Oh, the Humanity! Island of Lost Souls (1932)

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.

Warning Signals: The Leopard Man and Uncanny Signs

“Il s’agit de faits qui peuvent être de l’ordre de la constatation pure mais qui présentent chaque fois toutes les apparences d’un signal, sans qu’on puisse dire au juste de quel signal, qui font qu’en pleine solitude je jouis encore d’invraisemblables complicités, qui me convainquent de mon illusion…”

—André Breton, Nadja

(“Sometimes things happen, things which could be on level of facts, of mere observations, but which in each occurrence present all the appearances of  signals, though of what, we can’t exactly say, signals which make me rejoice in the unrealistic complicities of my deep solitude, which convince me of my illusion…”)

Do note that this post contains spoilers.

The Leopard Man teems with signals of all kinds. This horror-mystery-thriller tosses so many signs, details, symbols, and recurrent images at us that we, as audience members, cannot escape the impression that we have fallen through the hatch to some kind of dream world—where everything means something, we just don’t know what. The very richness of these signs—from a fortune-telling cards to a ball whirling on top of a fountain—makes them uncanny.

Just as one piece of information in the absence of all others makes us convinced of its importance a surge of information forces us to look at everything—it floods our senses and encourages us to skip to the kinds of tangential but powerful conclusions which Breton describes in the quote above.

Coincidences are uncanny, Freud argued, because they whisper to us of some grander order that may tick away under the sleek surface of life. The coincidences, formal echoes, and signals that The Leopard Man sows through its unconventional plot together produce this uncanny delirium that makes everything scary, from a young boy making shadow puppets to a lady giving a flower away. Every detail weighs heavy with “the appearance of being a signal.”

Even the characters make these kinds of symbolic, transductive inferences. According to Kiki and her friend the cigarette girl, the film’s setting, a New Mexico town, is “a bad town for blondes”—even though the only three women to be killed there are brunettes! We make the same kind of unsound inferences. For instance, watch the movie and tell me who the Leopard Man of the title is. Duh, it’s the killer. But wait! Nope. The only unambiguous Leopard Man is Charlie How-Come, the native keeper of the leopard, as we learn from the sign on his truck. In other words, signs are always misleading us and creating anxiety.

To this end, Tourneur carefully crafted the film in the baroque, lush, (what I call noir extrême) style that we’ve come to associate with him as an auteur. Many curling shadows, many striking plays of light that call attention to themselves. However, he takes this visual business and coup-de-théâtre flair even farther here to rattle us.

In the first five minutes of the movie, three women, two of them performers in adjacent dressing rooms, appear reflected in mirrors. Clo-clo, the castanet dancer…

Kiki, Clo-Clo’s rival performer at the nightclub…

bang

…And Eloise, the starstruck cigarette girl.

Directly afterwards, in a sweeping camera tilt and pan, we see first a fountain, then a woman reflected in it, then the dancer herself.

This balletic camera cascade over the fountain hypnotized me the first time I saw this film, as did the opening tracking shot. Conspicuously poetic shots like these inscribe these reflection images on the mind. One bathes in this sensation which Breton describes. The intention of the camera movement coupled with the intense visual stimuli provoke a presentiment, a premonition that what we are seeing will become vital.

Tourneur and Lewton populate the rest of the film with reflections as well. Two examples:

I mean, you don’t need to be a film major to pick up on this. The reflections persist so much that we begin to wonder what do they mean? 

It’s a good question! And one for which the answers multiply in my mind without any one explanation satisfying me. I would argue that these mirrors and reflective surfaces exist in the diegesis not as symbols but as signals, in Breton’s sense, as things planted to raise our awareness of what we are seeing, of the fact that we are seeing. I’m not calling the motif a red herring, but I do maintain that the ambiguity of the reflections call up that surrealist part of our brain that notices without understanding.

The light on Clo-Clo’s legs.

