Island of Lost Souls
Director - Erle C. Kenton
Cast - Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 1
MSRP - $29.95
Distributor - Criterion
Reviewer - Scott MacDonald
The Film (4.5/5)
My first experience with Island of Lost Souls came with a late night TV viewing in the mid-90's. I had read the H.G. Wells short story the Island of Dr. Moreau, and had recently seen the terrible John Frankenheimer adaptation of the material, but had never even heard of a prior cinematic version existing. When I watched this I had no expectations, the credits mentioned Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.
I had yet to come across any film with Laughton that had disappointed me, but I had been exposed to some of Bela's Poverty Row material through a VHS box set a friend received a few Christmases prior, so I knew it could go either way. I was happy to discover not only was it a great Moreau adaptation, but quite possibly one of the finest horror films of the early 1930's horror era, and that is saying something considering all the great horror films was creating with their soon to be iconic monsters.
Island of Lost Souls tells the deceptively simple story of Edward Parker, a seaman who is rescued after days alone at sea after his ship sank by the crew of a passing cargo ship. The ship's Doctor named Montgomery played by Arthur Hohl helps him on the road to recovery, and also gets a telegram out to his fiancee who is waiting for him to arrive at his destination so that they can be married. Unfortunately, for Parker, he comes to a disagreement with the ship's Captain, and when Montgomery departs with his Cargo of exotic animals at an uncharted island, Parker is left with him with no way to contact his fiancee or reach home.
It turns out that Montgomery works for the island's owner the titular Dr. Moreau, who was run out of London, England 12 years prior with Montgomery for crimes against nature. These crimes had to do with scientific experimentation on animals, and trying to bring them closer to a humanoid form. On this island he continues these experiments with varying results. Some of the inhabitants look very human like Lota, the panther woman, who Moreau decides to attempt to mate with Parker. Other are more animal-istic in their nature, and are punished by Moreau for their failure to evolve by harder labor (such as manually powering the island). There are others closer to the Panther woman such as one of the Beast-men village leader's played by Bela Lugosi. Moreau rules over this island of misfit creatures like a King, and lays down a very specific set of laws for both the safety of the island, and the forwarding of his experiments. In the end Parker's fiancee does come to rescue him, and while I was excited to see that conclusion of his story, I was more involved in bizarre atmosphere of the Island than the story itself, which is the only real negative I can find with the movie itself.
When watching Island of Lost Souls all I could think is how the film would make a great triple feature with Tod Browning's Freaks and Cooper and Schoedsack's original King Kong, as it seems to take the bizarre atmosphere of the former, and the great special effects, and island location of the latter. Island of Lost Souls feels like it could very well be one of the first special effects spectacles in the horror genre. It is said within the liner notes to this DVD/BD release, that early audiences who saw this in the theater, were sickened by what they saw on the screen. And while time has definitely tempered our violent expectation in consideration of what has come in between the violence presented in Island of Lost Souls is still quite effective. The real star of the show are the creatures, and the makeup used to create them not only holds up as an excellent example of it's era, but just simply fantastic effects that still would be effective in a genre film today.
The performances for the most part are uniformly excellent, with Charles Laughton being particular magnetic as Dr. Moreau. He has a dastardly evil, yet slightly charming vibe, and every time he is on the screen he takes over the scene. Bela Lugosi is in his prime here, post White Zombie, Post- Dracula, but prior to his lesser Poverty Row works, and his less than triumphant come back in the (admittedly fun) works of Ed Wood. The only performance I was less than thrilled with was Richard Arlen as Edward Parker. The performance seemed quite wooded, and stiff even though he is surrounded by such strangeness.
Overall, an excellent and underrated horror film. Island of Lost Souls a timeless effects spectacle of the horror genre, and proof that Universal wasn't the only studio making classic horror in the early 30's.
Island of Lost Souls has had a pretty shoddy release history on home video over the years, and has never seen a truly decent release even, so when Criterion announced that they were taking on the title horror fans of the world knew they were in for quite the treat. That C on the package pretty much indicates that if nothing else this transfer is going to be solid, and you know what? It is.
Criterion has presented Island of Lost Souls in the films original 1:33:1 aspect ratio with a fantastic black and white transfer. The transfer was culled from a variety of sources to come up with as close to an excellent consistent, and uncut transfer as possible, and for the most part Criterion has come to this project with great success. There are some minor scratches, and print damage, but that is to be expected with a film of this age and caliber. However, the clarity for the most part is excellent, and the contrast between the light and dark segments is similarly fantastic.
The audio is presented in a similarly good fashion, with a LPCM 1.0 English Mono track. The dialogue for the most part is crisp and clear throughout the film, and music and effects are mixed well together. That being said due to the various elements used there were a few instances of background distortion, but these were rarely noticeable.
The package Criterion has put together for Island of Lost Souls is nothing short of amazing. The set kicks off with an excellent commentary by film historian Gregory Mank. We then have an excellent 17 minute interview piece with John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns. The 3 of them discuss the film, the director Erle Kenton, and of course, the effects. This is followed up by an interview with David Skal, a horror film historian who discusses the Wells source material in conjunction with Island of Lost Souls, and brings to the discussion Tod Browning's Freaks. We then have an interview with the Terrance Malick of horror Richard Stanley, who was set to helm the mid-90's adaptation of the Island of Dr. Moreau before being fired, and replaced by John Frankenheimer. He discusses Island of Lost Souls, as well the Frankenheimer version. We then come to what is absolutely my favorite extra on the disc an interview with Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerard Casale alongside a short film they did called In the Beginning was the End : The Truth about De-Evolution. The disc is rounded off with a stills gallery, theatrical trailer, and a booklet of essays.
The finest adaptation of the Island of Dr. Moreau, and one of the most criminally underseen horror films of the 1930's finally sees an excellent DVD/BD release from Criterion. The transfer is better than it's ever been (get the Blu if you have the option), and the extras are absolutely top notch. Absolutely highly recommended.