Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Erle C. Kenton | 1hr 11min

Science-fiction was still a relatively young genre in the 1930s when Universal Pictures’ monster movies were flourishing, not quite distinct yet from the horror conventions it emerged from, but still carving out its own speculative concerns of man playing God. It makes sense then why the studio looked to H.G. Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau for inspiration in this field. The ‘father of science-fiction’ wrote novels that have now essentially become fables for an industrial, modern world, and in Erle C. Kenton’s despairingly grotesque Island of Lost Souls, his cautionary tale of interfering with nature is immortalised as one of the greatest film adaptations of his work. Dr. Moreau’s twisted biological experiments become a source of barbaric horror here, but perhaps even more terrifying than his creations is the egotistic scientist himself, played by an enormously pompous Charles Laughton whose crisp, white suit and stout figure projects an image of immense wealth, uninhibited by worldly human ethics.

A mere five years after working on F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, cinematographer Karl Struss carries visual cues from German expressionism over into his work on Island of Lost Souls, infusing Kenton’s jungle sets with an air of quiet dread. These are not like those which would feature in King Kong a year later, where the wilderness becomes a giant playground for apes and dinosaurs, but instead his dense foliage and imposing branches press in on his actors and obstruct gorgeously composed shots. Likewise, the interior of Moreau’s menacingly named “House of Pain” is designed like a Gothic nightmare, seeing Struss frequently shoot characters from behind the bars of the scientist’s steel cages.

Kenton returns to this frame a few times, shooting it almost like a portal between the outside world and Moreau’s island.
Bars all around Moreau’s compound, used to superbly expressionistic effect as visual obstructions and shadows.

It is from the thick, white fog surrounding Moreau’s island that a freighter ship emerges carrying our hero, Edward Parker, who has been reluctantly stranded with these men delivering animals to the secretive scientist. Silhouettes with unidentifiable features crowd the shot in the foreground, anxiously anticipating the arrival of outsiders, though it isn’t long before see them in full. What most people assume to be the strange-looking natives of this island, we recognise as Moreau’s mutated experiments, living under his cruel dominion which they call the “Law.” As they stare down the camera, Kenton reveals the fine detail of their makeup and prosthetics, covering bodies in coarse hair and squashing noses flat against faces. Bela Lugosi may not be instantly recognisable playing their leader, the Sayer of the Law, but his voice certainly is, heading their call-and-response mantra of “Are we not men?” as a sad reminder of their half-lives.

Kenton piles on the chilling terror with these daunting close-ups, revealing the fine details of the beasts’ make-up and prosthetics.

Edward’s arrival on the island is timely for Dr. Moreau, who is ready to progress his experiment to the next stage – testing the breeding capabilities of his hybrids with people. Lota’s mannerisms are primitive, but she is the most human-looking of the bunch, and as the only female, she is hand-picked to ingratiate herself with Edward. Like the rest of the scientist’s test subjects though, her existence is sad and pitiful, confused over her identity while longing to partner with this new, intriguing man.

Unfortunately for Moreau, the ability to complete the transformation of beast to human continues to elude him, and when his work is threatened by outsiders, he is eventually pushed to break his own Law – blood must be spilt for the good of his island’s future. It is ironically that malevolent act which exposes his hypocrisy to his creations, whose rebellion brings about the end of his judicious order. Once again, they crowd in on the camera, though this time in a frenzy which sees them revert to their primal, bestial selves, turning their master’s tools back on him in his House of Pain.

“You made us things! Not men! Not beasts! Part man! Part beast! Things!”

They aren’t close-ups, but Kenton still directs his actors to stare right down the camera in marvellously staged compositions like this.

Transcending the natural order is a dangerous game in H.G. Welles’ science-fiction, and Kenton extends this contemplative speculation to full-blown expressionistic horror with his translation of this powerful fable to screen. Mortal deities like Moreau may thrive on their artificial empires for a time, and yet within Island of Lost Souls, those who know what it’s like to be God are also doomed to crumble beneath the weight of their own selfish, conceited ambition.

Island of Lost Souls is not currently streaming in Australia.

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