Alongside Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein and Freaks, 1933’s Island of Lost Souls ranks as one of the best classic horror films. But its controversial story, gruesome (at the time) vivisection scenes, and poor distribution has kept it virtually hidden from horror fans these past 80 years. Until now, that is.
A commercial flop on its release, banned in several countries (including the UK until 1958), and condemned by HG Wells as a travesty of his original novel, The Island of the Dr Moreau, the film is actually a superb exercise in cinematic Grand Guignol.
With his Satanic goatee and crumpled white suit, Charles Laughton is perfect as the whip cracking scientist, Dr Moreau, whose grisly experiments in his ‘House of Pain’ have turned caged animals into a grotesque menagerie of beast-men. Even more disturbing is his desire to mate his panther woman, Lota (played by 19-year-old contest winner Kathleen Burke), to Richard Arlen’s shipwreck victim; and letting loose one of his monstrosities on Arlen’s girlfriend (Leila Hyams), after she arrives on the island looking for her lover.
Hidden behind Wally Westmore’s fantastic make-up is Bela Lugosi, who gives a brief, but touching performance as the Sayer of the Law. His distressed voice chanting ‘What is the law – are we not men!’ is unforgettable and has since become legend.
An atmosphere of lurking terror hangs heavy over the studio-bound jungle set (it would next be used for White Woman, and also served as the inspiration for the real-life surrealist garden of art collector Edward James in remote Mexico) – and that’s down to the luminous cinematography and Laughton’s studied performance. But it’s the powerful, shocking ending, in which the beast-men turn on their creator that truly earns the film the iconic status it so richly deserves.
Watching the Masters of Cinema’s brilliantly restored version, you will never see the 1977 remake – which many regard as the best version of Wells’ story – the same way again. Welcome to the House of Pain.
Island of Lost Souls is available in Dual Format (Blu-ray and DVD) from 28 May
The Masters of Cinema release includes restored HD digital transfer officially licensed from Universal Pictures, video interviews with Laughton biographer Simon Callow and film historian Jonathan Rigby, trailer, and very informative booklet.
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