H.G. Wells' 1896 novel of scientific shenanigans, The Island of Dr. Moreau, is a genre touchstone that I feel I must have read at some point in my life but as I can't remember a single thing about the book, maybe I didn't. I can, however, finally say that I've now seen all of Moreau's screen adaptations, thanks to the recent Criterion release of Island of Lost Souls (1932).
The 1977 AIP Moreau adaptation starring Michael York and Burt Lancaster was my first exposure to Wells' tale. That film doesn't hold up well, probably because it was never good to begin with, but when I first saw it on TV at the age of nine or ten, I was impressed. Years later, I had high hopes for the Richard Stanley adaptation but how his take on the material would've worked, we'll never know and in its place is the junky, doomed-from-the-get-go 1996 version that John Frankenheimer put together out of what Stanley started.
But the original adaptation, Island of Lost Souls, the one that everyone who's seen it agrees is the best version of Wells' novel, had always eluded me. It seems like a movie that should've been on rotation on TV back when I was a kid. All the classic horror and sci-fi films of the '30s screened on TV on a regular basis when I was growing up in the '70s but if IOLS was ever on, I must've missed it. I don't know its home video history either but I get the feeling it hasn't been in circulation as much as other films of similar vintage. Or maybe it's been out there the whole time and I've just been too lazy in catching up with it. Either way, I've finally filled in that gap in my cinematic education.
Of course the danger in coming belatedly to a classic is that you'll have the unfortunate reaction of wondering what all the fuss was about - especially with a film that's as old as IOLS is. It's impossible for a viewer today to be hit in quite the same way as audiences of 1932 were by this film. That said, IOLS - directed with atmospheric flair by Erle C. Kenton - earns its reputation. It's genuinely nightmarish and the deep depravity of the material hasn't been dulled by time.
The story is one that everyone is familiar with - one of the maddest of all mad scientists, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), reigns as a cruel god among the island of man-beasts that he's created within the walls of his "House of Pain." When an outsider - here, Ed Parker (Richard Arlen) - finds himself trapped there thanks to an accident at sea, he finds himself in danger of being caught up in Moreau's ghastly practices.
Wells' story is frequently described as a cautionary tale against the abuse of science (reportedly Wells wrote the novel as an anti-vivisection tract) but on screen, what you've got is an occasion for a menagerie of monsters (led by Bela Lugosi, in his most make-up heavy role) and one kind-of-hot Panther Lady (Kathleen Burke). I don't know how dated I thought the creature make-up would appear in this film but I was surprised by how amazing it still looks. And this wasn't a film like Frankenstein or The Wolf Man where all the effort of the make-up artists went into making one character. Here, there's huge crowd scenes where every extra is monstered-up and while some make-ups are more complicated than others, none of them look just thrown together.
Then there's Laughton as Moreau, decked out in his white suit with his bullwhip always at the ready to crack at his man-monsters as they sulk through the bushes and lurk in the trees. Without making the character cartoonish, Laughton doesn't give Moreau even a hint of redeeming qualities.
This is a man so venal that - outside of the unchecked sadism of his anesthesia-free experiments - he tries to have his Panther Lady seduce Parker in the hopes of getting his abominable creation pregnant. When the romantic approach doesn't seem to be working out fast enough, and Parker's beautiful finance Ruth (Leila Hyams) has arrived on the island, Moreau sees a more expedient opportunity and sends one of his hulking man-beasts to break into Ruth's room at night with the implication that this creature will surely rape her.
This is no case of Beauty and the Beast, no case of The Creature from the Black Lagoon carrying Julie Adams away for unspecified purposes. When Moreau's monster enters Ruth's bedroom, there's no doubt as to what will happen unless someone intervenes. This is appalling stuff even now - it's not surprising that this film was banned in Britain on its original release. This may not have been scorned on the level that Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) was but it was a film that, in its day, went too far for many.
Like Richard Matheson's also thrice-adapted novel I Am Legend (1954), The Island of Dr. Moreau arguably hasn't had its definitive adaptation yet - and likely never will - but Island of Lost Souls is certainly a classic and if you've never seen it, rush to get the Criterion DVD. Even if you have to run on all fours to do it.