Thursday, September 18, 2008

Island of Lost Souls (England/USA, 1932)

(Spoilers) Trailer. Eleven years after Urban Gad’s Die Insel der Verschollenen, the German silent version of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction horror novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, director Erle C. Kenton helmed the first official sound adaptation, Island of Lost Souls. Gad’s film had been thought to be lost, but it received a rare screening of a rediscovered print at the 2000 Berlinale before disappearing into the vaults somewhere again. Kenton’s film, on the other hand, even occasionally turns up on television; and, without a doubt, as claimed by Michael Weldon of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia, it is also one of the best horror films ever made.
Definitely strong stuff for its day, the film was not only castigated by H.G. Wells as being "vulgar" but was promptly banned by the British Board of Film Censors. Fast paced and well acted, Charles Laughton shines as yet another mad scientist, the plump, perverse and sadistic Dr. Moreau, dressed as a typical English Colonial Imperialist, out to accelerate the natural development of nature and to create human beings from animals while asking "Do you know what it means to feel like God?"
Living on an island populated with the failed mutations of past experiments, creatures whom he keeps in control by flipping a whip more savagely than Michael Pfeiffer ever did, Dr. Moreau decides to take advantage of the unexpected arrival of shipwreck victim Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) to find out whether his most successful creation, the Panther Woman, is capable of love and/or mating with a human. The even more unexpected arrival of Arlen’s fiancée Ruth (Leile Hyams) does little to damper his plans; rather, Dr. Moreau decides to use her as the mate for one of his less successful, more repulsively animalistic creatures. (Leile Hyams, by the way, was a highly popular star of the early talkies. Today, if she is remembered at all, then it is due to her role in this film, her part as Venus in Freaks (also 1932), and, perhaps, her role in The Big House (1930).) The machinations he sets in action to complete his plans result in the uprising of his savage creations, which eventually turn upon and destroy their god and his House of Pain.
Next to Charles Laughton, the true standout amongst the cast in Island of Lost Souls is, without a doubt, Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman, a forgotten, seldom (if ever) again to be seen starlet of exotic beauty who manages to transcend her minuscule wardrobe and exude an innocent and naive, feline sexuality that is well suited for her character. In the long run, she is much more memorable and likable than any of the characters who manage to survive the film’s climactic attack of mutants. (Oddly enough, the qualities so evident in the film are not caught in photographs.)
Headlining star Richard Arlen was, at the time he made Island of Lost Souls, a star on decline who quickly moved down to the rank of an extremely busy and long lasting B-movie regular. Though having such highs in his career as a lead role in William Wellman’s silent classic Wings (1927), after Island of Lost Souls Arlen’s career was reduced mostly to C-budget westerns and third-rate film series such as the 14 long forgotten "comedy adventure" films made with Andy Devine between 1939 & 1941. These seldom screened atrocities from Universal, the "best" being commonly viewed as The Devil’s Pipeline (1940) and Raiders of The Desert (1941), are said to be examples of what type of films director Ed Wood might have made had he ever graduated to the ranks of generic B-Film making: budgetless movies with idiotic, senseless plots going nowhere written around and padded by an inordinate amount of salvaged stock footage.
Director Erle C. Kenton, on the other hand, didn't really also followed Arlen’s decline down the ladder to B-Films as much as he did simply continue his sound career as a lower-echelon director; more than anything else, Island of Lost Souls, a true genre masterpiece, is an anomaly in his career. Although he did helm some mildly entertaining but substandard entries in the Universal monster classics (including The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942/Trailer), The House of Frankenstein (1944/Trailer) and The House of Dracula (1945/Trailer), Kenton also filmed such legendary trash like the Kroger Babb production Bob and Sally (1948), the infamous sleaze producer’s follow up to his notorious roadshow exploitation classic Mom and Dad (1945). Bob and Sally, like its predecessor, was originally shown to sexually segregated audiences in tents that came into town and later left, much like a carnival. Containing footage of live and cesarean births and trying to encompass almost every illicit sexual topic of the time, the film is yet another camp magnum opus waiting for rediscovery.
All this trivia aside, and returning to the topic of this review, Island of Lost Souls will definitely please any and all fans of classic B&W horror films of yesteryear. But, unlike The Mummy (1932) or Frankenstein (1931), it might give rise to some mildly uncomfortable questions if you show it to your littler kids.

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