Most classic horror movies — like, for instance, “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” — tend to look a little quaint these days. Don’t get me wrong; they’re still fascinating films, beautifully made and full of wonderfully spooky period details. But when it comes to actually scaring you, to really getting under your skin and staying there, that power has been bled out of them in the past several decades. That goes for most old movies — but not for “Island of Lost Souls.”
Most classic horror movies — like, for instance, “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” — tend to look a little quaint these days.
Don’t get me wrong; they’re still fascinating films, beautifully made and full of wonderfully spooky period details. But when it comes to actually scaring you, to really getting under your skin and staying there, that power has been bled out of them in the past several decades.
That goes for most old movies — but not for “Island of Lost Souls.”
Yes, it was released way back in 1932, meaning it’s only a year younger than “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” And yes, the plot is dated and the dialogue is corny and the characters look pretty one-dimensional to these modern, supposedly sophisticated eyes.
But “Island of Lost Souls” is not “quaint.” In fact, though the same story has been remade — in 1977 and 1996 — neither of those versions can come close to this one for sheer horror. It’s a creepy, disturbing, disquieting movie that constantly surprises you with how far it’s willing to go and in what unnerving directions it’s willing to travel.
The film starts as square-jawed hero Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is found floating in a lifeboat. Rescued by a cargo ship, he’s dropped off on an uncharted island along with a mysterious doctor (Arthur Hohl) and a cargo of exotic animals. Once ashore, he meets the scientist who runs the island, a cultured chap dressed in tropical whites named Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). And, eventually, he learns just why Dr. Moreau practices his “medicine” so far from civilization.
Moreau’s work, it turns out, involves taking animals and dragging them kicking and screaming — mostly screaming — up the evolutionary ladder. We’ve already met one of his “experiments” on the ship, a jittery fellow who, it turns out, was once Moreau’s dog. And the island is full of them, dozens of man-beasts civilized to various degrees, all veterans of Moreau’s operating room, which he charmingly calls “The House of Pain.”
The major scares in “Island of Lost Souls” revolve around the beast men, whether they’re reciting Moreau’s rules by torchlight — “What is the law?” “Not to walk on all fours. That is the law!” — or taking over The House of Pain in the film’s gruesome finale. (The shots of hairy hands grabbing surgical tools as Moreau screams off-camera still pack a wallop.) But there’s something more to the movie, a creepy undercurrent that could barely be hinted at back in 1932. Moreau’s most successful experiment, you see, is Lota (Kathleen Burke), a beautiful woman who, not long ago, was a panther. When Parker shows up, Moreau is intrigued by the concept of them mating. And when Parker’s blonde fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) arrives, he gets an even more intriguing idea — one involving Ruth and the biggest and hairiest of his beast-men.
So if “Island of Lost Souls” is so great, why haven’t you heard of it?
Mostly because it is so effective. It was released not long before the Production Code took effect in 1934, and once those standards were imposed, there was no place for “Island of Lost Souls” in any movie theater. What’s more, it was banned in Britain for decades, and even H.G. Wells, who wrote the original novel, hated the film and wished it had never been made. It had a second life in the 1960s and 1970s on late night TV monster shows, and its reputation grew in film books and cult movie magazines. But, aside from a handful of out-of-print tape and laserdisc releases, it’s been MIA for decades.
Thankfully, the fine folks at Criterion (criterion.com) have corrected that error. “Island of Lost Souls” arrives Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray. The deluxe edition features a nicely remastered print (I can’t believe an obscure 79-year-old film looks this good) and plenty of extras, including commentary tracks and interviews with movie experts, plus input from Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of Devo, whose band was (believe it or not) heavily influenced by “Island of Lost Souls.” It’s a great package, one almost worth waiting 79 years for.
But the real star here is the movie itself. I hadn’t seen it in years, but I eagerly popped that Blu-ray into my player this week. And I’m happy to report that it’s just as disturbing, disquieting and shudder-inducing as I remember it being.
And really, isn’t that what we want in a horror movie? Who needs “quaint”?
Will Pfeifer writes about DVDs and movies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/willpfeifer/