The reason why 1930s Hollywood produced so many great horror films is that people at the time were desperately afraid.
The reason why 1930s Hollywood produced so many great horror films is
that people at the time were desperately afraid. They were afraid that
Darwinism was reducing them to the status of beasts, they were afraid that
their children would marry outside their race and they were afraid that both of
these fears would coalesce into some grand dehumanising force that would
destroy their Christian way of life forever. You can see evidence of this fear
in the racist paranoia of H.P. Lovecraft,
the bestial hunger of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and the mechanical stumbling of
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. This fear
inspired Rouben Mamoulian’s genius
retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
as the story of a white man using science to unleash his inner black person and
it inspired the decision to reinvent H.G.
Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau
as Erle C. Kenton’s The Island of Lost Souls.
The film opens with square-jawed
American Edward Parker (Arlen) being
pulled from the South Seas by the dubiously refined Englishman Montgomery (Hohl). Once Parker comes to, he rapidly
realises that there is something distinctly wrong about his rescue ship.
Indeed, the deck is lined with caged animals, the crew includes hideously
deformed people and the captain is a savage drunk. After getting in a fight
with the captain, Parker is forced to accompany Montgomery when he drops the
animals off on the Island of Dr. Moreau (Laughton).
Laughton’s performance as Moreau is
absolutely captivating. He plays him as a swaggering sadist who uses whip,
scalpel and inhuman cunning to maintain a tenuous position as rules of an
island populated by weirdly twisted and animalistic ‘natives’. Indeed, it is
rather telling that Moreau’s home are cage doors and barred windows; are these
designed to keep the locals out or Moreau in? Initially disturbed by Parker’s presence, Moreau soon sees
an opportunity for experimentation that prompts him to unleash curiously
beautiful and ferociously sexual Lota (Burke)
on an entirely unsuspecting Parker. What Parker does not know is that, like all
the natives of Moreau’s island, Lota is actually a wild animal who has been
forced into a human shape by Moreau’s demented genius.
The film’s use of the word ‘native’
to denote the man-beasts is hardly accidental as it panders to double-edged
racist fantasies about non-white people being more animalistic than American
Christians. I use the word ‘fantasies’ advisedly as this belief in the
passionate nature of non-white people extends not just to their perceived
capacity for violence but also to their atavistic sexualities. Thus, when
Parker kisses Lota and recoils in disgust, his disgust is born not only of
intra-racial and intra-species revulsion but also from the realisation that he
enjoyed kissing the savage far more than he did his immaculate groomed white
This racist hysteria bubbles along
beneath the surface for much of the film until eventually the tension becomes
too much and the entire island goes nuts. Tellingly, the uprising begins when a
muscular ‘native’ catches sight of Parker’s fiancée and attempts to break into
her room. Horrified in this breakdown of morality, the white people swing into
action wielding gun and whip until forced to flee by the depths of animal rage.
In a beautiful sequence that somehow manages to inspire sympathy for the
character, Moreau stands alone against a tide of torch-wielding beat men before
eventually being dragged off to atone for all the cruelty he visited upon the
Only 71-minutes long, The Island of
Lost Souls is both briskly paced and thematically complex. Held aloft by
Laughton’s fantastically troubling performance but forced home by Karl Struss’s shadowy expressionistic
cinematography and Wally Westmore’s sensational
Todd Browning-inspired monster
make-up, The Island of Lost Souls possesses a power to unsettle and intrigue
that is all too often lacking from contemporary American horror films.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray by
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, this is the film’s first release in the UK
following its original banning by the BBFC. As with all Masters of Cinema
releases, the film comes with a booklet of essays and two fascinating
interviews with the horror critic Jonathan
Rigby and the actor Simon Callow.
Together, these interviews help place the film in its correct historical
context and help lay the foundations for what will hopefully be a rediscovery
of this ‘lost’ classic.