Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she takes a trip to the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls.
Most horror movies from the 1930s are a masterclass in terrifying audiences with what was not shown on screen. The scariest moments happen when the audience is forced to imagine what the movie is choosing to leave out. A perfect example of this is when The Mummy only shows the mummy’s trail of burial wraps as he stalks out of his sarcophagus and into the modern world.
Alluding to but holding back the gruesome details allowed horror to get past censors and into theaters. However, there was one terrifying Universal film that stretched the limits of what horrific images could be shown on screen during this time. Island of Lost Souls showed audiences some of the most violent scenes to date at the time and still offers a chilling viewing experience today.
Island of Lost Souls, adapted from the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, tells the story of evil scientific experiments conducted on an isolated island. Ed Parker (Richard Arlen) is rescued from his sinking ship and made to believe he will be safely transported to Apia. That is until he is thrown off the boat aimed for Apia and onto the ship of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) headed for an unknown island.
Moreau promises to arrange for Parker’s trip to Apia the next day, but Parker witnesses too much of what happens on the island to safely escape. On this secluded island, Moreau has turned animals into almost-human creatures in an attempt to speed up the evolution process. His beasts lurk in the shadows and follow his every command. His most prized victim is Lota (Kathleen Burke), a woman created out of a panther. Parker shows up just in time to be the man Lota needs to prove her “womanly urges” to Moreau. As Parker’s girlfriend awaits his return in Apia, he has to find a way to escape this evil scientist and his unruly creations.
What makes Island of Lost Souls so different from other horror movies made at the time is the filmmakers’ unwillingness to put the horror of the story off-screen. Director Erle C. Kenton has every bit of violence played out for the audience to see with their own eyes, not in a way that forces them to imagine what happens. This works perfectly with this movie since what happens is too awful for anyone to really imagine themselves. Audiences need to be shown the evil that Moreau commits in order to truly believe it.
The hairy and disfigured faces of Moreau’s creations, including a creature played by Bela Lugosi, are shown in extreme close-ups. This prevents the audience from glossing over their horrid existence. Even as the audience is supposed to be terrified by their appearance, the true scares come from what is done to those creatures.
Dr. Moreau tells Parker of his experiments on animals that cause the human-like beasts that roam the island. In one scene, Parker rushes into Moreau’s House of Pain after hearing human cries coming from inside. What he sees is unlike anything shown in movies at this time. Moreau tortures one of his creations by “cutting him to pieces” while he is alive. In other mad-scientist horror stories, torturing live beings is considered off-limits, but not for Moreau. This torture scene foreshadows Moreau’s own end, as his creatures eventually revolt against him and take him to his own House of Pain. They ascend upon him with his own medical instruments and ravage his body as he did to them.
Just as other science-fiction horror movies did at the time, Island of Lost Souls lures the audience in by showing them what they fear, in this case creatures unlike themselves. Then the story shows that what is far more terrifying is what humans do to other creatures, and to themselves. While the creatures are shown up-close in their gross makeup, their powerlessness and sad existence keep them from being the scariest aspect of the movie. Freaks, the movie most compared to this one, uses the circus members in a similar way. The movie does use them as a means to scare the audience, but it also projects a sympathy onto them that society as a whole did not allow.
Island of Lost Souls gains this sympathy with the help of a helpless female character. Through the only woman creation, Lota, Parker sees that what has made these creatures is the abomination, not the creatures themselves. In one scene, Lota interrupts Parker as he reads one of Moreau’s books on how to build a radio. He hopes to make contact with the outside world and escape. When he explains to Lota why he’s reading the book, she throws the book into a pond. She’s grown fond of Parker, as Moreau wanted her to. She’s been made to feel like a human. But to everyone else, it’s painfully obvious she will never be treated like one. Lota and the others are not at fault for being what they are. This sympathetic portrayal of a “monster” fits within this story because it allows the creatures’ revolution to be a justified act of revenge.
This rumination on what makes someone human and the limits to what science can rightfully do came just before the most infamous evil experiments played out in the real world. Island of Lost Souls was released in 1932, and under a decade later, the Nazis were well into their horrible experiments performed on prisoners kept in concentration camps. Like Moreau, the Nazi doctors never thought about the experience of the people they tortured. If they had, they could not have done such awful things to them.
The people the Nazis tortured, while still alive, were only a means to an end. The experiments Moreau conducts are not far off from the atrocities Nazis did in the name of their eugenics and pseudo-science. Looking back at the film in retrospect reveals, what it shows becomes even more terrifying. Modern audiences know that Dr. Moreau is not simply a fictional evil scientist but a representation of what evil lies in actual people.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Moreau’s hand in creating the monsters in Island of Lost Souls was the part that Hollywood censors wanted to delete the most. Prior to the film’s re-release in 1941, the Hays Office requested that all lines suggesting that Moreau created the beasts had to be cut. This took away the very purpose of the story, and at the time when similar atrocities were happening in the real world. It’s impossible to imagine what this movie would be without recognizing that Moreau’s quest for power is the real evil in this movie. Without explicitly stating that he made these creatures, it takes away the brilliance of the ending.
The most famous line of the movie comes from Moreau as he shares his work with his visitor: “Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?” It’s a line that contributed to the movie’s ban in several states in the US and all of the UK. It’s also the line that shows what makes this movie so horrific. Censors worldwide recognized that what Moreau did was “unnatural” and portrayed a “repulsive” story of human evolution. However, censors failed to see that the repulsiveness is the point of the movie, and they kept audiences from comparing the atrocities happening in their world to the horrors they saw in Island of Lost Souls. Fortunately, the version available today contains everything the censors attempted to erase.
There’s much more to the film that makes it worth watching than what can be covered in one essay. The screenwriters Phillip Wylie and Waldemar Young created a fast-paced and exciting script that keeps audiences guessing what could possibly happen next. The cinematography by Karl Struss and art direction by Hans Drier give the film a grotesque and eerie look to every scene. Dr. Moreau would be nothing without Laughton’s frightening and weirdly-charming performance. All of the inner-workings of Island of Lost Souls make it well worth your watch today — if you can handle it.
Island of Lost Souls is available to stream on Peacock Premium until the end of October 2020. You can find DVD and Blu-ray copies in the Criterion Collection.