Synopsis: When wayward seafarer Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a freighter after being stranded by a shipwreck, he and the frequently-soused captain don’t see eye to eye. Instead of transporting him to the Samoan capital of Apia, where his fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) is eagerly awaiting her beau, the nasty captain drops Parker onto the boat of manservant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and his mysterious boss Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who are receiving a large shipment of wild animals to take back to their private island. Parker is naturally upset, but Moreau promises to give him a ship to sail to Apia in the morning. When they arrive on the island, Parker is treated to dinner, drinks, and the delightful company of the exotic and friendly Lota (Kathleen Burke). She warms to Parker quickly, and soon informs him that the charming Dr. Moreau isn’t what he seems. In actuality, he’s a scientist on a devilish mission to control the process of evolution – transforming animals into men.
This scifi/horror gem by director Erle C. Kenton was the first in a long line of cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Its status as a pre-Code talky is evidenced by the repeated references to rape and bestiality, as well as Moreau’s own explicit blasphemy. The film was banned in the United Kingdom for over twenty-five years – though interestingly it was the scenes of vivisection, prohibited by the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of the 1930s, which kept it under wraps for so long. Furthermore, H.G. Wells himself was outspoken in his dislike of the way the movie overshadowed his more serious philosophical ponderings with overt horror elements. I must admit that I haven’t yet read Dr. Moreau, although Wells is one of my favorite authors. I hope his spirit won’t be too angry at me for saying this – who knows, he could be out and about, what with it being Halloween season and all – but I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed this film.
The picture features some striking cinematography and an excellent use of shadows, as well as employing its tropical jungle setting (which was really just Catalina Island) to appropriately spooky effect. The story itself is intriguing, but it’s the performance of Charles Laughton as Moreau which really makes this movie worth seeing. Laughton is at once smooth, calm, and dangerous; he wields terrifying power over his subjects and all that goes on on his island. Perhaps I’m reading too much into his portrayal, but I found something slightly sissified about Moreau, imbuing him with a “menacing queerness” that adds a whole new dimension to his obsession with creating life in a non-procreative manner. In the same way that critics have read homosexual undertones into the mad scientist character of Dr. Pretorius in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, I feel there’s definitely a little more lurking beneath the surface of Dr. Moreau than what we’re explicitly told. Whether this was an intentional move by the filmmakers or by Laughton (who himself was homosexual), or whether it’s just me choosing to see what I want to see, I don’t know, but I stand by my hypothesis.
Another performance I enjoyed was that by Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman, who I think portrayed a perfect blend of naïvete, awkwardness, and sexual curiosity in her film debut. A dental assistant working in Chicago, Burke began acting after winning a beauty contest sponsored by Paramount Studios; she went on to appear in over twenty films before retiring from the profession in 1938 at the age of 25. However, besides Laughton and Burke, there’s not really much worth noting about the other actors, with leading man Richard Arlen being particularly hammy and terrible. Bela Lugosi also has a very very small role as the Sayer of the Law, the animal-human hybrid who recites the rules as dictated by Moreau. I found it to be a pretty big waste of Lugosi’s talent – but then again, Lugosi specialized in that. Overall this is a truly creepy yet beautiful film with a completely stellar performance by Laughton that really brings the whole thing up a notch from B-grade scifi/horror to a Grade-A classic. Definitely perfect for Halloween, or, hell, any time of the year – you never need an excuse to watch a movie as neat as this one.
Island of Lost Souls (1932) – 4/5 stars