Skiffy Flix: Island of Lost Souls

This is a 1932 film, starring Charles Laughton and directed by Erle C. Kenton. All these films from the early 1930s are based on novels (or are sequels to previous films) but this time they changed the title: it’s based on H.G. Wells’ novel THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, from 1896.

  • This one is a more ambitious production than previous films, with scenes filmed at sea, on a cargo ship and a smaller boat.
  • There’s music over the opening and closing credits, but that’s all.
  • Story opens with a freighter at sea, the Covena, that spots a life raft and picks up a survivor from the Lady Vane. The man is Edward Parker, who recovers and asks to contact his girlfriend Ruth, who’s staying in some unspecified port. We see scenes of Ruth at the docks and in a hotel at what appears to be a colonial port, where she gets his message.
  • Parker notices the freighter is full of cages of animals. The captain, drunk, doesn’t like the work. An assistant, Montgomery, works for Moreau, a scientist on some remote island. The captain strands Parker with Montgomery and his cargo on a second ship.
  • Montgomery and Parker arrive at Moreau’s island, where Moreau, elegantly dressed and rather effete, lives in the inside of a volcano accessed via caverns from the coast. (The caverns and exterior scenes are obviously done on Hollywood soundstages, only the dock scenes done somewhere on location… Catalina Island, my reference book claims.)
  • Moreau occupies an elegant house, but the jungle is filled by strange looking creatures, and the servants look peculiar too. After a fine dinner, Moreau asks Parker to stay in his room, and whenever he reaches port, to be discreet about what he sees here.
  • The plot proceeds.
    • There’s just one female on the island, a ‘panther woman,’ who looks exotic but is rather simple. Moreau, we come to realize, is intrigued by the prospect of allowing her to bond to this new man. Thus he arranges his own boat to be scuttled so Parker cannot leave too soon.
    • Parker soon realizes, via screams from the room the woman calls the House of Pain, that Moreau is involved in some kind of vivisection – i.e. operating on animals, or people, without anesthetic. He condemns Moreau and tries to flee. At the beach a group of the ‘natives’ gathers. Moreau controls them with a whip, and a gong, and then engages in a ritual. He asks them, What is the Law? They respond: Not to run on all fours; are we not men? What is the Law? Not to spill blood; are we not men? And so on. Chilling words, straight from Wells. (The ‘speaker of the law’ in these scenes is Bela Lugosi, heavily made-up.)
  • Moreau calms Parker and explains: It’s not what it seems. His experiments started in London, to advance the evolution of flowers: thus, he shows, giant orchids. Then he moved on to animals: the goal of all animals is to trend in the direction of man, the highest form, he says. He had to leave London and has been on this island for 11 years. He mentions his techniques – “plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, and ray baths” – and claims he’s wiped out centuries of evolution. Giving the animals speech was his first great achievement. He shows manual laborers, who work a mill to generate power. “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” he exults. [[ the standard Hollywood line attributed to mad scientists. ]]
  • And so…
    • Ruth arranges for another captain to take her to the coordinates of the island where Parker is.
    • The panther girl, Lota, is attracted to Parker and foils his plan to build a transmitter (she throws his book in a pool).
    • Moreau’s plan is to take her and Parker to London.
    • Parker realizes Lota is an animal-woman too—look at her sharp fingernails! Seeing these, Moreau realizes her animal part is creeping back. Should he give up? No, she weeps! She’s human!.
  • And then Ruth and her captain arrive. They are welcomed to dinner and to spend the night. They hear chanting from the jungle…the natives are restless tonight, Moreau observes.
    • One of the creatures breaks into Ruth’s bedroom. Parker shoots it.
    • Montgomery, the reluctant assistant, has had enough. He tries to help Parker and Ruth escape.
    • Moreau sends one of the animal creatures, Ouran, out to strangle the pilot so they can’t escape.
    • The other natives see this, and realize Moreau has broken the law, about killing. Is he a man like them? Then he can die! Moreau tries to control them, but they converge on him.
    • Parker and Ruth flee; Lota falls behind, killing a beast to let them escape.
    • The beasts drag Moreau into his House of Pain and attack him with scalpels.
    • Montgomery, Ruth, and Parker escape in a boat, as the island behind them burns. Don’t look back. The end.
  • The first thing to be said is that the evolutionary premises here are nonsense, and I can’t believe they were so crudely expressed in Wells’ novel. I’ll have to check. Evolution isn’t about making things bigger; and it’s not about humans as the highest form.
  • The second thing is that Laughton is a striking presence, oily and supercilious and ambiguous. Everyone else is a routine Hollywood cardboard actor.
  • And the third is that, whatever Wells’ novel may have been (I read it years ago), the result here is the standard Hollywood depiction of a scientist mad with ambition, meddling in things people were not meant to know. And so he dies at the end. It’s a familiar story, told over and over again by Hollywood in the 1930s.
This entry was posted in Movies, Skiffy Flix. Bookmark the permalink.