Monday, October 24, 2011

An ISLAND Not on the Chart

Some Backstory: in the winter of 2002, I was on a classic horror kick. Thanks to the recommendations of my brother and my friend Barry, I’d seen Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT, Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and – most eye-popping of all – as many Val Lewton-produced films as I could get my hands on. Searching for the latter among the hallowed stacks of old VHS in Santa Monica’s Vidiots, I grabbed Erle C. Kenton’s THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, mistaking it for my intended rental, the Lewton/Mark Robson/Karloff effort, ISLE OF THE DEAD.*
It was a happy accident. Over the course of the rental period, I watched ISLAND somewhere around six times. When I returned the tape, I didn’t realize that it would be almost a decade before I’d get to see my new favorite film again. When I moved to Knoxville in 2003, I discovered that the only copy in town – belonging to the library – had been stolen or lost. Used VHS on Amazon sold for hundreds of dollars. When torrents were available, they were murky and barely audible. For a long time, sources at the Criterion forum indicated that useable elements for LOST SOULS were difficult for the company to locate.
All of this is to say that it was with great excitement – and zero objectivity – that I greeted the new Criterion disc of Kenton’s 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. A small part of me was afraid that it would be nowhere near as great as I’d remembered. A few minutes in, any fears were allayed. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a great film. But more importantly, beyond any greatness or canonical significance, it’s one of the most bizarre and unsettling films I’ve ever seen. Perhaps not shocking or scary in the sense that, say, THE EXORCIST is. But truly horrifying on a soul level that's difficult to articulate.

For starters, there’s Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau, the quintessential mad scientist. There’s enormous potential for scenery-gobbling with the character but Laughton plays against type and squeezes a nuanced sociopath out of the whip-wielding doctor. Even when declaring his own deity, Laughton keeps his head.
And then there's the premise of the thing: Moreau wants castaway Parker (Richard Arlen) to forget about his fiance on the mainland (Leila Hyams) and mate with the Panther Woman, Lota (Kathleen Burke). 
Despite her Kathleen Burke-ish appearance, the Panther Woman is, in fact, a cat. The crown of Moreau's demented experiments, Lota is the most human of the animals he's somehow vivisected into human form. It becomes clear that Parker won't sleep with Lota so, when Parker's fiance shows up on the island to rescue her love, Moreau's Plan B is to sick one of his other, male, creations on her.

These are the big reasons for LOST SOULS' reputation. The latter got it banned is several countries and hacked to pieces by censors, making the assembly of Criterion's complete version difficult. Beyond Laughton and the shocking subject matter, though, there's an atmosphere of dread infusing the film that sets it apart. 

First of all, it's virtually scoreless, a rare thing for a Hollywood film of its era. The orchestra flourishes at the beginning and end and nowhere else. Augmenting this, the film has a quiet pace for much of its beginning that I would almost describe as Jarmuschian. Character interactions -- even during rather thrilling moments -- are separated by beats of silence. Rather than feeling clunky or awkward, this choice lends the film an alien quality. Like the fog that shrouds Moreau's island, the pauses thicken the film's air of mystery and foreboding.

And then, there are the creatures. Sure, many of them have that Old Hollywood, monster make-up look that probably makes most people nowadays recall Zoobilee Zoo rather than quake in fear.*** But a great number of the island's denizens appear very realistically deformed and disfigured.

The scene that always raises my hackles is when Moreau casually points out a group of brain-dead bodies mechanically pushing a turnstile that powers the laboratory. These are his "failed experiments," animal men who remain ambulatory but are without wills (much like Aldous Huxley's Epsilons). "Lost souls" indeed.

Moreau and his island represent a reductio ad absurdum of the perils of science supplanting God or any sort of transcendant law. However, in light of what would be unmasked in the decades following the film's release (Mengele, MKULTRA, Tuskegee, etc.), LOST SOULS is imbued with a moral horror that many of the other high profile monster movies of the era lack. The anguished wailing that emanates from Moreau's House of Pain, where the doctor attempts to burn out the "creeping beast flesh" from his living patients, echoes throughout human history.
That said, the movie is a lot of fun. The performances are great. Even Arlen, as the necessarily lunky audience surrogate, manages to salvage a square-jawed dignity and righteous anger from a thin character. Perhaps even more famous than Laughton's Moreau is Bela Lugosi's Sayer of the Law, who delivers the oft co-opted (and Devo-influencing) "Are we not men?" speech.
I had intended to go on and on about the myriad religious, ethical, and scientific implications of the story. I really don't understand where Wells would have been coming from on this one. By all reports, he seemed to identify with Moreau and was quite upset by the vulgar, perverse nature of the film. He was a proponent of eugenics and seemed to hold a philosophy that embraced Darwinian evolution, Nietzschean humanism and Marxist social paradigms at the same time (Wells is often short-listed as one of Stalin's "useful idiots"). Moreau and his attempt to recreate beasts in his own image is a powerful metaphor that can handily be applied to several different (and opposing) exegeses. It would be exhausting (and redundant) to get into them all here. ****
A quick note about the Criterion extras: 

The commentary, by Gregory Mank, is delightfully Robert Osborne-ish ("I'm honored to be your ISLAND tour guide!") and full of behind-the-scenes trivia, star factoids, and historical context. As the whole film is only 70 minutes long, it's not difficult to sit through twice in an evening if you're into this sort of thing. Also of special interest is the very casual chat between John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns about what they like about ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and classic horror films in general. And, for once, I found the stills gallery actually pretty fascinating. I can't really recommend this disc enough.

* ISLE OF THE DEAD, incidentally, is probably my least favorite Lewton-produced horror film. Despite my love for Karloff, a brief appearance by Skelton Knaggs, and that unmistakable “Lewtonian” atmosphere, I found the central story a bit inert. Martin Scorsese claims it’s one of the eleven scariest horror films ever made though, so what do I know?
** I’ve never read Moreau or any Wells for that matter. Embarrassing, but there you are. This week, Bill Ryan has written a really good piece that examines the novel and film adaptation. 
*** I always found those Zoobilee Zoo abominations creepy as hell.
**** Like most great art, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS made me recall a Simpsons quote:
[From Simpson’s Episode #58 “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love” (1992)]
[after watching a film on sex education]
Bart: How would I go about creating a half-man, half-monkey-type creature?
Mrs. Krabappel: I'm sorry, that would be playing God.
Bart: God-schmod, I want my monkey man!

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