An Erle C. Kenton–directed Paramount feature based on the 1896 H. G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls (1932) is the story of a mad scientist’s attempts to convert wild animals into human beings by way of vicious medical procedures. Through the eyes of Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), a shipwrecked innocent, we discover Dr. Moreau (the inimitable Charles Laughton), living with his assistant, Montgomery (a laconic Arthur Hohl), among the beast-men he has molded in the laboratory he calls the House of Pain. The film was a sensation when it was released. Its frank references to vivisection and Moreau’s delight in “feeling like God” got it banned in twelve countries, including England, where it was described as being “against nature.” In America, state censors—established in the wake of a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that motion pictures were not protected speech—cut various lines and scenes, depending on local standards and tastes. Nonetheless, people were reportedly so repulsed that they vomited in their seats.
Today’s horror and science fiction fans, familiar with subsequent Island of Dr. Moreau adaptations and The Simpsons’ Halloween spoof, not to mention Splice (2009), are unlikely to be similarly affected. Island of Lost Souls no longer has the brute power to shock. That sensation—the violence of the mind’s assimilating a totally new piece of information or feeling—can’t be ours here. Even if you’ve never seen it before, you know what Moreau’s up to. Chances are, you won’t be able to listen to Bela Lugosi intone the liturgy of the beast-men (“Are we not men?”) with ears entirely free of Devo (“Are we not men? We are Devo!”). That’s the thing about encountering an original: you can see it only through everything that has come since.
Modern audiences, schooled in the politics of genetically modified food and factory farming, cloning and animal testing, may find the film’s interest in the manipulation of nature and the threat posed by science run amok quite contemporary. These themes are not, however, what makes it most resonant today. That honor belongs to the beast-men—the most wretched things of the earth, calling out for compassion. Island of Lost Souls insists on a continuity between the human and nonhuman; it asks us to relate to animals on the basis of our shared capacity for suffering. This, in the end, is a movie about pain.
And there is something striking and unusually fresh about Island of Lost Souls’ sadism. We’ve seen and heard a lot of gross and weird stuff on-screen in the past eighty years, but I’m not sure any of it is significantly weirder or grosser than this. Moreau is a torturer, and this an early torture film, crafted for an interwar, Depression-era audience more than a little familiar with violence, lost limbs, powerlessness, and fear. The doctor inflicts pain eagerly and unabashedly, cutting open living creatures to experiment on them. The din of moans, wails, and screams that echoes through the jungle is distressing and distracting, and no background music directs your reaction or prepares you for the assault. But for Moreau, the noise is just so much static. It barely registers. “Mr. Parker, spare me these youthful horrors, please,” he sighs with a wave of his meaty hand.
The story of The Island of Dr. Moreau, so concerned with how things look and sound, benefited dramatically from being brought to the screen. It needed to be seen and heard. Besides, Wells’s book is all setup, a premise without a plot. Screenwriters Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie created a story line by introducing women—they gave the shipwrecked man a plucky fiancée named Ruth (Leila Hyams), who rescues him from the island, and created Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), Moreau’s most perfect specimen.
Shot on the Paramount Ranch, near Malibu, the jungle appears uncannily living and dead, artificial and real. The plants are big and waxy, the space low, the lighting dark. Cinematographer Karl Struss, who also photographed such treasures as Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), kept the framing tight, cramped with foliage and vines, the occasional stooped, furry-faced beast-man peering out from behind someone’s shoulder. A misty, expressionistic chiaroscuro of cell bars falls across the courtyards and nooks of the large, gloomy house, designed by the great Hans Dreier. Struss takes good advantage of early horror conventions—figures lumber directly at the viewer; close-ups are sudden and jarring; the camera, like a giant, blinking red arrow, lingers on such details as a furred ear or a hoof, showing off Wally Westmore’s remarkable makeup. Unlike subsequent adaptations of the story, which would turn the beast-men into a band of rampaging Wookiees, Westmore’s creations are mostly human—which makes them all the more disturbing.
