in Shocktober

The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

120 years ago, some nerd wrote a book about a guy trapped on an island of furries. In the ‘70s they made a movie about it with a bunch of hippies. In the ‘90s, they made another movie starring a fat guy with an ice bucket on his head. Before both of those they made the terrifying, disturbing, and bone-rattling—I can keep going—film that is The Island of Lost Souls. Directed by Erle C. Kenton and adapted for the screen by Waldemar Young and noted pulp sci-fi author Phillip Wylie, Island of the Souls is a disturbing exploration of what it means to be human both physically and mentally.

The film stars Richard Arlen as Edward Parker. His name is Edward “Prendick” in the book so I assume they changed it to avoid his name sounding like a penis. Parker is shipwrecked while traveling the South Seas and is rescued by a freighter delivering animals to “The Island of Dr. Moreau” *spookiness intensifies. On board, Parker witnesses a mistreated crew member named M’ling (Tetsu Komai) who appears to be a man but with bizarre deformed features. The Captain (Stanley Fields) doesn’t care for Parker’s disapproval of him being an asshole to M’ling and Parker is thrown off the boat. Damn, not even ten minutes in and this guy has fallen off two boats.

Parker is pulled up by none other than Dr. Moreau himself (Charles Laughton) and his assistant Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl). Right off the bat, you can tell something is off about Moreau with his sleaze ball attitude and tendency to sprawl himself over furniture while having a conversation. Parker arrives on the island where he sees more of these deformed “people” and gets a serious case of the heebie jeebies. If you’re curious what I mean by “deformed” I mean enlarged noses, malformed brows, and way too much hair. But one of these people Parker meets is a beautiful woman named Lota (Kathleen Burke) with the innocence of a child. She’s definitely a victim of the “sexy baby” trope but I’ll give this movie a pass considering it’s older than Larry King. If such a thing was thought possible.

Later, Parker witnesses Moreau casually vivisecting a man as he screams in agony. Moreau reveals to Parker that all of these people on the island used to be animals that he turned into people by slicing into their guts. It’s a terrifying scene that got the film banned in the UK for 26 years. I find it disturbing more for the psychological ramifications than anything we see on screen. To think this creature, who doesn’t understand why it exists or why it must conform to the treatment of this sick son of a bitch has to endure so much pain. Not to mention it doesn’t phase Moreau in the slightest. This sh*t is f#$ked up.

To keep his cabal of critters in place, Moreau establishes rules, told through a chant by a wolf-like creature known as the Sayer of the Law played by Bela Lugosi covered in yak fur. The chant goes like this:

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?

You might recall Devo named their first album after the “Are We Not Men” chant. Also, Danny Elfman’s Oingo Boingo wrote the lyric “What is the Law? No spill blood!” in their 1983 song “No Spill Blood”. I can’t believe “Are We Not Men” isn’t in AFI’s 100 Best Quotes collection. Then again who really cares? Just hipsters and people who are 100-years-old. So it’s not that much of a loss.

Over time, Parker falls in love with Lota only to discover she used to be a panther. Not sure why she’s not all mutated like everybody else. Maybe Moreau should have concentrated on making an island of sexy panther women. Hmm, panther women? “Hurry, someone get Russ Meyer’s estate on the phone!”

There’s a subplot where Parker’s fiancee is searching for him but I honestly couldn’t care less. Though there is a crazy scene where Parker’s fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) reunites with Parker on the island and is attacked by an orangutan man who tries to mate with her. Jeez, all kinds of creepy sh*t right there. Ruth screams for help and her ship Captain (Paul Hurst) offers to depart. Moreau, having none of this bullshit, makes his orangutan buddy kill the Captain.

But uh oh, Moreau didn’t weigh the consequences. Once the animal people see how easily they can kill the humans they start a rebellion. Moreau tries to fight off the horde of wild animals with a whip, chanting his rules, but can’t convince them. He ends up being butchered with medical tools. This is pretty intense for the ‘30s. Having second thoughts about his career choice, Montgomery helps Parker and Ruth escape the island. Lota is killed and the island is burned down, killing all of the animal people. Yikes.

The movie is a tight 72 minutes with genuine scares and a powerhouse performance from Charles Laughton. The man is effortlessly evil and the best Moreau I’ve seen on film—not much competition though. Cut out the downtime of the fiancee and you have yourself a classic worthy of Frankenstein or Dracula status. Alas, the very things that make this film great are the same things that kept it from reaching a wide audience. People weren’t ready to see animal-human hybrids being sliced open by master thespians. Thank god for the Criterion Collection, giving this film the recognition and treatment it’s deserved for so long. Good job, nerds.

I think I just came up with an idea for the next big Broadway Musical.