ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (REVIEW)
Dir. Erle C. Kenton
Reviewer. Dan Cook
One of the most well-known creature features of the 1930’s, Erle C. Kenton’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is an atmospheric and sinister film that benefits just as much from its lush jungle settings and cinematography than it does from its performances and it’s absurd premise. Adapted from H.G Well’s 1896 novel THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, the movie tells the story of Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) the victim of a shipwreck who ends up on the strange and forbidding island of the aforementioned Moreau (Charles Laughton), a crazed scientist who, through his breakthroughs regarding evolution, has transformed the native wildlife into hideous, subservient human/beast hybrids.
The plot may be very silly but thanks to the inventive direction from Kenton, the beautiful black and white photography from Chaplin and Murnau protégé Karl Struss as well as a number of fine performances, the movie manages to overcome its inherent bizarreness with surprising sincerity and class. Front and centre here is the always wonderful Charles Laughton as the villainous Moreau whose outward English charm and pristine white suit hides a cold heart filled with manic ambition and cruel intent. Laughton would go on to star in other famous horror pictures throughout the 30’s including James Whale’s wonderfully campy THE OLD DARK HOUSE (released the same year) and even Quasimodo himself in William Dieterle’s 1939 adaptation of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. But ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is undoubtedly his finest hour in the genre and he relishes the role of Moreau with a sly, mischievous and wholly malevolent joy.
There are some great supporting performances on display too - particularly those of Kathleen Burke who serves as the sultry “Panther Woman” Lota, the primary object of Moreau’s vile curiosities and horror legend Bela Lugosi who, as the lawgiver of the beasts, is given many of the films juiciest and most iconic lines.
An object of deep controversy back in 1932 due to its then troublesome depictions and themes of human evolution and vivisection, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS remains to this day an extraordinarily bleak and nihilistic vision. Certainly some of the makeup effects haven’t aged as well as Jack Pierce’s monster work for Universal has and a number of the cast overact a little bit too much in their hairy animal costumes. But despite these unavoidable pitfalls, it is still a very entertaining and effective shocker that rightly deserves a place amongst the Hall of Fame of unmissable 30’s horror films.