B&W, 1932, 70m.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Starring Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke, Arthur Hohl
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC)
The word "unhealthy" was never better applied to any film than this one, the pinnacle of a string of sweaty, sleazy, tropical-themed horror films from the pre-Code era with an emphasis on disfigurement, sadism, and illicit sex. Adapted skillfully but not all that faithfully from anti-vivisection novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by pioneering sci-fi author H.G. Wells, the film went on to become something of a subterranean pop culture phenomenon for decades (a la Freaks) inspiring lots of dialogue samples, the title of Devo's first album, songs by Blondie and Oingo Boingo, the name of a '90s hip hop group, and two official remakes of considerably lesser quality and loads of imitators including two Filipino ones, Terror Is a Man and Twilight People. It also remains one of the best horror films ever made.
After surviving a shipwreck, Edward Parker (Arlen) undergoes a difficult journey to the island of whip-wielding Dr. Moreau (Laughton), a reclusive scientist surrounded by grotesque man-beasts and a mysterious "panther woman" (Burke). As Edwad's fiancee (Hyams) tries to find him, he learns more about the bizarre lifestyle on the island with these bestial residents governed by a law not to spill blood or walk on all fours, lest they be taken off for punishment to the House of Pain. However, Moreau's attempts to instill humanity into animal with his scalpel proves to have increasingly dire consequences.
Truly unforgettable from start to finish, Island of Lost Souls remains one of the most modern and transgressive horror films from the early sound era. While Universal was churning out period pieces featuring literary monsters, Paramount was ticking off the censors and the public with extreme films like this and Murders in the Zoo that triggered the rise of the Hays Code one year later. Not surprisingly, it also remained banned in England for over two decades and has enjoyed popularity among die-hard horror films without ever quite breaking into the mainstream consciousness like many of its peers. In fact, the film is still weird, scary, and twisted enough to make viewers uneasy, particularly the brutal finale that proves the mind can often conjure up scenarios more gruesome than a camera could ever show. As an added bonus, a furry-faced Bela Lugosi nearly steals the entire film as the Sayer of the Law, one of the many incredible make-up jobs that inspired generations of future fright fans.
After a VHS and laserdisc release from Universal in the mid-'90s, Island of Lost Souls disappeared from public availability soon after and sat out well over a decade of the DVD era to the increasing frustration of classic horror buffs. Its fate seemed even more uncertain when usable prints became impossible to locate, and coupled with the tragic decision to ditch the negatives for most of Paramount's early classic films, this could have easily been an entirely lost film. Thankfully it fell into the hands of Criterion, who have outfitted it with a lavish special edition finally befitting its historic status. The transfer is actually slightly longer than the rerelease print used for the prior home video edition including a chunk of extra dialogue from Arlen, and while some wear and tear is evident (though nowhere close to the ragged presentation of Stagecoach), the film looks shockingly good for almost the entire running time considering its history and the extreme amount of diffusion filters used in many scenes. Fans will definitely be pleased, and having this title back in circulation is very welcome indeed. Optional English subtitles are also included for the mono soundtrack, which sounds fine.
The feature itself is also augmented with an audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank, author of the Women in Horror Films books and the great Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration. He does an excellent job of walking through the history of the film including its adaptation process, various rumors about the casting, and the more unsavory implications of the story running beneath the surface. The first video featurette contains an enjoyably friendly chat between director John Landish, makeup legend Rick Baker, and horror historian Bob Burns, who swap interpretations and anecdotes about the film including Wells' notorious distaste for this adaptation and the groundbreaking monster designs as well as its unusually convincing ape costume, which obviously made an impression on both Landis and Baker given their later collaborations. Prolific horror writer David J. Skal (a familiar name from his excellent work on many Universal monster DVDs) offers his own reading on the film and has a fascinating explanation for some of the misogyny behind its most iconic female character, while Hardware director Richard Stanley (original helmer of the disastrous and utterly weird 1996 remake before it was yanked away) explains his own reverance for the source novel, his issues with all of the adaptations, and his original conception for his version. Last up are Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale from the band Devo, who talk about the impact of this film in their youth when it was presented by beloved horror host Ghoulardi (father of director Paul Thomas Anderson, believe it or not) and the parallels between the film's environment and the perceived monstrousness of their own surroundings in the midwest. Their early short film, "In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth about De-Evolution," is also included in the same segment and, along with being inspired by the film at hand, has a great Kuchar-style handcrafted quality. A stills gallery and theatrical trailer complete this package, a surefire candidate for one of the most important horror releases on home video in recent years.