For a movie about hybridity, Island of Lost Souls is remarkably blunt. It’s structured on oppositions—not only good and evil but science and nature, black and white, civilization and the primitive, man and woman, human and animal, silence and noise. It literally gestures at the most profound questions, its power lying less in its dialogue than in Arlen’s deranged stare or the sharp squirms of Burke’s body. And the film lives and dies by Laughton’s performance. He’s all merciless smile and restless eyes glancing offscreen, barely containing some private joke he’s having with himself. His Moreau is creepy and controlled, with an unsettling undercurrent of suave, chubby sexual energy.
Horror often features a woman imperiled or in need of protection, so it’s no surprise that one of Moreau’s beast-men seems rather too interested in Ruth. But in Island of Lost Souls, it is sexual desire itself that is the threat, and this desire puts men at risk too. Moreau quickly capitalizes on Parker’s otherwise inopportune appearance by trying to get him to mate with Lota. He throws them together and lurks in the shadows, stiff with anticipation, to observe their behavior. Parker, of course, believes Lota to be a “pure Polynesian.” He discovers her origins only after they have shared a passionate kiss—after, that is, he has kissed an animal. When he realizes what he has done, he claims that he could have forgiven Moreau for everything he’s seen and heard—the tribe of beast-men, the rituals, the horrible cries of suffering—but he cannot forgive him for Lota. Sickened by his own bestial desire, he holds Moreau responsible for introducing this temptation into the world.
The real threat here is miscegenation. Early 1930s horror was preoccupied with creatures that resemble normal men but are in some way deformed, deranged, or awfully and miserably inhuman—Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Freaks all came out in 1931–32. Island of Lost Souls, also released during the Jim Crow era, trades in dark makeup and broad noses, conflating the indigenous and the nonwhite with the animal. Moreau is not simply a mad scientist—he’s a colonial nabob who has made himself a god to his tribe of simian men. He is the source of that infamous line, “They”—the natives—“are more than usually restless tonight.” In Australia, the film received a rating of NEN, meaning it wasn’t to be shown to aboriginal people—who, presumably, might have taken it too much to heart. When Moreau violates one of his own laws by spilling blood, the beast-men erupt in anarchy, rebelling against the gross double standard. In flouting a law designed to make them human, they prove themselves to be something more than animal.
Like most science fiction, Island of Lost Souls isn’t afraid to depart from “real” science to make a point. Moreau’s version of evolution holds that inside all animals lies the potential for what is highest: man. “All animal life is tending toward the human form,” he declares. His work is to speed up the clock. Like Wells himself, who subscribed to the notion that it would not be enough for the best specimens of humankind to breed—failures would have to be eliminated or sterilized—Moreau dreams of raising the “lower” forms up and making them fit for the future. His method is one of extraction. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, who stimulates an amalgamation of dead matter with electricity, Moreau is a vivisectionist—he cuts open living creatures in order to remove the bestial element. Even Lota’s “stubborn beast flesh” comes “creeping back,” however, turning her slender fingers into the claws of a cat. Moreau’s solution? “This time I’ll burn out all the animal in her!”
For Moreau, a new expression of pain can be a sign of success; he delights when Lota sheds tears because women, not panthers, cry. But Parker recognizes and responds to the sound he hears coming from that table; it’s the sound he would make were it his body under the knife. It’s fitting that the movie ends with the smooth and unflappable Moreau shrieking in the House of Pain, a victim of his lawless beast-children. When Montgomery, Parker, and Ruth make their panicked escape, there are no more humans left on the island, and no animals either—only monsters.
The point of it all is not whether they, or we, are animals or human beings. It’s about what kind of human beings we are, or could be. This is the question at the heart of Island of Lost Souls. Even those of us who are born with no beast flesh to creep back have to work, every day, to make being human something worth aspiring to in the first place.
Christine Smallwood’s essays and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, the London Review of Books, n+1, the Nation, and other publications.