The mad-scientist film is rooted, like most horror films in general, in sexual frustration and obsession. These films are usually about very odd substitutions for lack of sexual control. The usually brilliant, once-noble scientists are often stricken with a god complex that compels them to search for a means of creating their own life, but this life they seek to create almost always has queasy kinky sexual connotations. Colin Clive’s Frankenstein was a hysterical nerd far more concerned with his lab and his corpses than his fiancée; Peter Lorre’s Doctor Gogol had unusual notions of courting that cost a few people their lives; and even smoother doctors who could be said to possess urbanity, such as Claude Rains’s Invisible Man, are still basically asexual. Sexually clueless or indifferent, these men pursue creation as a substitute to always destructive ends.
You grow to strangely empathize with many of these characters because they’re distorted symbols of everyday feelings of isolation and sexual inadequacy, a projection eased by the suggestion that most of these men are accidental villains whose experiments are rooted in a rationale that has a whiff of idealism. Island of Lost Souls, a Pre-Code wonder, is one of the most disconcertingly brutal of the 1930s horror films because the aim of its mad scientist is unforgivably warped, cruel, and lacking in any pretense of potentially constructive value. Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton) has secluded himself on a remote island so that he may brutally vivisect (a word taboo to films at the time) various large jungle animals for the purposes of turning them into humans. Even if this ridiculous aim were to somehow be entirely realized, and a panther were to somehow be rendered into an entirely functional babe who can absolutely sport the hell out of a rather fetching two piece, what precisely is the point? Humankind already has a perfectly humane way of creating other humans; it’s called sex, and a lot of people seem to really enjoy it.
The film’s metaphor, a variation of the H.G. Wells’s source material, is startlingly obvious: Moreau’s experiments are meant to illustrate man’s blinding egotistical urge to recreate the world he barely grasps to fit a more palpable version of his own image, and the film often lands this point with a blunt force that’s more modern than even many of the other good horror films of the time. But it’s the sexuality that resides uncomfortably with the sometimes (implicatively) Sadean violence that allows Island of Lost Souls to become so unforgettably disturbing. The island itself, a simultaneously convincing and dreamily artificial mixture of sets and real locations, is the embodiment of an insane man’s psyche. The film is, as Christine Smallwood says in the Criterion DVD’s liner notes, just plain icky.
Charles Laughton, that wonderful ham, tunes into the material beautifully. Laughton’s Moreau is, as some of the DVD’s supplemental materials term him, a distinct sexual other who clearly gets off on the idea of mating his Panther Woman (the limited but appropriately otherworldly Kathleen Burke) with Edwin (Richard Arlen), the hunk recently stranded on his island. Laughton is actually more restrained here than you might expect given this match of actor and material, as his malevolence and bizarrely contemptuous courtliness are chillingly understated. And his line readings are often delicious, particularly his pronunciation of “Lota,” which is scarier and funnier than many horror films in their entirety.
Moreau’s evil is deeper than that of many movie mad scientists, but Laughton still commands a certain audience identification that accentuates the film’s sustained unease. This is, once again, inescapably due to the fact that we can’t help but root for an underdog, and Moreau, the disgusting center of the film, is still a chubby, fey little man among a cast of (excluding the monstrous titular inhabitants) largely conventional, attractive people who appear to possess little ambition beyond remaining conventional and attractive. Arlen isn’t very good, he’s dull in the Dudley Do-Right manner of so many 1930s thriller he-men, but that works in the film’s favor. Moreau disgusts while still playing to the wounded nerd that probably resides in the hearts of most cinephiles or any other obsessive who finds that their hobby somewhat estranges them from society. Island of Lost Souls is ultimately one of the strangest American movies about a closeted man’s demons literally tearing him apart.
The image quality has the problems you'd expect from an 80-year-old film. There's some haloing, the contrast between the blacks and whites is sometimes blurry, and the graininess occasionally impedes one's ability to entirely make out details. Still, this is the best this film has ever looked to these eyes, as many details that were lost on VHS, such as of some of the island foliage and certain telling, creepy visual textures of Moreau's house and lab, have been restored without blandly cleaning the picture up too much. The image is flawed, and that's true to the picture both in terms of its atmospherics as well as its place as an artifact of the time in which it was made. The monoaural sound doesn't offer one an immersive bombastic experience, but it's still well-layered, particularly in the wilderness island scenes. The sound mix's emphasis, like the image transfer, is on preserving the original picture while offering a presentation that's aesthetically and thematically gratifying. That balance is achieved here.
Film historian Gregory Mank's audio commentary is clearly scripted, which makes for a lack of spontaneity, but that also allows him to provide information with little of the self-conscious dawdling that characterizes lesser commentaries. Manks shares facts and trivia throughout that fans should enjoy, such as tidbits about the revolving door of screenwriters, stunts, on-location shooting challenges, as well as the studio publicity stunt of a National Search for the Panther Woman. The commentary is affectionate, entertaining if unavoidably impersonal, and clearly geared toward the erudite fanboy. Though the commentary doesn't offer much in the way of social context, the great interview with David J. Skal covers that in a succinct not-quite-15 minutes. Skal discusses the influence of Darwinism—an understandable preoccupation of fantasy fiction in the late 1800s—on H.G. Wells's original novel, as well as lesser-known inspirations such as the trial of Oscar Wilde. (Skal even slyly suggests that Laughton, too closeted to take on Wilde in a direct biography, is really channeling him in his performance as Moreau.) The film's controversies in various countries are covered, as well as the snippets that had to be removed so that the film may actually make it to theaters (Manks also touches on this). The influence of the competing horror films of the time, particularly Freaks, is also mentioned.
The conversation with John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns is less informative, but it's always a pleasure, particularly in the case of Landis, to hear these men of horror talk of the films that clearly inspire them; their love is infectious. The same can be said of Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who discuss how the film resonated so strongly with two self-proclaimed nerds who likened their hometown to the film's House of Pain. The duo's amateurish but occasionally quite creepy short film, In the Beginning Was the End, featuring the songs "Secret Agent Man" and "Jocko Homo," is included after their interview. The segment with filmmaker Richard Stanley, who was fired as the original director of the embarrassing John Frankenheimer/Marlon Brando update, offers an unusually bitter pill for a DVD supplement. Stanley describes his initial role in that calamity, as well as his original ambition to make a film that's an actual adaptation of the Wells novel (as other extras here establish, Island of Lost Souls isn't especially faithful).
There's also a stills gallery, the trailer, and the aforementioned essay by Christine Smallwood. This is an all around terrific collection of extras that provides a rounded, informative, and varied collection of perspectives on a film that should be seen by more people.
A particularly kinky exploration of a closeted genius's torment is given a characteristically sterling treatment by the Criterion Collection.