You gotta love Criterion. These people find and restore movies like nobody’s business. And not only do they fix up the movies, they often give you tons of interesting supplemental material (for those of you out there who watch all those docs and featurettes – and by this I mean me) to go along with it. If not for them, some of these films would never see the light of day again, and they would never look so good. They’re expensive discs, but they’re worth it.
I recently acquired Criterion’s blu-ray of Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), a take on The Island of Dr. Moreau that holds up surprisingly well and can still deliver the creep factor.
The basic plot (from imdb.com): After his ship goes down, Edward Parker is rescued at sea. Parker gets into a fight and the Captain tosses him overboard while making a delivery to the tiny tropical island of Dr. Moreau. Parker discovers that Moreau has good reason to be so secretive on his lonely island. The doctor is a whip-cracking task master to a growing population of his own gruesome human/animal experiments. He does have one prize result, Lota the beautiful panther woman. Parker’s fortunes for escape look up after his fiancée Ruth finds him with the help of fearless Captain Donohue. However, when Moreau’s tribe of near-humans rises up to rebel, no one is safe…
What really interests me about this film is how ahead of its time some of it is. As I watched the scenes of the half-men, half-animal creatures lumber after our heroes and mumble the rules of their forced society, I couldn’t get past how much they behaved like George Romero’s zombie hordes. Shambling, incoherent and seemingly everywhere, even though they weren’t technically zombies, these creatures functioned so similarly to the Romero zombies that it could have been another sequel (one with a mad doctor, but whatever. A mad zombie doctor). This doesn’t seem like a big deal until you remember that in the 1930s, zombies in film were of the voodoo variety. It wasn’t until over three decades later that Romero created the new wave of zombie that would change the face of the genre. But apparently, on The Island of Lost Souls, those zombies were hanging around much earlier. Having the animal/men behave like zombies (from the future) really kept the creatures eerie and unsettling, especially in nighttime sequences. When our heroes first stumble upon the makeshift village where the creatures and hear them recite their laws, it’s one of the most effective sequences in the film.
Another aspect of the film that mostly holds up to scrutiny is the makeup. No, it’s not perfect, but it definitely works for the time period and some of it still works today. The creatures are often kept in shadow, partly behind trees or in large groups, so it’s hard to get a good idea how they all really look, forcing your mind to fill in. And we all know how that works. In the few scenes where we do see the creatures up close, most of them still look legitimately creepy. You know it’s makeup, but it’s good makeup. Lighting also plays an excellent role in maintaining the mood – it’s no German Expressionism, but the influence is there and that’s enough for this film. Charles Laughton makes a compellingly evil Moreau, spouting lines like “Do you know what it’s like to feel like God?” with enough gravity that you believe his madness. Scenes with him is his House of Pain are still effective. Yes, he has a House of Pain. Did I mention he was evil? Our heroes aren’t as well developed (and really, they are so rarely as interesting as the villain anyway), but the actors do a good job keeping the characters interesting enough. Hey, it’s only about 70 minutes, so you do what you can.
I love movies like these, and I definitely recommend Island of Lost Souls. Go check out where Romero’s zombies were hanging out before they hit Pittsburgh.