Sunday, 25 October 2009

Horror By the Decade: Island of Lost Souls

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the second post in this series, featuring a movie from the Thirties).

When people think of horror movies produced in the early to mid-Thirties, it is usually Universal Pictures which comes to mind. that having been said, other studios jumped on the horror bandwagon in the early to mid-Thirties, including RKO and even MGM. Among these studios was Paramount, which produced what may have been the best adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ever made (Classic Movies Digest has an excellent post on that film). Paramount also made an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Entitled Island of Lost Souls, it was  the first movie adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, and remains the best of the adaptations of the novel. As in the original novel, the film featured a shipwrecked man (Parker, played by Richard Arlen) who is picked up by a ship and taken to the island of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). It soon became apparent that Dr. Moreau's goal was to turn animals into human beings. What was more, Dr. Moreau had his own plans for Parker and his greatest creation, Lota the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke).

Island of Lost Souls was no mere B-movie, but a big budget blockbuster in the same vein as Universal's Frankenstein. The film was shot on location on Catalina Island at a time when many films were still being shot on Hollywood sets. It also boasted what was at the time a fairly well known cast. Charles Laughton was already a well established veteran of both stage and screen, who already had one horror movie to his credit (the classic The Old Dark House). Laughton threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of Dr. Moreau, whose appearance he claimed was based on that of an eye specialist he had visited over the years.  He already knew how to use a whip, a skill he had learned for a stage play from a London street performer.

Co-star Richard Arlen had appeared in such films as Wings, Beggars of Life (starring Louise Brooks), The Four Feathers, and The Virginian. Alongside Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi was already one of the big names in horror movies, having played the title role in Dracula and appearing in the films Murders in the Rue Morgue and White Zombie. In the film he played the Sayer of the Law. One important member of the cast was an unknown who was entirely new to motion pictures. During the film's pre-production a well publicised talent search was made for an actress to play the pivotal role of Lota the Panther Woman. Kathleen Burke, whose dark haired beauty evoked that of a cat, not only won the role, but an expenses paid, three week stay at the upscale Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Over the years there have been claims that Buster Crabbe, Randolph Scott, and Alan Ladd all played uncredited roles as man-beasts in the film, although those claims would seem to be wholly unsubstantiated.Among the actors who did play the various man-beasts on the island was Joe Bonomo, an actor who not only appeared in many bit parts over the years, but had also served as Lon Chaney's stunt double in The Hunchback in Notre Dame. Island of Lost Souls very nearly cost Bonomo his life. He fell in a water tank and the foam rubber in his costume began to soak up water, very nearly causing him to drown.

Central to the film was the makeup created by Wally Westmore for the half human, half animal inhabitants of the island. Wally Westmore had previously did the makeup on Paramount's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He would go onto serve as the makeup artist on Sullivan's Travels, several of Hope and Crosby's Road movies, My Favourite Brunette, and a few of Alfred Hitchcock's films. The incredible makeup he created for the man-beasts  created a bit of a stir at  Paramount, particularly when the actors went on break and walked about the studio lot. The language of the man-beasts was created by sound man Loren L. Ryder, who recorded a mix of foreign languages and animals sounds, then played them back at varying speeds. Sadly, Ryder's masterful creation of the man-beasts' language would have an unexpected side effect on movie goers--the sound made some in the movie's audiences nauseous, some of them enough to actually throw up in the cinema!

Upon its release Island of Lost Souls was enthusiastically embraced by horror movie fans, but proved to be controversial elsewhere. Critics were disturbed by the sexual undertones in the relationship between Parker and Lota the Panther Woman, which for some of them hinted at bestiality. Critics were also disturbed by the extreme cruelty inherent in Dr. Moreau's experiments and particularly the film's climax, which involved the suitably named "House of Pain." Among the film's most vocal critics was H. G. Wells himself, who objected to the film as it changed Dr. Moreau from a well intentioned, but misguided scientist to a sadistic madman and its emphasis on horror.

The critics and Mr. Wells were not alone in their objections to Island of Lost Souls, as the film proved to be controversial. Across the United States various local film censorship boards banned the movie outright. In the United Kingdom, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) rejected the film outright. Foremost among the BBFC's concerns was the animal cruelty they felt was inherent in the film, as well as the fact that in performing his experiments Dr. Moreau could be seen as usurping the authority of God. Following the creation of the new "X" certificate in 1951, Paramount resubmitted Island of Lost Souls to the BBFC, who once more rejected the film. Ultimately the film would remain banned in the United Kingdom until June 9, 1958, over 25 years after it had been released! Not only was Island of Lost Souls banned in the United Kingdom, it was also banned in Germany, Holland,  India, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa,  Singapore, and Tasmania. Alongside other pre-code horror movies such as Todd Browning's Freaks, Island of Lost Souls was one of the films that would lead to the creation of the Breen Office, Hollywood's self censorship board. Indeed, before Island of Lost Souls could be re-released in the United States in 1941, the MPAA required extensive cuts to the film.

Seen today it is easy to understand all the uproar caused by Island of Lost Souls. Even by modern standards, Island of Lost Souls is a very intense film. The vivisection experiments and, in particular, the climax are horrific in the extreme. And even with today's more tolerant attitudes towards sex, the relationship between Parker and Lota, as well as Dr. Moreau's encouragement of that relationship, is very disturbing. With Island of Lost Souls, as well as their adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Paramount proved that they could produce horror movies every bit as effective as those created by Universal.

The effectiveness of Island in Lost Souls rests in the fact that it is simply a very well done movie. The script was written by science fiction legend Philip Wylie (who also wrote Murders in the Zoo and The Invisible Man) and Waldemar Young (who wrote London After Midnight and would go onto write The Plainsman), who endowed the film with an intelligence rare even then in horror movies. The film also benefited from some strong performances from its cast. Charles Laughton not only gave one of the best performances of his career as Dr. Moreau, but also his most terrifying performance. Laughton's Dr. Moreau is brilliant, yet at the same time sadistic, tyrannical, and entirely power mad. Bela Lugosi also gave one of the best performances of his career as the Sayer of Law, endowing the character with both dignity and pathos. It is Lugosi who has some of the best lines in the film, as he tells Dr. Moreau of the Law of the man-beasts.

Island of Lost Souls would prove to be a very influential film. It is perhaps its stature as a horror classic which would result in two more adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as well as the 1972 film The Twilight People, which borrowed liberally both from this film and the original novel. The film would be referenced in rock music in the form of both album titles and songs. The "What is Law" dialogue between Dr. Moreau, the Sayer of Law, and the man-beasts provided the inspiration for the title of Devo's first album, Question: Are We Not Men? Answer: We Are Devo! The same dialogue provided inspiration for the Oingo Boingo song "No Spill Blood." It has also been referenced in everything from The Sopranos to The Simpsons.

Even today Island of Lost Souls  is a very disturbing movie. Over the years it has retained its ability to frighten and even to unsettle viewers, in a way that very few horror movies today can. And like such true classics as Universal's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, it is also a very thought provoking film. Not merely a horror movie or a science fiction movie, Island of Lost Souls asks the very important question, "What is it to be human?" After two remakes and various imitators, Island of Lost Souls not only remains the best adaptation of Island of Dr. Moreau, but one of the best adaptations of any of H. G. Wells' works. It also remains one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

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