Island of Lost Souls was not the first adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, but it was the last the author would live to see, and his distaste for it was so great that he was reportedly pleased when the film was banned in the United Kingdom.
Unlike the British censors, Wells was bothered less by the movie’s then-graphic depiction of vivisection than Moreau’s transformation into a mustache-twirling mad scientist and the abandonment of philosophical themes in favor of action. “If you want to know, I think ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ as a film was terrible—terrible! You can print that, if you want to,” he told Screenland magazine in 1935.
He would go on to say:
- “…my story was handled miserably.”
- “…it was handled with a complete lack of imagination.”
- “The translation from the book to the film was so free that it might almost have been another story.”
- “The whole thing was so ridiculously obvious that I must repeat—it was miserable.”
Imagine if he had lived to see the versions that followed.
Island of Lost Souls is The Island of Dr. Moreau in only the most elemental ways, and to say that it is the best adaptation of that book is no great compliment (though one wonders what Richard Stanley may have concocted). But it is confidently its own movie, and it is one of the finest Hollywood horror films of the vibrant 1930s.
By today’s horror standards, Island of Lost Souls, as its contemporaries and silent predecessors, isn’t scary. Like the best early horror movies, it seduces you into its world then crawls under your skin and seeps into your subconscious.
In Island of Lost Souls, shipwreck victim Edward (Richard Arlen) is unceremoniously dumped on Dr. Moreau’s isle with a load of caged tigers, gorillas and other wildlife. Under the conditions that Edward neither stray from his room nor report to the outside world what he sees while there, Moreau (Charles Laughton, coy verging on coquettish) invites him to stay until he can be sailed to the nearest port.
Of course, Edward leaves his room and sees more than he should, including the infamous House of Pain, where Moreau conducts his ghastly experiments. He is also an unwitting accomplice in Moreau’s prurient attempt to test the “humanity” of Lota, a woman the good doctor has coaxed from a panther.
Edward’s plucky fiancée, Ruth (Leila Hyams), meanwhile, receives word of his whereabouts and contracts a boat to take her to the island. Edward and Ruth are reunited as “the natives”—Moreau’s human-beast hybrids—grow restless. Moreau has godly aspirations, and he uses his role as creator to hold the creatures in his thrall (backed by The Law and his Indiana Jones-esque aptitude with a whip). But Moreau is unable to subdue certain animalistic features, and he can only partially repress the beings’ feral nature.
For those seeking subtext, all sorts of things can be read into Island of Lost Souls, even if the ideas aren’t what Wells intended. When Moreau violates a tenet of his own Law and “the natives” revolt, one may see shades of colonialism’s breaking point; given the film’s production in the midst of the Great Depression, one might draw parallels between the creatures and a society whose freedom to pursue happiness is blunted by classism. In a more modern context, one may view it as a cautionary tale of perverse, dogmatic, megalomaniacal, xenophobic, authoritarian rule.
Though Island of Lost Souls developed a dedicated cult thanks to airing regularly on television for decades (I first saw it as a kid in the 1980s on St. Louis-based KPLR’s “Saturday Night Shocker”) and its cultural impacts extend beyond cinema (“Are we not men?”), the movie itself is rarely mentioned among the great horror films, even those of its time. Island is often overlooked in a vast sea that includes Frankenstein and his Bride; Tod Browning’s Freaks show; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s otherworldly Vampyr; the Karloff-Lugosi (or Lugosi-Karloff) team-up The Black Cat; the King (Kong) of all monster movies; and the bloodless Dracula.
The film’s reputation is tarnished in part because the movie languished for decades in horrible prints of varying edits (both corrected in a fine restoration by the Criterion Collection). And while many of the era’s other horror masterworks were helmed by directors like James Whale, Browning and Dreyer, each of whom made multiple signature films, Island was directed by Erle C. Kenton, a workmanlike studio filmmaker who directed more than 100 movies, but nothing nearly as distinctive. With Island of Lost Souls, Kenton had a playfully salacious script and capable accomplices in Karl Struss, whose sumptuous cinematography gives Moreau’s island danger and depth, and Wally Westmore, whose makeup effects remain unsettling (and there is indelible power in the way Kenton employs occasional, jarring close-ups of a fur-covered ear, a hoofed leg or a snout-like nose).
Its rich atmosphere and pre-Code naughtiness aside, Island of Lost Souls hinges on Laughton. Although Moreau’s name is absent from the title, his presence dominates the film. Laughton’s Moreau is Grade A ham, but so finely sliced as to almost be subtle; he is a villain you root to see taken down, but in whose company you delight for the better part of a couple hours. He is a silver-tongued scoundrel in a league with Orson Welles’s Harry Lime, Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber and Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter.
Even H.G. Wells refused to disparage Laughton: “…all respect to Charles Laughton,” he remarked to Screenland amid his Island of Lost Souls tirade, “who is a splendid actor.”