The long-awaited release of Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls on DVD (in a dual-format pack alongside a Blu-ray version) finally makes available one of the most controversial pre-Production Code horror films of the early 1930s. Its unavailability on video and DVD for the last decade or so has certainly added to its cult status, and this Eureka release gives viewers the opportunity to appraise this classic anew.
Adapted from H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), Kenton's film was produced by Paramount in response to the huge success that Universal Studios was having with such horror titles as Dracula (Browning US 1931) and Frankenstein (Whale US 1931). They had already successfully adapted another literary gothic classic with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Mamoulian US 1931), and there are some clear thematic similarities between the two films. They both explore Darwinian ideas in questioning the physical and moral dimensions of human evolution. In Island of Lost Souls, these themes are combined with a range of contentious issues relating to vivisection, colonialism and miscegenation, resulting in a melodrama that would seem to guarantee moral censure and close attention from the censors. It is a testament to the effectiveness of the film that it still manages to convey its sense of unease and horror to a contemporary audience, and that the elements of the story that seemed shocking in 1932 retain the ability to unsettle us some 80 years later.
Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is shipwrecked in the South Pacific, picked up by a decrepit captain carrying a cargo of exotic animals, and deposited on an unnamed island commanded by the mysterious Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton). Parker is unsettled by the island's strange bestial natives, and soon discovers that Moreau is a brilliant but twisted scientist who has tasked himself with shaping animals into human beings. His brutal vivisection of his subjects in the 'house of pain' has created a tribe of man-beast hybrids that he has crafted into the semblance of humanity. His attempt to mate his most successful creation Lota (Kathleen Burke - billed famously as 'The Panther Woman') with Parker sets in motion a series of [End Page 299] events that uncovers the full horrors of the island and ends in revolt, death and destruction.
Even today, the heady brew of contentious ideas is very much apparent, and although the film was banned in the UK mostly because of the theme and portrayal of vivisection (already a controversial issue when Wells wrote his novel in the 1890s), there are a wealth of other morally dubious and horrific ideas that could be seen as equally objectionable or problematic. Central to this is the injection of sex into the story by screenwriters Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young. The introduction of the character of Lota was central to the publicity and marketing of the film, including a nationwide search for 'The Panther Woman' across the US. Burke finally won the part after being judged by a panel of Hollywood luminaries, including Rouben Mamoulian and Cecil B. DeMille. Despite not featuring in the original novel, the part of the Panther Woman has become a staple of subsequent film versions of the story, most notably in the adaptions by Don Taylor (US 1977) and John Frankenheimer (US 1996), both entitled The Island of Dr Moreau. The prurient aspects of Kenton's film bear some similarities to MGM's equally controversial Freaks (Browning US 1932), with both films setting up the promise of a 'forbidden' sexual encounter. In Freaks, the proposed liaison is between a circus 'midget' and a 'normal'-sized woman (some posters explicitly asked 'Can a fully grown woman truly love a midget?'). In Island of Lost Souls, the tryst is between man and beast-woman, although the implication of inter-racial transgression is also very much apparent. This rather shocking sexual subplot is communicated brazenly by Laughton, who delivers an astonishing performance in what was his first starring role in Hollywood. His urbane English doctor...