Adrift sailor Edward (Richard Arlen) is rescued from the sea by The Covena, a large trading ship ran by drunken Captain Davies (Stanley Fields). By coincidence, it transpires that both men are headed for the island of Apia. Edward plans to meet his fiancťe Ruth (Leila Hyams) there to be wed; Davies has a mystery delivery to make to a doctor presiding on the isle Ö
We soon discover that Daviesí cargo consists of wild animals Ė and heís not happy about being assigned the task of delivering them to Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton). Indeed, he goes so far as to describe the scientist as "a black-handed, grave-robbing ghoul".
Edward laughs the pissed-up skipperís claims off, only to find himself later booted off the boat. Fortunately, sinister ex-doctor Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) is at hand to help him find a place on a smaller boat with his mate at the helm. The bloke steering the boat introduces himself as Ö Dr Moreau.
Eventually the trio make their way on to Apia and Edward is understandably itching to find Ruth. But first heís invited to stay with the seemingly gracious Moreau.
However, despite enjoying a comfortable smoke and savouring the charms of local panther-like woman Lota (Kathleen Burke), Edward is soon to learn the horrific truth about Moreauís vivisectionist experiments in his self-built ĎHouse of Painí. His goal? To fashion a breed of half-man/half-animal mutants who will serve unto him as their demi-God.
They even have their own laws that Moreau encourages them to chant, as witnessed by an aghast Edward: not to walk on all-fours, not to spill blood Ö
Of course, that latter ruling is one that these beast, among them a terrifying crossbreed of wolf and man (Bela Lugosi, beneath Wally Westmoreís canny make-up), are willing to bend when the situation calls for it Ė such as when their leader gets ideas above his station Ö
So, this is the film that got banned in the UK for three decades on account of its transgressions against the concept of nature. H G Wells, whose story it was based on, apparently hated it with a vengeance. Hence, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is as controversial, in theory, as it is Ďlostí Ė that elusive cinematic adaptation of "The Island of Dr Moreau" that was just too much for the audiences of 1932 to take.
In light of all that, it would be fair to ask: how does it fair in todayís climate?
The answer is, astoundingly well. Itís a simple story, the characters are very theatrical in their one-dimensional obviousness and director Erle C Kenton pitches the melodrama highly from the very start. Thereís little to think about: this film serves its purpose at a sharkís pace, and is all the better for it.
It would be remiss of us to dismiss the film as anything less than a superbly realised slice of pulp. The taut editing, economic storytelling, inventive camerawork, fevered performances (Laughton is magnificent, despite resembling a poster boy for the BNP): they all assist in eliciting a genuine atmosphere of tension that is superbly sustained throughout.
Throw in some undeniably daring politics and violence Ö here is a film that was making waves by intention, wanting to horrify audiences of its day. And succeeding.
Also bold, for its time, is the fact that it even dares to take an amoral stance towards its Ďvillainí. Unlike later adaptations, there is no great desire to rationalise Moreauís deeds.
As a result, much like its closest relative FREAKS, it stands the test of time staggeringly well: bleak and uncompromising, more graphic than the other horrors of its decade, the film feels modern to this day. A minor niggle is the underuse of Lugosi, but thatís a trifling matter when the end result is a film this satisfying.
They really donít make them like this anymore.
The last time I saw this film was on Visionaryís unjustly brief VHS release in the early 1990s. It was barely watchable. The film has been plagued by poor distribution deals, copyrights issues and censorial problems for decades: now here it is, fully uncut and ready to reveal its brilliance to a new generation of viewers.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is presented on Eurekaís Masters of Cinema blu-ray in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and looks exceptionally good for a film of its age. Considering itís been withheld from release for so many decades, itís clearly been stored well in the meantime.
I mean, there is softness in the transfer (especially the murky opening scenes) but thatís to be understood. However, the lack of general debris is testament not only to the filmís restoration but its preservation prior to that. Blacks are solid, contrast is fine Ö I never, ever expected to see this film look so pleasing to the eye. Donít be jarred by the very modern Universal logo at the very beginning: once the film starts proper, itís the Paramount logo people are going to recognise (and, thankfully, it is here).
Whether this transfer stands up to its Criterion blu-ray counterpart, I canít say Ė I havenít seen that Ė but, this being MoC, I canít imagine it being a bad comparison Ö
English audio is presented in lossless PCM mono. Itís as good as can be anticipated. Actually, no, it's a little better: I was impressed by its cleanliness. Similarly, optional English Hard-of-Hearing subtitles are easily readable and extremely well-written for the duration of playback.
A static main menu page includes pop-up menus, which means thereís a scene-selection menu offering 13 chapters as access to the main feature. For a 70-minute film, thatís very good.
Extras are not that prolific. But, given the age of the film and its scarcity of release in the past, thatís understandable.
Anyway, we get a 12-minute featurette with thespian Simon Callow (can I call him that? I still associate him as the buffoon from TVís ĎChance in a Millioní). Regardless, heís pretty stuffy and doesnít offer much other than guarded enthusiasm.
Far better is the 14-minute offering from critic and historian Jonathan Rigby. He talks of the filmís production woes, subsequent controversy and more: this is the most valid contribution in terms of disc extras. This featurette comes complete with excellent production photographs, revealing some of the make-up concepts that didnít make the final film. Priceless.
A 90-second original trailer is, however, a very close second. What a marvel to see such a relic preserved here, especially as it looks pretty fine and is extraordinarily entertaining in its straightforwardness. Itís window-boxed as it should be, and I loved it.
This being a Masters of Cinema release (available as a dual format blu-ray and DVD package, I believe), you can also expect a dandy collectorís booklet thrown into the set for good measure. Alas, this wasnít made available for review purposes.
However, I have no reservations in wholeheartedly recommending this awesome classic film, as it comes here in a presentation only previously dreamt of.
A must-have release. And remember, "Are we not men?" Ö
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka Entertainment|
|Region B/2 PAL|
|see main review|