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Island of Lost Souls: Criterion Collection DVD Review

Island of Lost Souls: Criterion Collection

November 21, 2011

Director: Erle C. Kenton,
Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke, Arthur Hohl, Stanley Fields,

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DVD Review

Based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls (1932) was a controversial film for its time being banned in 12 countries, including England, for its blatant references to vivisection and a blasphemous reference to God. The film was heavily censored in the United States but that still didn’t prevent people from feeling so sickened by what they saw that they vomited in the theater.

A trading ship picks up a mysterious man adrift at sea. His name is Edward Parker (Arlen) and he was on a ship that sunk. The ship that rescues him is chock full of exotic animals headed for an unnamed island owned by the enigmatic Dr. Moreau (Laughton). The surly captain (Fields) tosses Parker onto Moreau’s cargo ship headed for the island. The first thing that strikes Parker is the oddness of Moreau’s crew who resemble cave men – the missing link between ape and man. At first, Moreau seems like a refined chap. He gives Parker a tour of the island as casually as if he were showing him around his house, only he occasionally scatters the inhabitants with a whip. Moreau is a scientist who experiments on animals in an attempt to transform them into human beings.

He decides to introduce Parker to Lota, the Panther Woman (Burke) and see how she reacts to him. Clearly he sees Parker as nothing more than a new variable in his vast experiment. Rather disconcertingly, Parker hears the occasional screams of agony coming from the “House of Pain,” the laboratory where Moreau creates his animal-human hybrids. It is a striking scene of sadism and pain, which still holds up today.

Charles Laughton infuses a bemused gleam in the eye of Moreau but we soon find out it is the gleam of a mad man. He is fantastic as the brilliant scientist who has lost touch with reality and is consumed by his own ego. He plays a deliciously evil man who ambitiously meddles in things he shouldn’t and torments his experiments. Richard Arlen plays Parker as the film’s audience surrogate and voice of reason in a world gone mad. He’s outraged at the audacity of Moreau’s actions, most alarmingly, his notion of dabbling in God’s domain.

Island of Lost Souls is a thinking man’s horror film – one that wrestles with notions of evolution and experimentation as well as the ethics involved with both. Some times scientific advances are made without much thought about their ramifications and in the film this notion is embodied by Moreau. It is a story that has fascinated people for years. Wells’ book was adapted again in 1977 with Burt Lancaster and again, most notoriously, in 1996 with the production-plagued version starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, but the 1932 film is still the best by far.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank. He points out that the film tested the limits of just how far a horror film could go in pre-code Hollywood. Paramount, the studio responsible for it, was interested in making more daring, sexier films and really pushed the limits with this one. Mank gives us a brief production history, telling some fascinating filming anecdotes in this engaging and informative track.

There is an entertaining conversation between filmmaker John Landis, legendary makeup artist Rick Baker and horror film fan Bob Burns. They cover horror films in the 1930’s before shifting the focus to Island of Lost Souls. They point out that it was an A-movie with a large budget that did not do well when it was released. Baker says that this is best version of Wells’ book and marvels at the makeup effects. Burns provides fascinating details about the film’s makeup artists.

Film historian David J. Skal talks about H.G. Wells and his unique brand of science fiction. He wrote politicized genre fiction. Skal also discusses Victoria era horror literature, which was often pre-occupied with evolution.

Filmmaker Richard Stanley attempted to adapt Wells’ book in 1996 but was fired early in the production. He talks about what attracted him to the source material, including several of its themes, which he says are still relevant today. The filmmaker talks about how the book differs from the various film versions and also discusses his attempt to adapt it, including sneaking back onto the set after being fired.

Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, founding members of the band Devo, talk about the influence of the film on their music. It spoke to and made them acutely aware of the times in which they lived in. Also included is their 1976 short film, which featured Devo songs, “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo.”

Also included is a Stills Gallery of makeup tests and promotional shots.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 81%

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