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With: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke, Arthur Hohl, Stanley Fields, Paul Hurst, Hans Steinke, Tetsu Komai, George Irving
Written by: Waldemar Young, Philip Wylie, based on a novel by H.G. Wells
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 70
Date: 12/01/1932

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Are We Not Men?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Island of Lost Souls is one of the essential monster movies of the 1930s -- up there with Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and King Kong (1933). Based on H.G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, it has similar themes, with men (rather than women, or gods) creating bastardized versions of life. It even featured Bela Lugosi, the world famous star of Dracula. Yet for years it has been very difficult to see. Now, just in time for Halloween, the Criterion Collection has released it on DVD and Blu-Ray.

It begins as Edward Parker is rescued from a life raft in the middle of the ocean; his ship has gone down. A sad, shifty doctor, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) helps bring him back to life. After fighting with the captain, Edward is thrown off the ship and onto a transport headed for a mysterious island. There he meets Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton). Edward quickly notices the island's strange inhabitants, half-men, half beasts. These include Lota (Kathleen Burke), the half-naked panther woman that takes a liking to Edward. But Edward is about to get married to Ruth (Leila Hyams) and won't stop trying until he can get away.

Lugosi plays one of the men-beasts, the Sayer of the Law. He only appears in two scenes, but he has a crucial role, shouting the rules Moreau has imposed upon the creatures: no blood spilled, no eating meat, etc. It's Lugosi's character that illustrates the movie's theme: what is a man? A man is someone that can decide whether or not to kill, more or less. But of course, this definition is loosened and stretched here, which is where the horror comes in. There isn't any rock-solid, secure definition of man.

The director was Erle C. Kenton, who had been working long through the silent era, making mostly comedy shorts, and worked with Abbott and Costello several times. Today, his best known films are his four horror pictures, three of them made in the late, lazy days of Universal's horror cycle: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Yet his work on Island of Lost Souls if faultless, perfectly paced and balanced. The small, sinister moments perfectly match the big, explosive, and/or erotic moments. The beasts rampaging through the dark jungle is an unforgettably unsettling mass of jerkily moving bodies.

Though Lugosi had been in Dracula at Universal, and Laughton made a Universal horror movie the same year, the great The Old Dark House (1932), Island of Lost Souls was surprisingly produced at Paramount; it was most certainly an effort to jump on the horror bandwagon and cash in on the huge success that Universal had, but it was also an honest effort, not cheap or slapdash by any means.

Laughton in particular is amazing here, and the total opposite of his bombastic character in The Old Dark House; he's slightly piggy in his makeup, but his demeanor is almost spookily soft. He can be terribly frightening, just by focusing his gaze in a certain direction.

It should also be noted that there have been several remakes, most notably a 1977 version with Burt Lancaster as Moreau, and the ill-fated 1996 version with Marlon Brando in the title role.

All in all, Island of Lost Souls works on every level; it rattles your nerves while you're watching it, and it haunts your dreams after it's over.

The Criterion's Blu-Ray edition includes a new digital restoration of the uncut theatrical version, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, and an audio commentary featuring film historian Gregory Mank. Featurettes include several interviews with the film's fans: the first has a conversation between filmmaker John Landis, Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, and genre expert Bob Burns; others are with horror film historian David J. Skal; filmmaker Richard Stanley, and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo. There's also a short film by Devo, a stills gallery, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by writer Christine Smallwood.

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