Charles C. Kenton’s early sound adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island Of Dr. Moreau’ was released on Blu-ray earlier this week. Produced in the wake of the success of the first Universal monster movies, The Island Of Lost Souls was Paramount’s attempts at riding on the coattails of Dracula & co., even going as far as to cast the Count himself, Bela Lugosi in a keen bit of early stunt casting (legend claims he was drafted in at the last minute, when production had actually finished).
The film itself is an interesting beast (pun most definitely intended), with the tale of an everyman brought to a mysterious island, on which resides a mad doctor that is experimenting with matters of evolution now the staple of science fiction lore. Darwinism and playing God are at the fore, with Charles Laughton’s somewhat understated (for the actor at least) sitting firm at the centre. Richard Arlen, of Wellman’s Wings fame is the closest thing the film has to a hero, although even that is rather truncated for the genre that Paramount is somewhat unsuccessfully attempting to emulate. That isn’t to say that The Island Of Lost Souls is a poor horror film; it isn’t, it’s certainly creepy and unsettling, but the structure of the work leaves it a little confused for the most part. It’s only a brief film and Kenton seems to be trying to fit too many different things in to it.
Karl Struss, the academy-award winning cinematographer of Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans lensed The Island Of Lost Souls, and its in this area where the film is most successfully relayed. While any flair to the work was almost certainly hampered by the limitations of shooting for sound, from an aesthetic perspective the film is suitably unnerving, while the early shore scenes have a bustling, old fashioned Hollywood-set feel to them. Elsewhere there are many scenes shot to camera, with stares in to audience commonplace and adding further to the eerie feel of the work. A final revolt is personified by a number of rushes to the camera, making the films closing demand that a specific character “don’t look back” making for a surprisingly effective and inverted play on the themes and visual pattern of the film in a way.
In a similar fashion the subtext of the film can be read as a commentary on the burgeoning Hollywood culture of the time: its rather amusing that many of the acts being committed by Dr. Moreau (plastic surgery et al) are the sort of things celebrated by modern Hollywood culture .