Killtoberfest 1- #19: Island of Lost Souls

In All, Movies by Kyu

Today in Killtoberfest, the second of six movies based on H.G. Wells’ novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. This 1932 film may at this late date be more curio than entertainment. But what a curio! Bela Lugosi in a bit part–The Panther Woman–“What is the Law?”–and Charles Laughton’s excellent central performance (1) as the sneering, “civilized” brute of a mad scientist, Dr. Moreau.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it concerns an everyman protagonist who finds himself the “guest” (read: prisoner) of Dr. Moreau, a scientist who conducts his experiments on a remote island, far from the eyes of shocked and disapproving society. These experiments are his attempts through vivisection to bring humanity to animals. The island swarms with failures, hideous apemen who live in terror of the doctor’s whip and live by “The Law,” Moreau’s chanted admonishments against animalistic violence.

What’s most fascinating about the film, besides Laughton’s performance, is how blatant it is. The Hays Code self-censorship was imposed in 1930 but not fully enforced until 1934, and Island of Lost Souls slipped right on by in between. Aside from the vivisection itself, we also get implied rape and beastiality, and the whole movie has the dark and wild feel of an unrepressed id.

The key to the film is Laughton, who seems a bit like Orson Welles’ evil twin (2). Polite, reserved, effete, even prissy (that little mustache!), he appears to be the very picture of civilized society. But unlike other movie mad scientists, his sin isn’t progressing too far in a valuable field, it’s the regressiveness of his ultimate aims, the animalistic brutality of his treatment of both man and animal. When his pretenses fall, Moreau is just the tinpot dictator of the creatures he’s made, driving fear into them at the end of whip, sending them to do his killing, or pimping out the Panther Woman. And like all dictators he will eventually lose control. At the end of the film, as the survivors row away from the savage island towards a distant civilization, one of them offers a piece of advice Moreau should have followed: “Don’t look back.”

1 Laughton was mostly an actor, but he did direct one film, Night of the Hunter, a lyrical horror/fairy tale about two children on the run from Robert Mitchum’s evil preacher. It is commonly believed that had he not died at a young age he would have gone on to make other masterpieces. After seeing Island of Lost Souls, I think the world lost not only a very good director, but an excellent actor as well.

2 Some of you, as I do, may remember with fondness an episode of Freakazoid that serves as an extensive homage to this movie, including Tim Curry as Laughton as Moreau.