Island of Lost Souls

  • Reviewed by: Dr Adam Jahnke
  • Review Date: Oct 24, 2011
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Erle C. Kenton

Release Date(s)

1932 (October 25, 2011)

Studio(s)

Paramount (Criterion - Spine #586)

Review

There’s a dirty little secret that classic horror fans don’t like to talk about or even admit.  We try valiantly to keep the legacy of the Universal monsters and other classic horrors from yesteryear alive and well.  But the truth is that a lot of horror movies from the 1930s are a little creaky.

Don’t get me wrong.  Many of them are still great movies and extremely entertaining.  Lugosi and Karloff didn’t become iconic movie monsters by accident.  But only a handful still have the ability to genuinely scare audiences anymore.  Times change and what terrified people back then barely registers today. 

Still, there are a couple that can still legitimately creep you out.  One is Tod Browning’s one-of-a-kind 1932 classic Freaks.  Another is Erle C. Kenton’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Never before available on DVD, Criterion’s Island of Lost Souls is easily one of the most-anticipated discs of the year.

Charles Laughton has one of his best roles as the sadistic Dr. Moreau, tyrannically ruling his jungle lab with a whip, a sneer, and the constant threat of the House of Pain.  Richard Arlen delivers as the castaway Moreau wants to mate with his Panther Woman.  Arthur Hohl plays one of the most complex and interesting assistants in horror, a disgraced medical student who drinks in order to turn a blind eye to Moreau’s total lack of scientific ethics.  And then there’s Bela Lugosi, buried in fur as the Sayer of the Law, utterly tormented as he intones the classic line, “Are we not men?”

While other horror movies from the 30s have an air of gothic formality about them, Island of Lost Souls drips with a sweaty, sordid atmosphere that’s deeply unsettling.  Moreau’s man-beasts are still masterful examples of top-notch makeup design.  As creepy as the creatures are, it’s still Laughton’s haughty Moreau that gives the film so much menace.  He’s refined one moment and deranged the next, roughly examining an experiment still strapped down on the table, prodding into its mouth with his hands.  And while the movie doesn’t shy away from the grisly details, it wisely leaves some of the worst to your own imagination.

The mere fact that Island of Lost Souls is finally available is reason enough for celebration.  Criterion’s Blu-ray gives the movie the treatment it deserves.  The image has been restored as best it can and while the results are a little choppy, it’s certainly as good as can be expected. Print damage is minimal.  Some shots are a bit softer than you might wish them to be but all things considered, it’s a fine job.  The mono audio is typical for the period.  Criterion has polished it up but don’t expect a deep, rich soundscape.

The extra features are spectacular, starting off with an extremely informative and engaging commentary by film historian Gregory Mank.  John Landis, Rick Baker and Bob Burns provide a chatty, entertaining appreciation of the film.  An interview with David J. Skal focuses primarily on the H.G. Wells novel and Wells’ opinion of the movie.  Filmmaker Richard Stanley, the original director of the legendarily troubled 1996 version starring Marlon Brando, offers his perspective on the film and its source material.  The disc even provides an interview with Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, co-founders of Devo, discussing the influence of Island of Lost Souls on the band and the short film In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution.  The short includes the band performing “Jocko Homo”, the song that borrows Island’s famous question, “Are we not men?”  You also get a stills gallery, trailer, and a booklet with an essay by Christine Smallwood.

Island of Lost Souls has been a long time coming to disc and Criterion has made sure that it was worth the wait.  This is a fantastic Blu-ray edition of one of the most frightening films of the 30s.  If you have even the slightest interest in classic horror, you need to make this disc part of your collection. 

- Dr. Adam Jahnke

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