Helmed by veteran director (and part time actor) Erle C. Kenton, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS was Paramount’s monster movie follow-up to the Oscar-nodded DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE with Fredric March. Unlike JEKYLL, the pre-code horrors of LOST SOULS proved to be a comparative commercial failure, especially in the wake of the prosperous early 1930s horror boom. But the film remains the most significant and most highly regarded cinematic take on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (though the author himself detested the results), and is an essential piece of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Horror. One of the most requested titles (if not the most requested title) by classic horror fans, The Criterion Collection now bows THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS on both DVD and this Blu-ray edition.
After his boat sinks, a young man named Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is rescued and encounters Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), a former doctor with a questionable past, who happens to be assistant to Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). After he’s thrown overboard by an inebriated captain, Parker ends up on Moreau’s tiny boat and is circumstantially forced to sail to his secretive island hideaway. It is there that Moreau has set up his mad scientist shop, challenging the evolution process in his own pretend-God like ways by transforming animals into hideous “manbeasts” who have the power of speech and walk on two legs. With all the upside-down scientific dreadfulness on display, Parker is introduced to an exotic raven-haired young woman named Lota (Kathleen Burke), who in actuality is Moreau’s prized experimentation: a panther woman, which unlike his other creations, is more human in appearance and behavior. Moreau not only thwarts Parker’s planned exit from the island, but intends on having him mate with Lota. But Parker will soon be brought back to his senses by the arrival of his fiancé Ruth (Leila Hyams, FREAKS), who finds herself menaced by an aggressive manbeast in another outrageous mating plot by Moreau.
When ISLAND OF LOST SOULS went into production, Paramount hyped it with a publicity campaign built around the star-search casting of The Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke was chosen out of more than 60,000 hopefuls), but despite the jovial pre-ballyhoo, the released film was often censored of scenes and dialog (depending on what territory it played in) and it was banned in England until 1958 (and even then, screened in a cut version). Viewing the film today, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is not the nauseating theatergoing experience it must have been in 1932/33, but it’s still very much a gratifying masterwork of early Hollywood horror, sustaining all the necessary ingredients in its 70-minute running time.
With his clean white suit, devilish facial hair and cracking whip in hand, Laughton is marvelous as Moreau, creating a cunning, fiendish, sadistic, perverted voyeur who screams mad eccentric, and he utters some choice dialog as only he could. In fact all the performances are solid, but its fourth-billed Bela Lugosi as the ape-like Slayer of the Law who stands out in the few scenes he’s given. Close-ups of Bela in hairy face make-up (the first time Lugosi would accept such a challenge after declining the part of the Frankenstein monster for Universal) constitute some of the film’s numerous haunting images, and Lugosi articulates his few lines (“What is the law?”) with as much pathos as he could possibly give the minor but central tormented character (Lugosi, again under some heavy make-up, would later be reunited with director Kenton for Universal’s GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN).
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is probably the first major horror movie to host so many monsters, with its various manbeasts meant to represent different breeds of animals, and the excellent make-up (some of it still quite disturbing) by Wally Westmore is comparable to what Jack Pierce was doing over at Universal, though on a much larger scale for a single production. Kenton’s direction is not so much distinct in that there’s any sort of innovative technique on display, but he certainly has the benefit of an irreplaceable leading man and an energetic supporting cast, as well as the skillful cinematography by Karl Struss, who uses a good number of shadows to remarkable effect. It’s these shadowy depictions and the striking sets by Hans Dreier which give the film a look of German Expressionism (Moreau’s abode, which doubles as the infamous “House of Pain”, resembles an abandoned prison transformed into an exaggerated tropical zoo/resort).
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is one of a large number of Paramount films made between 1929 and 1949, which Universal owns the home video rights to. Although they’ve issued many of their own 1930s horror properties on the digital format, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS has been neglected for far too long, so naturally, it’s was exciting when Criterion hinted and later officially announced that they’d be licensing the title. For this new Blu-ray presentation (it’s also available on standard DVD), the transfer was made from a number of different film sources, as the original negative no longer exists. These sources include a 35mm fine-grain master positive with some inherent damage, the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 35mm nitrate positive (which also had damage but features lines of dialogue not heard since they were censored upon the film's original release) and a collector’s 16mm print. Much repair and clean-up work was done to combine the three sources and create this version, which is more complete than any before on home video. The black & white film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, so the black bars will appear on the sides of the screen on HD definition TVs. The transfer has some grain and light lines that show up periodically, but on a whole the image looks more than satisfying and if quality shifts in a specific scene, it’s very briefly and not drastically noticeable. There is come occasional picture softness, but detail is fairly sharp throughout and black levels are deep. The original mono soundtrack was also remastered, and the results are a clean track with any noticeable hiss or distortion being slight at best. Optional English subtitles are also included.
Extras on the disc include a full audio commentary with author and Lugosi expert Gregory Mank. Mank keeps things informative and fun, covering everything from film’s script evolution, behind the scenes production stories, background on the cast and crew (including a lot of salary info), the “Panther Woman Contest”, the film’s problems with censorship and much more. The disc also includes four interview featurettes, all produced in HD. The first (16:53) has filmmaker John Landis, award-winning make-up legend Rick Baker and film aficionado Bob Burns. The three of course have a natural interest in the film’s army of monsters and Wally Westmore's innovative make-up, as well as the gorilla suit made by Charles Gemora (who wore it in this film as well as 1932’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE). Author and film historian David J. Skal (13:04) takes a more scholarly look at the translation of Wells' novel to the big screen (and compares Laughton’s performance to Oscar Wilde) and the third featurette hosts South African-born filmmaker Richard Stanley (14:15) who was set to direct New Line’s 1996 futuristic version of Moreau, until he was let go and replaced by John Frankenheimer. Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, founding members of New Wave legends Devo are on hand for the last featurette (19:48). They explain how seeing LOST SOULS on Ghoulardi’s late-night horror show in Ohio greatly inspired their musical career and fascination with masks (a quote from the movie actually plays into the title of their first LP). Devo’s 1976 short film “In the Beginning Was the End – The Truth about Evolution” (9:43) is also included, and contains performances of “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo”. The original theatrical trailer, a great still gallery (including some behind-the-scenes shots and early make-up tests) and an insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Christine Smallwood round out the extras of this must-have Halloween release. (George R. Reis)
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