In Brief: Criterion Collection’s “Island of Lost Souls” DVD

Image courtesy of Criterion Collection
What is the Law? Law No More!

There are a couple of ways I watch Erle Kenton’s 1932 Island of Lost Souls film classic. One, which is the most successful, is as a snapshot of the evolution and state of expressionist cinema just five years after the first talkie.

The other is with an eye on its treatment of the source material, H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Unfortunately in this respect, the film misses the mark. Instead of vivisection being the painful centerpiece, this Dr. Moreau is a genetics specialist – though the scalpel certainly still plays a painful role.

Overshadowing even Bela Lugosi, though, is Charles Laughton’s great portrayal of Dr. Moreau – a character motivated as much by the ‘question he was pursuing’ as Wells’s own Dr. Moreau. Laughton’s immaculate costume and general delivery makes him exceedingly creepy.

Image courtesy of Criterion Collection
Unfortunately, the screenplay feels rushed and the acting overly dramatic, probably due to the film’s proximity to the silent era.

Some of these same criticisms may be leveled at Wells’ own effort, Things to Come, produced just four years later in 1936. But where Things to Come suffered from excessive preachiness, courtesy of H.G. Wells himself, the continuity of Island of Lost Souls ultimately suffers from a lack of original context.

Still, considering Wells once described the original novel as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” this film managed to live up to that idea in some ways. Initially banned in 12 countries, including England, its appearance elsewhere during the Great Depression was likely to have been an edited one.
Image courtesy of Criterion Collection
Released in 2011, the DVD’s new digital restoration clocks in at 70 minutes, with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The booklet features an excellent essay by Christine Smallwood, audio commentary with film historian Gregory Monk, and a conversation about the film between filmmaker John Landis (Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983), Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 1977), and genre expert Bob Burns.

Perhaps most interesting, however, are the interview segments with horror film historian David J. Skal, and particularly with filmmaker Richard Stanley, prime mover and the original director for the ill-fated 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, Ron Pearlman and David Thewes, a film that is generally regarded as one of the very worst in cinema history.

Image courtesy of Criterion Collection
Just months before acquiring my copy of Island of Lost Souls from my friends at Criterion, Netflix featured a 2014 documentary, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. It was clear from this documentary that Stanley, despite harboring a deep love for Wells’s original story, was also going to make a thoroughly modernized and terribly kitschy film.

I had not been aware of the chain of bad executive decisions at New Line Cinema, the war of egos between actors and directors alike, endless production delays, and final degeneration of the entire production into utter chaos and depravity. I think it makes the movie watchable today – provided you keep in mind the reality of the production’s chaos. And of course you have to forgive Marlon Brando wearing an ice bucket on his head. Lord. 

Beyond this, the DVD features also examine the film’s general influence on other films and greater pop culture through the intervening decades, culminating in an interview with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, where he outlines the impact of the film on his famous New Wave rock band. Going further, the DVD even includes a short 1976 film by Devo, featuring the songs “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo.”

Are we not men? Indeed.