Dr. Moreau: What is the law? Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men? Beasts: Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law? Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men? Beasts: Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law? Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men? Beasts: Are we not men?
When Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) cracks his whip, asks his question and we hear the answers mumbled and shouted from those gathered below him, the obvious answer from us is “Hey, wait a minute.” Moreau on his tiny island in the Pacific seems to have a tribe of hairy, hunched males obeying him. Then we notice how they’re standing and how they look…some with eyes peering out from under bony brows, noses misshaped, dumb stares or suspicious looks, feral teeth, bulky shoulders, long arms, a foot with a hoof…and lots and lots of fur. The Sayer of the Law is unrecognizable as Bela Lugosi. His face is covered with long hair as he struggles to state the litany.
If you’ve never seen Island of Lost Souls, in glorious black and white from 1932 and based on H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, you are in for a treat. If you’ve seen only the later versions of the story (1977 with Burt Lancaster as Moreau and 1996 with Marlon Brando as Moreau), you are in for a revelation. The Island of Lost Souls is a first class movie and Laughton is a memorable Moreau.
The story line could be campy. Here it’s not. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) through no fault of his own winds up on a jungle island. Dr. Moreau and Moreau’s younger assistant, a man named Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), take him to Moreau’s house. On the way he sees Moreau’s crewmen and workers, strange men who seem…odd. Walking through the jungle he sees glimpses of creatures that might be large animals or might be men. Eventually he learns that Dr. Moreau, who was forced to leave London because of certain experiments, is dedicated to taking animals and turning them into men. No ray tubes, pulsing lights and such for him. Moreau goes about it the old-fashioned way. Using scalpels without anesthesia, Dr. Moreau, assisted by Montgomery, cuts out those parts of animals that are animal, leaving those parts that can become human. He performs these series of operations in his laboratory, which he calls the House of Pain.
Moreau’s greatest success to date is to turn a female panther, after a lot of cutting, into Lota (Kathleen Burke), the panther woman. Lota, with large dark eyes that look a bit crazed, resembles Dorothy Lamour with claws. Lota is the only woman on the island. Parker is the only man who has ever been kind to her. When they kiss, Moreau is ecstatic. The scientific possibilities of Parker and Lota getting in on stimulate Moreau in more ways than one. This was before the curtain of prudery fell over Hollywood in the mid-Thirties. Laughton practically glows at the possibilities to watch and then experiment. He also practically glows in the evening because he always wears an immaculate while tropical suit.
But then Parker, revolted by Moreau's experiments and queasy after kissing Lota before he learned she was an experiment, too, insists on leaving and exposing Moreau. Moreau takes steps to stop this. Rebellion explodes. Good people live and bad people die. And what about Moreau’s experiments? They’re neither good nor bad. They’re not human and not animal. And they have learned that The Law can be broken. See the movie. It’s well worth it.
The acting is very good by any number of the cast. Laughton makes Moreau a dominating figure of suspicions, casual cruelty, twinkling good humor tinged with the instincts of a voyeur. He puts Lancaster and Brando to shame. Did Laughton ever telephone in a performance?
The photography is full of forbidding shadows, a dark cave, threatening night, and unnerving set pieces. Laughton cracking a whip to control the animal-men, with torches casting flickering shadows, doesn’t turn into comedy. When Lota leaps from a tree limb onto a gorilla-man she looks like a woman but we see the deadly grace of a panther.
The Criterion release looks very good. There is a commentary track and a few extras which I didn’t view but which quite likely are up to Criterion standards.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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