The filmmaking that existed prior to the heinous implementation of the Hays Code was something to be marveled. Grandiose films with absurdly inventive plots, regal sets, and scathing criticism of modern society. Often these bold films made declarative statements on cultural extravagances in clear opposition to the powerful individuals running film companies at the time. While not as sexual as the films of today, they certainly implied far more in the thirties than they would be able to until well into the sixties. The tragedy of films of this era, however, is that due to restoration many of them are lost or severely damaged. Thankfully, the folks at Criterion, have through a clear labor of love released one such pre-code film, and it is a thing of spectacle. This work being none other than Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of a popular H.G. Wells novel titled The Island of Dr. Moreau. Island of Lost Souls is a stirring science fiction film that invokes the same kind of mad scientist fears of work in the fifties, yet provides a much more artistic approach, placing it squarely with films of its contemporary, including none other than the granddaddy of monster movies King Kong. Surprisingly, engaging Island of Lost Souls mirrors its era of filmmaking, but clearly demarcates itself as something wholly its own and ethereally realized, it is a gem of not only thirties filmmaking, but movie history as a whole.
Island of Lost Souls begins with a ship discovering a man stranded at sea, because of a recent shipwreck. The man named Edward (Richard Arlen), is returning from a trip to meet his fiancé Ruth (Leila Hyams), and it is a ship owned by the eerie Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) that saves him. Edward, grateful, for Moreau’s help agrees to take rest at his island, a decision that is exacerbated given that the original ship’s captain disdains Edward for his refusal to accept his tyrannical running of a ship. Despite the clearly offsetting demeanor of Dr. Moreau, Edward trusts him, as well as his assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl). Upon arrival, it is clear that Moreau’s island is as unusual as its owner. The jungle is filled with half-man/half-beast creatures that are like nothing seen before. Edward accepts these creatures as some new breed of animal that inhabit this unmapped island. However, he realizes the unusual nature of Dr. Moreau’s work after meeting Lota (Kathleen Burke) who is eponymously nicknamed The Panther Woman, because she is indeed a hybrid of woman and panther. Upon conversing with Lota, Edward realizes that Moreau is a demented sadistic scientist who fancies himself godlike. Making no apologies for his work, Moreau explains that Edward must remain a captive on the island for to release him would be to allow the world to know about his morbid secret. Edward thus plans an escape which is aided by the arrival of his fiancé and a naval officer only to realize that to leave the island means to destroy it as well. Recruiting the aid of the disillusioned Montgomery the group is finally able to leave the island and upon exit they incinerate the entire compound, choosing not to look back on the hellish world they leave behind.
I mentioned earlier that the film is pre-code in its production and displaying of narrative. This means that it was free from the illogical constraints of censorship that would rule Hollywood for decades to come. However, this by no means meant that the film is erotic in its sexual nature or violent imagery, on the contrary, it is quite subdued and relies heavy on viewers inferences to make assertions. This is clear at many times throughout the film. For example, it is clear that Moreau intends to have Edward engage in sexual relations with Lota, but at no point is the word sex, or any variant of that word used. Instead, he refers to their act as it, requiring viewers to make all the assumptions, although they are terribly clear. Similarly, it is implied that Moreau’s own sexuality is not that of a heterosexual. He claims that he cannot engage in sexual acts with Lota, given her fear of him, but it is clear that he has no desire to enter into this relationship regardless. Instead, he offers longing looks towards Edward and is clearly involved in at least a homosocial relationship with Montgomery. Finally, violence within Island of Lost Souls is present, however, using a trick that would become a staple of Hitchcock’s work, Kenton cuts away at the last possible minute from any violent imagery, realizing that the viewers imagination will produce far more grotesque ideas than could ever be displayed. This is most apparent and well executed when the monsters of the island conquer Moreau and strap him to the table in the “house of pain.” Nothing is shown, only the screams of Moreau are heard as Edward and the others leave the island. It is horrific, but in a purely imaginative way. A film executed in such a manner truly has me as a film historian baffled at the seeming necessity of The Hays Code in the first place.
Island of Lost Souls is everything glorious about early Hollywood filmmaking. It is clear that Criterion put their everything into making this transfer look nice. It is not so cinematic that much will be lost by choosing DVD over bluray, but purchasing either copy is a must. Also, watch out for Bela Lugosi in one of his first film appearances.