ISLAND OF LOST SOULS
Review by Gordon Justesen
Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 70 Minutes
Release Date: October 25, 2011
“ARE WE NOT MEN?”
Island of Lost Souls is very much a filmmaking achievement way ahead of its time. For a film made in the year 1932, it represents a major breakthrough as far as makeup effects are concerned. And being that this is an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (not to mention the very first), makeup effects are a vital ingredient here.
The Wells novel would later be adapted twice more down the line, most notably the notorious 1996 version with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. Notorious in that it remains one of the most troubled film productions on record, including everything from endless rewrites, actors angered beyond belief, and even that of a director replacement. If the goal of that production was to exceed Apocalypse Now as the most hellish one to date, it came oh so close to achieving it.
That version was my first exposure to this story, unfortunately, and while I didn't find it to be the extravagant disaster that many did, it was nonetheless one of those cases where so much missed opportunity lingered. Stan Winston's makeup effects were a flat out marvel and some of the performances memorably eerie (particularly Kilmer). But when you have such a respectable director like the late John Frankenheimer at the helm, you simply expect the movie to deliver a far greater impact, which this film certainly didn't.
I never did see the 1977 version with Burt Lancaster, which I've heard mixed opinions of, but even if I had I don't think it could possibly hold a candle to what everyone considers to be by far the best adaptation of the Wells novel to date. Everyone except Mr. Wells himself, who openly loathed it.
The story begins with shipwreck survivor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) being rescued and then brought to a nearby island by Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), a scientist's loyal assistant. What appears to be a relieving form of refuge turns into an unimaginable nightmare for Parker when he comes to realize this island's secret. The island is run by the brilliant by mad scientist, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), and is inhabited by his scientific creations that are part man, part animal.
At first Moreau sees Parker as something of a liability, but eventually spots an opportunity. One of the doctor's newest creations is also perhaps his most perfect one to date; a female named Lola (Kathleen Burke), dubbed The Panther Woman. Moreau doesn't particularly trust his male animals around her, but by letting Parker get closer to her, it could reveal a certain potential never before seen in any of his previous creations, most notably the power to love.
When a film from this time period is still able to leave you awestruck in the realm of special makeup effects, that is truly saying a lot. The work here by makeup effects artist Wally Westmore is of a monumental level. It no doubt served as inspiration for such renowned effects artist like Rick Baker, who is actually featured in one of the extras on this disc.
And what early 1930s monster pic wouldn't be complete without the presence of Bela Lugosi? Here, he plays the main man best of the island, known as the Sayer of the Law. He is very much the most evolved man animal of the bunch, though he just like the rest is a slave to Dr. Moreau.
As Dr. Moreau, Charles Laughton hits just the right note of derangement. He definitely hams it up at points, but in this case that's downright perfect for this character. From his first moment on screen, Laughton evokes a chillingly vile persona.
Much like King Kong and the many Universal monster movies of the era, Island of Lost Souls serves as an important benchmark in terms of bringing monstrous characters to vivid life on the silver screen. And this one, like the original Wells story keeps the human story well in tact amongst the outrageousness of the surroundings. Though the author condemned it, make no mistake...this is the only cinematic interpretation of The Island of Dr. Moreau that you should treat yourself to!
This is the first Blu-ray presentation I've seen of a film with this much age to it. And I must admit, during the first several minutes, I wasn't sure if HD would make much difference, as numerous scratches and picture damage are noticeable. But as it progressed, Criterion's one of a kind efforts could clearly be seen. The Black and White look, along with the superb set pieces, look most glorious in the 1080p. The contrast is also quite strong, particularly in darks, with the blacks rendered most terrifically.
For a film made in the year 1932, this is about as grand a sounding presentation as you're ever going to hear. The PCM Mono mix is cleaned up very nicely, in spite of some periodic background distortion. In terms of dialogue delivery and music playback, it's very much what the Dr. ordered (apologies for the awful pun).
Criterion has indeed delivered a monster of a Blu-ray release in terms of extras! We have an intriguing and most informative commentary track with film historian Gregory Mank, as well as a terrific video conversation with filmmaker John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker and horror genre expert Bob Burns. There's also new video interviews with horror film historian David J. Skal, as well as Richard Stanley, who was the original director of the 1996 film version (very revealing!), and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of the band Devo, who were heavily influenced by the film. There's also a short film by Devo from 1976, which features the songs “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo”. Rounding out the extras is a stills gallery and a Theatrical Trailer.
And lastly, like every great Criterion release, there's a insert booklet. This one features an essay by writer Christine Smallwood.
A film very creepy and very scary for its time, Island of Lost Souls holds up magnificently well and is the by far the best cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic story about the upsetting of nature's balance. The marvelous makeup effects and Charles Laughton's terrifically manic performance as the demented Dr. Moreau are both huge reasons to discover this monster classic, in addition to it being presented on yet another fantastic Blu-ray from Criterion!