On the commentary track for the film, which I recommend listening to, William Friedkin (yes, director of The Exorcist—it’s a damn good commentary!) notes that when a little boy shines a light on Clo-Clo the castanet dancer’s legs, he seemingly marks her for death. Tourneur’s vivid attachment to virtuoso contrasts of light and dark and patterns of duplication enhance the ambiance of presentiment that renders The Leopard Man so tense and intense. The enhanced visuality created by flamboyant, recurrent camera movements and low-key lighting etch details upon the mind and confer importance to them.

I must confess, I felt impelled to write this post after hearing Friedkin say, “Coherence is the enemy of the horror film.”

I agree. The cloud of possible meanings that looms over The Leopard Man teems with electricity, just as a sky about to be ripped apart by lightening makes you tingle. The ambiguity of all the signs in The Leopard Man conjure up the uncanniness of Breton’s signal. We feel like they mean something, but what that something is, we know not what.

The symbols that should scare us most, however, are not the mysterious signs around us, but rather those signals are those whose meaning cannot be negotiated. Significance, in its absolute form, entails a kind of death. After all, one achieves one’s truest being in death—you can never be anything more than what you are once you’ve ceased to live. That sounds morbid, but, whatever you believe, it’s hard to deny that death is final.

For each of the three female deaths in The Leopard Man, Lewton and Tourneur use unmistakable signals of death (or the bringer of death) that nevertheless avoid showing the thing in itself.

Blood under the door, on the other side of which Teresa’s being attacked…

The cemetery tree bending and then springing as the killer pounces on Consuelo…

…And Clo-clo’s cigarette butt burning out.

These signs frighten us because they hold no ambiguity. We know what happened. The decision not to show this horror makes us ponder that thing that can never really be shown—death, since, really, none of us knows for sure what death is.

Signals live. They take on a life because because play with them, negotiate with them, recycle them. When you cannot negotiate with a signal, it turns into the emblem of the finality which we all fear. Which is why I personally find The Leopard Man a difficult film to “analyze” since the movie questions the value of interpreting any sign. Isn’t it the signal and not the significance which breathes and dances? Much of the fun of the movies originates in our tender complicity with signals.

After all, it’s only madmen who see direction, purpose, meaning in everything. Well, scholars and madmen. It’s no coincidence, though, that the mentally unstable killer Galbraith is both a scholar and a madman. He brings together those parallel needs for significance, for explanation—yet he can ultimately offer no rationalization for his desire to kill.

It’s also Galbraith who enunciates the fountain-as-Fate metaphor. (Side note: there’s also a significant fountain in Breton’s Nadja. Could the eminently literate Lewton and the French Tourneur have been making an allusion to the father of surrealism, perhaps?) Too many people take Galbraith’s word as gospel on that, though.

Come on, would you give serious credence to a guy who mauled two women to death because he felt like it? Galbraith wants to hammer down significance, fix the meaning of the fountain, strangle it with a noose of interpretation when he’s completely ignored its fluidity, the very qualities which allow the fountain to serve as a metaphor. What I’m trying to say (badly) is that a fountain on film is never Fate. It’s first and foremost a fountain! When you reduce something to a symbol, you’ve killed it.

In the dark: Galbraith and his compulsion remain mysterious.

I adore the conclusion of this film, with Galbraith running through the procession of mourners, remembering the massacre of natives in the village. When his pursuers catch up to him, they fall in and march with the procession as they start to make him confess.

This chase tempts you to brand it with big words like Atonement and Sin and Religion. But the drama pulls you back in and denies you the corpse-like refuge of significance. As the worshippers in the scene know, the only way to keep a memory alive is not with symbols, but with movement and noise. To quote another Breton chestnut, from his L’Amour Fou, “Beauty must be convulsive—or must not be.”

Convulsive beauty, à la Breton: Clo-Clo rushes at the leopard with castanets.

The moment you pledge yourself to abstractions like Fate and Death, you run the risk of losing the quickness and movement of signals and all the uneasiness they inspire in us.

Warning signal: the leopard’s eyes as two points of light.