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Island of Lost Souls (Blu-ray Review)

31 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams.

If it’s good enough for Devo, it ought to be good enough for you. And that also goes for the 17 countries (e.g. Great Britain, Germany and a less consequential chime-in by Latvia) who originally banned it, the first claiming it to be “against nature.”

Well, yes. Souls is a 1932 screen adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells (who hated it, too, primarily for the cinematic sensationalism laid upon what had been written as a sincere anti-vivisection tract). The filmmakers who did notably lesser later versions — the 1977 one with Burt Lancaster and Michael York; also John Frankenheimer’s 1996 disaster with Val Kilmer and a nearly 400-pound Marlon Brando — were so dismissive they thought it would be easy to top. Well, guess which stab at the story endures?

Filmed partly on Catalina Island very close to where drowned Natalie Wood’s body was much later discovered, the decidedly pre-Code Souls was conceived in that great expressionistic early ‘30s Paramount style, complete with unforgettable photography from Karl Struss, who had just done the Fredric March Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde for the same studio. A product of that same great early Charles Laughton period that also gave us The Sign of the Cross, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Mutiny on the Bounty, Les Miserables, Ruggles of Red Gap and Rembrandt, it casts the portly actor as a mad doc with such a God complex that he tries to mingle animals and humans. Plunked into this milieu (if that’s the word) is stalwart hunk Richard Arlen — who, after a squabble following his boat rescue, is tossed onto another vessel, headed for the island. Eventually, Laughton’s Moreau hopes that Arlen’s character will mate with a so-called panther woman he has concocted — she played by Kathleen Burke (aka Kathleen “Panther Woman” Burke). I swear Burke looks like a much thinner Joan Cusack in a dark wig, at least to my eyes.

Arlen is already betrothed to a fiancée played by Leila Hyams (who managed to make this movie and Freaks in the same short career), but in a double weak moment, actually kisses femme panther in one scene. Immediately, he recoils because he senses something very strange about the latter (though otherwise, she’s a sympathetic character). This is just one of many components that outraged censors in U.S. cities, states and, as previously mentioned, entire countries — who, if they didn’t ban the picture outright, cut many individual scenes. Even when it was finally was allowed to open in Great Britain in 1958, some passages still weren’t allowed. A classic of makeup, the movie also features Bela Lugosi in a small but significant role — one he took post-Dracula for next to no money because he was bankrupt at the time.

The last is the kind of nugget that simply abounds in the bonus extras produced by Criterion’s Susan Arosteguy. It seems as if the company’s most cutting-edge releases fall to her (a cult producer for cult movies), and if Criterion ever chooses to bring out, say, My Friend Flicka, one assumes that some other in-house ringmaster will get the nod. In this case, she has managed to land Gerald Casale and Mike Mothersbaugh of Devo, who made Souls’ “Are We Not Men?” catchphrase their own in the 1970s. (So did my younger son about 20 years ago when he was three or four and Souls came out as part of a laserdisc two-fer; he kept walking around the house going, “Are We Not Men?”) And speaking of borrowing material, Moreau’s “House of Pain” (where the experiments take place) much later became the term used throughout for years by USA Today staffers to describe what it was like working in the “Money” section under one notably unloved editor.

Additional bonuses include a neat Christine Smallwood essay; a punchy/funny commentary by historian Gregory Mank; reliable horror expert David K. Skal for a backgrounding primer; filmmaker Richard Stanley, who was fired after beginning what became the Frankenheimer version (his take was very different); and a rousing bull session with director John Landis, makeup superstar Rick Baker, and know-it-all (in the best sense) Bob Burns. Characteristically enthusiastic, Landis is rather taken that the direction by Erle C. Kenton is so good (which it is), given that Kenton hasn’t much of a reputation. This was certainly his career peak, but he did do some decently middling horror at Universal — plus, in a switch, a couple of the better Abbott and Costello pics as well as You’re Telling Me! with W.C. Fields, which used to be one of my pets, though I haven’t seen it in an age.

And by the way, Wells hated James Whale’s classic version of The Invisible Man, too, which merely made a star of Casablanca’s Claude Rains.

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