Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
“Are we not men?” That question is at the heart of the 1932 Island of Lost Souls (Criterion), the first adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel and (for all the changes from the novel) still the defining one. It’s also been the hardest to see. Though it was released on VHS and on laserdisc, it rarely showed on TV or cable and its arrival on DVD comes decades after the classic horrors of the thirties — Frankenstein, Dracula, Freaks, The Mummy, The Black Cat and so on — have been released. As a result it’s more known about than seen, more often a footnote in conversations about the early days of horror, when in fact it’s one of the most transgressive films of its era.
Charles Laughton enters the film as Dr. Moreau in the white linen suit of a plantation owner or a southern slaver. Once he cracks his ever-present whip to send the “natives” scurrying in fear, the resemblance is sealed, but that’s just the beginning of his brutal identity.
“Do you know what it means to feel like God?” he boasts, but he’s more a demon in the devil’s workshop transforming beasts into human-like creatures. Whether they are men is an open question, but they certainly aspire to manhood in their creation of community and adherence to laws. Whether Dr. Moreau, a vivisectionist who seems to enjoy the pain he inflicts, has sacrificed his humanity is more to the point.
Arrogant and unfeeling, he’s the proto Dr. Mengele, the master-race scientist who operates on his subjects without anesthesia or compassion in an operating room he calls “The House of Pain.” (In the era before DNA and genetic engineering, his operations are all grafts and transplants.) “This time I’ll burn out all the animal in her,” he swears as his prized project Lota (Kathleen Burke) reverts back to her feline roots. It’s as much a threat as it is a statement of purpose, a promise of terrible pain that evokes torture and hellfire. And as he plots to pair off Panther Woman Lota to his castaway guest (Richard Arlen) to procreate, he’s essentially experimenting with bestiality. No wonder this was banned in Britain for decades.
Though it is currently owned by Universal, Island of Lost Souls was produced by Paramount and its atmosphere is appropriately less Universal gothic than Paramount elegance. The Karl Struss cinematography shrouds the horrors in a perpetual fog that hugs the sets and licks the sea like the lace of a costume. Shot almost entirely within the studio, from ships in misty water tanks to a densely-fabricated jungle, it suggests the primitive and the perverse, a feral world as claustrophobic as it is intimidating. Howls are heard through the fog and beyond the trees and screams cut through the night. The villa compound, with its restraining walls and locked gates, isn’t civilization in the wild, it’s a safety zone on a prison island populated by prisoners of their own unsure identity. Moreau is their God-king as warden, the cruel despot who demands complete obedience and receives his just deserts in a satisfying yet grotesque twist of poetic irony. Because the law-giver cannot escape his own law.
The quality of the print is likely the reason this film took so long to come to DVD. The original negative is long lost and Criterion has pieced together the best possible version from multiple sources, from a damaged fine-grain 35mm positive to a 16mm print from a private collector, and digitally repaired as much damage as possible. The resulting master is hardly pristine and softer than ideal but it’s the best it has ever looked on home video, and the most complete.
Criterion releases DVD and Blu-ray editions, both with commentary by film historian Gregory Mank and new interviews, including a 16-minute video conversation with director John Landis, make-up legend Rick Baker and historian Bob Burns, three guys who know their horror movie (and horror movie make-up) history. Also features new video interviews with horror movie historian David J. Skal, director Richard Stanley (the original director of the 1996 remake), and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, plus a 1976 short film by Devo that pays tribute to the film and a booklet featuring a new essay by writer Christine Smallwood.