Before the Hays Code – the pre-cursor to the MPAA film rating system – was effectively enforced in 1934, each territory had its own censorship boards that created their standards through government regulations and general sentiments. Even though sexual innuendo, speaking out against Christianity, drug use and violence is fairly common in modern films, they were considered taboo by many states’ ratings boards in the 20’s and early 30’s. It was also during this time that Hollywood was considered a corrupt business – some things never change, eh? – and was in the midst of numerous high-profile scandals, causing the industry to become chummy with Williams Hays to make it seem more “behaved.”
Universal’s monster movies were lucrative in this period, and gave the studio a niche all their own. Of course, success breeds competition and everyone was scrambling to recreate the magic and get a piece of the market. Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like their Victorian-era source material, all dealt with the evolution of humanity, mutations even, no matter how scientific or supernatural-based – Darwin was published earlier in the century, and was a topic of discussion among intellectuals but was actually not taught as prevalently as one would imagine. H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in the late 1800’s as a piece about the dangers of vivisection for a PETA-like organization, was of the same ilk with its themes of humanity’s progression and thirst for power – not to mention, it has a mad scientist in it, which was a huge draw at the box office.
With Bela Lugosi and Charles Laughton signed on, Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls – helmed by Erle C. Kenton – was poised to be a success. But with story elements proving to be too controversial, even in the pre-code era, the film was dead on arrival; Laughton’s dissatisfaction with it was well-known even though he didn’t like to talk about it, and Island was banned in the UK and cut by almost every territory imaginable, causing there to be numerous versions.
Kenton’s direction and Karl Struss’ cinematography work together to canvas the island well to give it size and a sense of claustrophobic confinement; without a boat, there’ no escape for Parker (Richard Arlen). Shadows are used to shroud the natives in darkness and emphasize every nook and cranny in the jungle. The make-up is ground-breaking and effective, giving the monstrous creations variety (Lugosi is practically unrecognizable as the Sayer of the Law); when each one stares into the camera and charges forward, there are distinct identities on display. Laughton steals the show as the deranged, but polite and educated madman who attempts to further the evolution of other species through science while philosophically degressing his own.
Wells, who hated the film, thought that the horror overtones drowned out the philosophical subtext, but Island of Lost Souls isn’t as shallow as he thought – though, in its cut state, it might very well be. There’s a scene where Dr. Moreau asks Parker ‘Do you know what it feels like to play God?,’ showing his arrogance about not only his scientific endeavors – and the morality inherent in scientific experimentation – but his understanding of humanity and that his creations were never naturally expected to be something they weren’t. He’s certainly tampering with their physical appearances, their movements, their speech, their responses to stimuli and language, but what he’s failing to neglect is their souls.
Upon Island Of Lost Souls’ release, it was censored, province to province, country to country, state to state, by their individual governments causing there to be numerous versions of the film. The original negative no longer exists, so Criterion’s 1080p transfer is cobbled together from a 35mm master print with damage, UCLA Film and Television Archive’s 35mm nitrate positive, and a private collector’s 16mm print. Regardless of all three sources being scanned in at 2K, there’s a very noticeable difference in picture quality scene-to-scene – especially in 16mm – in terms of grain, color saturation, and sharpness. All things considered, this is indeed the very best the film is ever going to look and for that, Criterion has worked wonders. The same goes for the lossless PCM 1.0 track, which has been fixed up as best as it could be, though it still has some crackle and hisses due to the state of the source materials.
Commentary – The track features film historian Gregory Mank, who also recorded commentaries for Warner Bros.’ Cat People and Curse of the Cat People releases. He covers a lot of material explored on other featurettes on the disc, but goes into more detail about them rather than mentioning them in passing. He compares the film to its source material, as well the other adaptations, and goes over Wells’ reaction to it, as well as Lugosi and Laughton’s involvement, the Panther Woman auditions, and the controversy Island of Lost Souls caused in pre-code Hollywood.
Landis, Baker, and Burns (16:53) – John Landis, Rick Baker and Bob Burns gush about their love for the film, with expected praises going towards the make-up and Laughton. Landis seems especially fond of director Erle C. Kenton, who he feels never got the recognition he deserved.
David J. Skal Interview (13:04) – Film historian David J. Skal discusses the impact of H.G. Wells’ novel and the evolutionary themes of other notable 1930’s horror films. Island Of Lost Souls is discussed, but Skal talks more about comparable films and the period it was made in.
Richard Stanley Interview (14:15) – A really interesting, candid chat with director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil), who was set to helm the 1996 Marlon Brando adaptation which New Line ultimately passed off to John Frankenheimer. He talks about all the adaptations thus far, but the most fascinating comments he makes are about the version he was supposed to make; he ended up sneaking on the set after being paid off by New Line, and saw the catastrophe unfolding under his former bosses’ watch. I’ve always been really intrigued by Stanley’s work, and the interview got me even more excited for The Mother Of Toads.
Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh Interview (19:48) – The Devo members talk about the impact Island Of Lost Souls had on the creation of their band with its themes of “de-evolution” and how that spoke to them about the nine-to-five mentality of workers. They both saw the film for the first time on a late night horror show hosted by Paul Thomas Anderson’s father, Ernie Anderson, who masqueraded as ‘Ghoulardi.’
In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution (9:43) – A short film by Devo, featuring Secret Agent Man and Jocko Homo.
The slim fifteen-page booklet includes Christine Smallwood’s essay, The Beast Flesh Creeping Back.