Island of Lost Souls (1932)

William Everson’s 1974 book on horror movies calls this a “misfire” lacking in mood. He is wrong about this, as he is about a number of things in that book; if Island of Lost Souls has anything, it has mood to spare (thanks to the tremendous cinematography). And sex. As the DVD commentary notes, Paramount were looking for a follow-up to their Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde with more sex and violence, and the film they ended up with delivered unquestionably. Of course, it’s the perversity of the sex in this film that’s so stunning. In the film, Dr Moreau’s experiments are based on the concept that all life is “tending towards the human form”, so he’s given an assortment of animal life an evolutionary helping hand, the most successful of his experiments being Lota the panther woman (who apparently has no counterpart in Wells’ book). So when Moreau finds himself lumbered with a shipwrecked traveller, well, what better opportunity to test whether his animal-turned-woman can be mated with an actual man. Not that we see anything of the sort, of course, but it’s still astounding that the very idea (let’s face it, we’re technically talking about bestiality here) made it past the Hays Office, even considering how little actual power the Office had in 1932 (and Paramount refused to make the one cut Jason Joy demanded). Needless to say, censors around the world did their damnedest to keep it off their screens—one of many points the film has in common with its equally maudit contemporary Freaks—but thanks to Criterion it’s back in about as good a form as can probably be had now… Charles Laughton is tremendous as Moreau (only his third film) and out-acts everyone else in the film, but the make-up effects for the men/beasts also merit much praise—when you do get to see them properly you realise just how good they are—and, on another level, you could argue the film’s atmosphere of frankly wrong sex is its real star…

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