Leave it to Paramount. As if all the great Lubitsch comedies and Von Sternberg dramas they cranked out weren’t enough immortal genius for them in the 1930s, the sparkling, sophisticated studio managed to match Universal at their horror game with Island of Lost Souls. And how!
Directed by Erle C. Kenton, this classic stands out as probably the most violent in the pantheon of 1930s nightmare pictures. With cinematography by Karl Struss—the director of photography partially responsible for the ethereal wonder that is Murnau’s Sunrise and the magician behind Fredric March’s no-cut transformation to Hyde—Island of Lost Souls is also one of the most fiercely beautiful horror films of all time, replete with reflections, complex shadow effects, and rich low-key lighting set-ups.
Most of all, the film presents perhaps the most frightening monster of the early talkie horror cycle: Dr. Moreau, whose smug superiority and utter lack of human traits, even as he tries to instill “humanity” in others, make him a chilling parallel to every 20th century dictator.
The People Have Spoken
Hey, boys and girls, here’s a fun fact for you! In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Photoplay magazine polled studio contract stars about their opinions on key political and social issues. Here’s a snippet from the final write-up, “What Hollywood Is Thinking”:
“PHOTOPLAY’S second question was, ‘Do you advocate the sterilization of mentally unfit persons?’
“To this, eighty-seven percent and one-half percent of the women and ninety-four percent of the men said yes.”
I just want those numbers to frame my take on Island of Lost Souls.
Now, I find that the fantastic qualities of many horror films and the suspension of disbelief that they (supposedly) require too often strips these classics of their due position in the history of cinema. But with such a resoundingly high population in Hollywood favoring eugenics in the 1930s… well, you tell me how outlandish Dr. Moreau’s visions are.
(Incidentally, I’m not the only person to link eugenics with Island of Lost Souls—there’s a bit about it in Angela Smith’s Hideous Progeny, although, as always, the observations in this post are my own mad creations.)
The Reasoning Animal
I have to applaud the bravery of horror as a genre.
Shocker flicks, of the kind that flourished in the 1930s, persistently suggest the fallacy of certain overly optimistic ideals, the heritage of the Enlightenment. Ignorance is so totally not the only evil.
Man is capable of very good things, but he’s also capable of the blackest, most vile deeds—whether he happens to be a respected scientist or just some dumb bully. As man gets smarter, guess what? He doesn’t necessarily get nicer.
Charles Laughton’s performance as Dr. Moreau highlights the uncanny contradiction of the evil genius, the concept that the best of mankind might be the inextricable flip side of the worst. His hilariously ironic manners, his custom of drinking tea out of delicate china and silver, and his genteel colonial wardrobe all emphasize the fact that he is the shining example of certain cultural virtues and ideals.
Why, he’s even created his own warped little version of a social contract, as we discover in the famous recitation of The Law scene. However, the feverish back-and-forth cutting reveals how much this Law is merely a tool for keeping the rabble separated from the Creator of that Law.
“Are we not men?” The monsters wail below, even though they seem crushed by the shame of the knowledge that they cannot ever be men in the eyes of their maker. It’s always somebody else who makes the laws, isn’t it? Moreau’s litany reminds us of the kind of lofty over-expectations that a dictator-controlled society resorts to in an attempt to mold its citizens right out of their personhood.
The shadowy low-angle shots of Moreau in the The Law sequence also tie into the depiction of another character in the film—the brutish ship captain, often shown from below, a hulking drunk who only feels like a big man when he picks on the helpless.
When we first meet Moreau, we’re somewhat relieved by his snappy politeness, but we soon learn that he’s no different than the thuggish captain, who delights in a smaller-scale version of the submission that Moreau expects and commands from his “natives.”
However, my favorite moment in the whole movie occurs when Moreau introduces the vulnerable Lota, the Panther Woman, to Parker. Of course, he’s hoping to breed them for his sick, morally irresponsible experiments. Any other mad scientist would say something sinister and chuckle to himself.
Moreau, like a matchmaking mother, claps his hands and cheerfully says, “Well, I’ll leave you two young people alone together!”
Seized by voyeurism masquerading as scientific interest, Dr. Moreau keenly watches the results of his breeding experiment.
Unlike so many overtly intense or frantic mad scientists, Laughton opts for a kinky coyness. For instance, he lounges on his own operating table while gleefully explaining his life’s work.
Laughton conveys that Moreau isn’t just fueled by a single-minded passion for progress and discovery, like the modern Prometheus Dr. Frankenstein who seems to value the results of his experiments more than the ghoulish process.
