“Are we not men?” a fur-covered Bela Lugosi asks a crowd of man-beasts as part of his role as Sayer Of The Law in Island Of Lost Souls, a 1932 adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Island Of Dr. Moreau. His audience may have an answer, but the movie doesn’t. Set on a fog-drenched island where mad scientist Charles Laughton believes that “all life is tending toward the human form” and works to speed up the process, Island Of Lost Souls is a horror film based on the premise that the divide between humanity and the animal world is one that should never be crossed, but also one that’s impossible to determine. Working in what his creations come to call the House Of Pain, Laughton evolves beasts into almost-men, then places himself above them as a god, wearing the white suit of a Western imperialist and expertly cracking a whip, like an animal trainer or a slave driver.
There is, to say the least, plenty of subtext to the film, a mad swirl of the Darwin- and colonialism-stoked anxieties of the time that looks ahead to the potential horrors of modern technology. Directed by Erle C. Kenton, otherwise best known for his work with Abbott and Costello and overstuffed, later Universal horror films like House Of Frankenstein, the film is also deeply unsettling on an almost biological level.
Stranded on the island by an unscrupulous sea captain, Richard Arlen at first enjoys the hospitality of Laughton’s Moreau. He grows wary, however, when the ship intended to take him back to civilization sinks under mysterious circumstances and he starts to notice the bizarre appearances of the “natives,” whose features betray their origins as dogs, apes, pigs, and other beasts. The company of Lota, the only woman on the island, almost distracts him; her allure is so strong he doesn’t even notice her feline qualities at first. (She’s played by Kathleen Burke, selected as part of a nationwide search for the perfect “Panther Woman.”)
Except, presumably, for its initial run, Island Of Lost Souls has never looked better than it does on this new Blu-ray and DVD edition, or been easier to see. That’s both wonderful and a little wrong. Wells rejected it as “vulgar,” the UK and 10 other countries banned it, and it was met with controversy elsewhere. Eventually it became a perennial favorite of late-night horror show hosts, surfacing briefly on VHS in the ’90s but otherwise consigned to scratched-print TV airings. If it didn’t exist, it would be the perfect apocryphal example of pre-code excess, filled with grotesque creatures, sexual suggestion, and grisly violence, including an on-screen vivisection of one of the half-human wretches. But it’s what remains only suggested that gives the film its icky resonance. Kenton fills his frames with fog, shadow, vegetation, and looming shadows, the perfect home for a Laughton performance that’s both creepy and restrained. Encouraging Burke’s sexual curiosity about Arlen, and vice versa, he tries to mate man to man-beast with an eerie calmness, as if he knew the day animal and man would fuse together had to come and he was simply there to arrange it.
Island Of Lost Souls’ afterlife includes serving as one of the primary inspirations for Devo, who adopted Lugosi’s cry as both the title of its first album and the chorus of the signature anthem “Jocko Homo.” It’s a fitting homage. Devo’s satirical but deadly serious theory of devolution gave a melody to some of the ideas at play in Souls, and a beat to the fear that we, as a species, could slip backwards even as civilization and technology appear to be pushing us forward. And that maybe we already have.
Key features: Plenty, including a fact-filled audio commentary, a discussion between megafans John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns, talks with horror historian David J. Skal and Richard Stanley, who was fired from the ill-fated 1996 remake The Island Of Dr. Moreau, a chat with Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, and a pair of early Devo videos.