, H.G. Wells (novel)
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: Arthur Johnston, Sigmund Krumgold
Cast: Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen (Edward Parker), Leila Hyams (Ruth Thomas), Bela Lugosi (Sayer of the Law), Kathleen Burke (Lota the Panther Woman), Arthur Hohl (Montgomery).
by Jeff Stafford
The Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies by Phil Hardy