The first -and only- time I saw The Island of Lost Souls it was on PBS…I’m guessing probably somewhere in the very early 1980’s. Certainly no later than 1984 or 85. The movie stuck with me…there was something incredibly savage about it, almost primevil. And yet, I could remember very few of the film’s details…in fact, apart from the climax, almost none. I actually had a better memory of story details in the 1977 remake of the film, The Island of Dr. Moreau, than I did of this one.
Regardless, the memory that I had witnessed something special stuck with me. It was for the most part impossible to find the film on VHS and then Laserdisc and DVD, so I never had the opportunity to revisit it. Until now.
The good folks at Criterion have released a Blu Ray edition of The Island of Lost Souls. That company treats their releases as if they were royalty, finding excellent prints and often giving very nice special material to complement the movie itself. What was even more exciting was seeing that the film would be released on Blu Ray in its full theatrical edition. When The Island of Lost Souls was originally released, it created something of a furor and trims were made to remove some of the more…excessive…stuff.
By today’s standards, that “excessive stuff” is, for the most part, pretty tame. However, there remains some material -Moreau’s sexual depravity and sadism- that might still turn people’s heads, if only a little.
The great Charles Laughton plays Dr. Moreau, a very strange man who owns his own uncharted island and has a collection of equally strange looking servants. The story proper, however, begins when Edward Parker (Richard Arlen, quite excellent in the protagonist/hero role), a shipwrecked sailor, being found by a trawler. He meets up with Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), a man who is on his way with a gaggle of animals in cages to take to Dr. Moreau’s island. From the very first scene, it is clear that Montgomery is a decent man who is clearly in a situation that he loathes.
Through circumstance, Parker winds up going to Dr. Moreau’s island. Once there, he becomes a pawn of Moreau’s insane experiments.
Considering the movie was released in 1932 and the H. G. Wells book it was based on in 1896, it is remarkable to see a movie reach for scientific advances and concepts that were many, many decades away from realization. This is perhaps the most remarkable thing one takes away from this movie. Like Jules Verne, who theorized about things like airships, submarines, and trips to the Moon long before such things came to be, Mr. Wells in that novel theorizes about genetics and DNA manipulation when such things were a very far way of.
Yet Mr. Wells and the makers of this film succeed in their allusions to things not yet in existence, creating a frightening scenario where man tries to alter flesh and species to recreate it in his own demented image. Dr. Moreau, as presented in this film, is clearly mad. But what is most frightening, in the end, is how close he is to his mad ambitions.
Needless to say, I highly, highly recommend this film.