No, Moreau deeply enjoys his work as a form of sublimation. I mean, come on now, we’re dealing with a man who dedicated his life to cultivating prodigious flowers and asparagus. You don’t have to be Georgia O’Keefe to figure the symbolism of these indecently gigantic plants!
Breeding giant orchids. A totally normal ambition.
Giant asparagus. Which, by the way, is my new favorite insult…
The stunning cinematography augments Laughton’s already spot-on performance—while also betraying him as the petty, frustrated tyrant he is. When Moreau first explicitly mentions to Parker how he feels like God, his obscured face, barely lit from below, imparts a ghoulish aspect so that we understand just how far he is from anything that could be considered godlike. He doesn’t want to make beings in his own image. He doesn’t want to create. He wants to mutilate.
Delusions of grandeur: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”
If the Island of Lost Souls offers a moral equal and opposite to Moreau, befuddled Parker doesn’t measure up to that role—Lota, the Panther Woman, does. She epitomizes all the warmth, courage, and self-consciousness her creator never had.
For instance, once Parker notices Lota’s claws and recognized her animal origins, she hides in her room, staring at herself in the mirror. Kathleen Burke was chosen for this role out of 60,000 girls and, man, did they ever pick the right woman for the job. She communicates the genuine pathos of the body hate and self-loathing that every woman I’ve met experiences at least once in her life. Suddenly, Moreau barges in, jerks Lota around, collapses, and proceeds to sulk about his failure.
For a fleeting instant, the viewer almost expects the doctor and his creation to commiserate. Then she starts to cry. And he starts to laugh—for her tears mean that he’s managed to make a creature with the emotions of a woman. The joy that he derives from her sorrow succeeded in shocking me more than all the pre-Code exploitation value in the rest of the movie. The fact that Moreau cannot regard Lota as a being deserving of dignity and consideration proves that, in a fine twist of irony, she possesses more humanity than he.
Do Look Back: The Legacy of Island of Lost Souls
At the end of the film, Montgomery rows the non-animal hero and heroine of the film away from the island as it goes up in flames and tells them, “Don’t look back.” However, I think that’s exact what we should do—look back at this movie, the time it came out of, and its influence.
I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that Orson Welles saw this and stowed away a few ideas for his searing, brutal low-budget Macbeth. If you’ve seen it, I think you’ll agree that this shot of Dr. Moreau’s “natives” peering out at the new arrivals strongly foreshadows similar shots of the witches in Welles’ adaptation.
The frequent tracking movements, slowly creeping around Moreau’s lair set a new standard for unbalancing motion in a film. The potential for the tracking shot as a disconcerting horror tool was later elevated to high art in other stories of dehumanization or darkness triumphant, like Olivier’s Hamlet and Last Year at Marienbad.
Indeed, whenever a movie tries to conjure up a shadowy, impenetrable place of evil, you can see visual echoes of Island of Lost Souls. Seriously, try to imagine Kurtz’ compound in Apocalypse Now without the lush shadows, balletic camerawork, and the twisted cult of personality that Kenton’s film fused into an enduring, coherent esthetic. The mixture of exoticism, expressionism, and amorality works so well as a kind of archetypal unit that we’ve been coming up against it ever since.
Father of Kurtz?
I also doubt that very many movies released after 1932 have depicted torture in a way not influenced by Island of Lost Souls. Good directors know that, even if you do want to eventually go all-out in showing torture violence, you should introduce it off-screen first to build anticipatory terror. It’s just a smart suspense technique. And this movie does it the best I’ve ever seen.
Parker is eating dinner with Montgomery and Moreau. All of a sudden, we hear a cry. Ling, who, the movie has intimated, is probably not totally human, looks up in its direction, wild with elemental fear.
Then we get this magnificent shot of Moreau’s face emerging from behind Parker’s profile as he reassures him. Laughton’s moon of a face seems to “wax” and come alive with wickedness and we, the audience members, conclude that something horrible is going on.
And remember, 1932 was still early days for synchronous sound. So, this masterful use of the soundtrack not only to stretch the world of the story beyond the frame, but also to interject more tension and fear into the situation earns major respect from me.
This motif of off-screen violence returns at the very end, when the man-animals attack their creator in his own laboratory. The unseen torture scenes serve as book-ends to the film and reinforce a chilling symmetry. The animal revolution does not bring a regression to a state of barbarism and cruelty, since Dr. Moreau incarnated both of those things perfectly well. The refined doctor and the bloodthirsty animal-men share the desire to inflict pain—except that we can understand vengeance more easily than sadism in the name of science.