By Scott Dorward
Island of Lost Souls (USA, 1932)
Of all the films in any of my October Horror Movie Challenges, this is the one I’ve waited longest to see. I first read about Island of Lost Souls in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies when I was eight and I have wanted to watch it ever since then. Like Todd Browning’s Freaks, this was banned by the British censors for decades, lending a dangerous allure that persists, despite its age (although, now I think of it, I first read about the film in 1973, which was much closer to 1932 than the present day). So, almost 90 years on, does Island of Lost Souls live up to its sinister reputation?
After his boat goes down in the South Seas, Edward Parker is rescued by a freighter carrying live cargo to an unnamed island. The captain takes against Parker after an altercation over the captain’s bullying of the strange, misshapen man who tends to the animals. When the boat arrives at the island, the captain throws Parker overboard, telling the islanders that he is their problem now.
Once ashore, Parker finds the island is ruled by an English surgeon named Doctor Moreau. The island serves as the doctor’s laboratory, allowing him privacy to conduct experiments that would not be permitted elsewhere. Using a combination of surgery and biochemistry, Moreau converts animals into something like human beings. Not only are his creations humanoid but they have the powers of reason and speech. Moreau has also created a strictly governed society that keeps his subjects’ animal instincts under control through a combination of fear and ritual.
As shocked as Parker is by these discoveries, he is even more horrified when he learns how Moreau is attempting to involve him in these experiments. Inevitably, Parker’s anger provides the spark that ignites the powder keg of repressed animal instincts. Who do things never work out for mad scientists?
Island of Lost Souls is, of course, an adaptation of HG Wells’ classic novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. The opening of the film cleaves closely to the book, but then deviates markedly in tone and content. Island of Lost Souls introduces a romantic element, as Moreau encourages Lota, the Panther Woman — his most human creation — to seduce Parker. Moreau hopes that Parker will not be able to sense Lota’s animal origins and that they will be biologically compatible enough to breed. (As an aside, Kathleen Burke, who plays Lota, is just credited as “The Panther Woman” on the film poster. I wonder how she felt about that.)
It is elements such as these that led to Island of Lost Souls becoming so notorious. The film was released shortly before the introduction of the Hays Code, which placed tight restrictions on the content allowed in Hollywood studio productions. When Island of Lost Souls was reissued some years later, it had to be heavily cut to meet the Code. The British Board of Film Censors went one stage further and banned the film outright for over 25 years. Their main objections were to the portrayal of vivisection, but the core concepts of Moreau creating humans out of animal life and proclaiming himself a god were also deemed too objectionable for the viewing public.
Even now, Island of Lost Souls is uncomfortable viewing. The makeup effects are excellent and timeless, remaining creepy to modern eyes. A highlight is the unrecognisable Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. His wolfmanish features are both amiable and feral. But it is Moreau’s cruelty that makes the hardest viewing. Even more than in the original film, we want to see him get his comeuppance.
I am delighted to have finally caught up with Island of Lost Souls. It was worth the 50-year wait. While, of course, the film cannot hope to be as frightening now as it was 90 years ago, it still has plenty of dark power. While you may know the story from the book or other adaptations, that is no barrier to enjoying this version. It has a few surprises of its own, but even its familiarity allows it to build dread, in anticipation of what must surely come.
Every aspect of this film works, even the ones that shouldn’t. Normally, I roll my eyes when scriptwriters shoehorn romantic subplots into adaptations. Here, Moreau’s manipulation of Lota is so deeply creepy that any romantic elements become skin-crawling. In a film filled with lumbering, monstrous shapes, it is this comely creature who is the most disturbing.
If I have any complaint about Island of Lost Souls, it is that the film is too short. Unlike some of the other bloated, overly ponderous films I’ve seen this month, this one packs too much into its 70-minute runtime. I could happily have watched more exploration of the island’s society (something the book details more). Still, this is a mild complaint. There is more than enough to sink your teeth into here, even if the good doctor forbids the eating of meat.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!
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