Saturday, November 26, 2011

Island of Lost Souls (Eric C. Kenton, 1932)

The film opens on a thick sea fog, a ship piercing out of the mist as if a ghost vessel. When deckhands spot a man floating limply in the water, this feeling is only exacerbated. But Island of Lost Souls, adapted from H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, proves far more unsettling than some simple ghost story. Instead, its taut narrative delves into grotesque visions of amoral scientific experimentation and imperialism, where the white men so often look as monstrous as the half-beasts they create.

Kenton's direction is thoroughly shadowed, constantly preventing any moment's calm even as the protagonist remains oblivious to the horrors around him for the film's first section. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) barely has any time at all to be grateful for his rescue, suddenly confronted with a ship filled with belligerent animals and a captain with a short temper who callously maroons the man he saved to be spared the inconvenience. Parker must go with Dr. Moreau back to his lair until he can get a ride back to the nearest proper port, but after a few glimpses at people with horrible, animalistic features, we know he won't be able to just up and leave.

Charles Laughton portrays Moreau as impossibly well-groomed for a man living on a tropical island. Portly despite a vegetarian diet, tidy hair defying the sticky air, Moreau never looks or sounds as mad as, say, Kurtz. Rather, Laughton extracts the man's villainy from his rationality, the scientific impulses of curiosity and exploration taken to perverse extremes. With unsparingly bleak, static cinematography, Kenton dips into a cold, inhuman horror appropriate for its subject matter of animals slowly turned into tortured subhumans. Moreau is still a warped scientist, but it's no coincidence that he dresses like a plantation owner as he orders around his primal creations.

Underscoring the repulsiveness of Moreau's actions is a brutal scene of a vivisection without anesthesia, a scene that manages to avoid graphic detail without sparing the viewer any discomfort. Even Parker, who otherwise is so thick that the sight of people with pig faces is just "odd," blanches at seeing this atrocity, though his struggle against Moreau is primarily one of self-preservation, with his consideration of the humanoid figures under the doctor's cruel thumb a distant concern. Even when he finds himself attracted to a woman made from a panther, he only cares for her insofar as she looks like a beautiful human female. When she begins to genetically revert, he recoils with as much fright as Moreau engenders in him.

The film's grizzly end proves genuinely upsetting, not, of course, because one sympathizes with Moreau but because Kenton frames the scientist's comeuppance with visceral rage. When the doctor's creations finally realize how thin his power over them really is, they stand up as one, and the director captures their fury with a montage of characters running toward the camera until they freeze in a menacing close-up, the effect of which is deeply disturbing. And when the mob pushes him back into the "House of Pain," his echoed shrieks cannot be listened to with ease.

Less atmospheric than Expressionism-inspired Pre-Code horrors of Dracula and Frankenstein, Island of Lost Souls nevertheless feels the most "Pre-Codey" of them. It's to-the-point, brutish, and it almost certainly would have run up against the Hays office for its (literally) animalistic sexuality and grim violence. The horrific final purging of the island conveys a cynical cover-up of Western atrocity, one more powerful than most horror films manage today. Even the fact that our heroes survive is small comfort, for they are so thin and self-absorbed that the deaths of the tortured creatures is far more worrisome. I had not heard of this film before Criterion announced its plans to release it a few months ago, and I'm glad they did. This is a punchy, uncompromising early horror film that stands with the best of the genre of any era.

1 comment:

  1. I'd heard of it years ago, but it was impossible to find, so I was delighted when Criterion said they were releasing it. Finally saw it just the other day and was impressed by how it actually exceeded my expectations. Amazingly, the Hays Office only demanded one cut and Paramount refused to make it.