Welcome back for Day 4 of our 31 Days of Horror series! This review will lead the charge into the beginning of a new decade: the 1930s.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love pre-code films. I won’t bore you with a long-winded ode to the popcorn-munching, wine-drinking watchability of these early ’30s movies, but I do want to say one thing before moving on to my actual review. In case you are not familiar with the difference in what studios could get away with pre- and post-Motion Picture Production Code, it’s an interesting concept to keep in mind as we journey through the rest of our 1930s selections for this year’s 31 Days of Horror (and beyond!).
Before the Motion Picture Production Code cracked down in 1934 on what type of content was (and was not) morally acceptable for an American audience to view, studios ran amok with all kinds of insanely scandalous/taboo subject matter. These pre-code films from 1930-1934 leave no saucy stone unturned, and, you guys, they are completely fascinating. I know people think of 1930s cinema as being stilted and not terribly captivating, but if that is your current mindset I urge you to check out this and other pre-code sizzlers: Baby Face, Night Nurse, Forbidden, I’m No Angel, The Divorcee, Blonde Venus…the list goes on. Seriously. Watch ’em and prepare to do a mental 180.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand: 1932’s Island of Lost Souls!
First of all, I rented this DVD from Netflix, and was incredibly impressed by the quality of the Criterion Collection transfer. Sometimes with these early films it’s hard to get your hands on a good copy, which does take away from the movie-watching experience a bit (I’m looking at you, Love Affair). In this case though, the sharp, well-lit visuals immediately pulled me in.
The movie begins with a shipwrecked traveler, Edward Parker (played by swarthy, delicious Richard Arlen), being rescued by a freighter full of exotic animals and carried onward to a mysterious, South Seas island owned by the eccentric Dr. Moreau. Charles Laughton (Witness For the Prosecution, Mutiny on the Bounty) is excellent as Moreau, and once the freighter reaches his island, things take a very eerie, diabolical turn. We discover that Dr. Moreau has been conducting “bio-anthropological research” on the animals delivered to his island, or, more specifically, accelerating their evolution in an attempt to transform them into humans. He believes he can achieve this (and, to a degree, has succeeded) through plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, and ray baths. I’m not quite sure what a “ray bath” is, but given that he performs all this in a wing of his home that he refers to as “The House of Pain”, I’m going to assume it’s…well, painful.
Murky science aside, this is a pretty intriguing concept.
In fact, I have to tip my hat to Laughton and the filmmakers, because this could have been a MUCH cheesier movie than it is. I tend to cock a cynical eyebrow whenever I read about movies that employ the “mad scientist” angle (see also: my rantings on supposedly-frumpy-but-really-just-wearing-a-cableknit-sweater girls who become beautiful after taking off their glasses), but Charles Laughton strikes just the right balance between earnest academic and unhinged psychopath. The atmosphere is tense, suspenseful, and the air is often punctuated by a bestial scream from the House of Pain. When you couple all this with the use of chiaroscuro lighting and slatted jungle blinds, the effect is quite chilling.
Another interesting aspect of the film is Dr. Moreau’s most successful experiment to date: the gentle and alluring panther-woman, Lota. Of all the humanoid creations on the island, she is the closest to having become truly human. Lota is Moreau’s first creation to display feelings of legitimate, romantic love (mhmm, and she’s comin’ for you, Parker!), and his first creation to shed tears. Upon seeing these glittering, womanly tears, Dr. Moreau knows he has broken new ground and gleefully tries to foist her off on his handsome new guest for some tropical babymaking. OH, THE POSSIBILITIES!
Of course, things don’t go quite to plan for the doctor, and the inhabitants of his island begin to slowly turn against him. There are even a few appearances by a furry-faced, nearly unrecognizable Bela Lugosi!
Even my husband, who doesn’t necessarily love 1930s cinema (and watched this movie with me a little bit begrudgingly), admitted that it was “surprisingly alright”. If that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.
So, there you go.
Tomorrow, I’ll be exploring 1934’s The Black Cat, featuring the dynamic duo of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I’d love for you to join me, and as always, please check out the rest of our reviews during this month’s 31 Days of Horror!!