Written by Greg Barbrick
”Do you know what it means to feel like God?” asks the fiendish Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) at one point in Island of Lost Souls (1932). It is the question of an ultimate egomaniac, and goes to the root of this incredibly creepy tale. The movie is based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896 by H.G. Wells. Although it is not as celebrated today as films such as Frankenstein (1931) or Dracula (1931), Island of Lost Souls is an early horror classic. In many ways it is one of the most unsettling films ever.
Our story begins with the shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) being picked up at sea. When he runs afoul of the captain, Parker is unceremoniously deposited on another vessel, which is bound for a small, uncharted island. When Parker arrives, he is greeted by the initially charming Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who assures him that all of his needs will be attended to, and a boat will be provided for him to leave the next day.
The true nature of what the good Dr. is up to becomes increasingly clear as the night wears on however. The “natives” are all ghastly looking beasts, and soon Parker discovers that they are actually animal/human mutations that Dr. Moreau has created in his House of Pain. It is basically a torture chamber, which Moreau has used to make all of his creatures subservient to him. We are witness to the horrible nature of the character as he shows a bound Parker the device, while a subject is screaming in obvious agony.
Mr. Parker’s role in this madhouse is made clear when Dr. Moreau introduces him to the only female inhabitant of the island. She is called The Panther Woman, and Edward Parker is the first human male she has met outside of the laboratory. The perverse Dr. wants to see if she will mate with him. In this pre-Hays Code film, The Panther Woman is incredibly sexy. As portrayed by Kathleen Burke, she is the very definition of a sex kitten.
Before Parker was kicked off the rescue ship, he had sent a radio message to his girlfriend that he had been rescued. When he did not arrive as scheduled, she hired a captain to try and find him. They arrive at Dr. Moreau’s island in time to witness the depraved goings on, and manage to set the natives free. In fact, Dr. Moreau’s “experiments” turn on him in a big way, which provides a satisfying end to this disturbing film.
One of the unfortunates in the film is credited as the Sayer of the Law, and is played by Bela Lugosi. When prompted by the Doctor, he recites the various laws the subjects have been indoctrinated with, such as “No spill blood.” After each of the laws are proclaimed, he asks the rhetorical question “Are we not men?” It is only after Moreau himself sends them to kill Parker and the rest that his subjects turn on him. The “Are we not men?” question now seems to mean that spilling blood is sanctioned.
In one of the extras, Devo members Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale discuss the impact Island of Lost Souls had on them when forming the band. As students at Kent State, they watched it numerous times, and drew a great deal of inspiration from it. In fact, it is hard to hear Lugosi bellow the line “Are we not men?” and not be prompted to reply “We are Devo.”
In another bonus feature, John Landis, Rick Baker and Bob Burns discuss the ongoing significance of the film, and the curious reasons as to why it remains a somewhat undiscovered horror classic. The other significant extra is an interview with filmmaker Richard Stanley, of the ill-fated 1996 adaptation, The Island of Dr. Moreau. There is also a stills gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and a booklet included in this Criterion Collection edition.
Island of Lost Souls remains an extremely unsettling film even all these years later. The performances of Laughton as Dr. Moreau, and Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law alone are worthy of investigation. The underlying anti-vivisection theme of Well’s original book is also strongly present, which was very unusual for the time. Or today even, for that matter. This is one to keep in mind for your Halloween viewing pleasure.