The early 1930s is thought of as the golden age of horror films, and for good reason. This was the era that gave us Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, M, Freaks, Vampyr, and King Kong. And now thanks to the Criterion Collection, Island of Lost Souls officially makes its way to DVD and Blu Ray for the very first time.
A highly controversial film for its time – it was banned in Britain for decades – Island of Lost Soulshas still retained its power to horrify. The story is better known by the H. G. Wells novel the film is adapted from: The Island of Dr. Moreau. Shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a boat delivering animals to a mysterious island. After clashing with the captain (Stanley Fields), he is stranded on the island after they dock. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), who he earlier met as a passenger on the ship, guides him to his employer and owner of the island, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton).
Already things seem peculiar to Parker, such as the strange looking natives. These, it is soon revealed, are not natives at all, but beast men. Kept in line by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) – the law being the code in place for them to abide by — they are the creations of the doctor through experimentations with animals. And Dr. Moreau has use for Parker with regards to his female specimen, Lota the Pather Woman (Kathleen Burke).
The novel was made into film twice more, in 1977 with Burt Lancaster and, most infamously, in 1996 with Marlon Brando (winning a Razzie for his performance). ButIsland of Lost Souls is certainly the best of them.
Everything about this tale to get right is achieved. Dread certainly pervades, but the deeper themes – concerning the dangers of scientific ambition, what it means to be human, playing God, etc. – are there as well. The cast is extraordinary; Laughton and Lugosi followers will be very pleased and Arlen is quite strong in his part. And the makeup, while surely eclipsed by today’s standards, still holds up well enough and creates some very believable beast men.
The extras consist of an audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank; a 20 minute conversation concerning the film between director John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker, and horror expert Bob Burns; an interview with horror film historian David J. Skal; an interview with director Richard Stanley, who was originally the director of the 1996 film but was fired early into production (and yes, he addresses the story about him returning to set disguised in costume as an extra to observe); interviews with Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of the band Devo on the inspiration they took from the film; Devo’s 10 minute short In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution; a still gallery; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet featuring an essay by Christine Smallwood.
Fans of horror, science fiction, and classic films would do themselves a great favor in checking out Island of Lost Souls. It is one of the standouts of the golden age and still a very effective display of terror and thought. It’s because of stories like this that make Wells’ legacy as a literary icon much well-deserved.