by Paul Batters
‘Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?’ Dr Moreau
The early 1930s saw the beginnings of the classic horror cycle, spawned by the incredible success of Universal’s two big releases, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1932). Both films would put Universal on the map as the home of horror and other studios also sought to cash in on Universal’s success. Even M.G.M did with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Paramount faired a little better with the brilliant remake of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1932) and in the same year made another film that, like Freaks, would be banned in the U.K. Based on the story ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’, its’ author H.G Wells would also denounce the film. Despite Paramount’s huge advertising campaign, it was a commercial failure as well.
It would be forgotten until revived when interest in classic horror films grew during the 1960s, thanks to television re-runs and monster movie magazines like Famous Monsters Of Filmland.
As a result, The Island of Lost Souls (1932) has become a curiosity, as much as a deserved addition in the pantheon of the mad scientist genre.
So what makes it interesting?
The story itself has all the hallmarks of the horror film with the mad scientist at its’ core. On an isolated island, Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) is obsessed with turning different animals into humans, delving into the possibilities of speeding up the process of evolution. This is itself reflects the aberration that other mad scientists find themselves involved with. However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein who seeks to create life from dead human tissue, Moreau aims to transform already living animals into humans. However, the aberration does not end there, as he also aims to mate his ‘creations’. It is into this world that our heroes, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) are thrown, with Moreau’s intent to make them part of his experiments. At first, Moreau shows them his successes but also his ‘less successful experiments’ with a casual wave. Horrific enough – but there is more horror to come! Needless to say, the reviewer will attempt to avoid any further plot developments in order to spare the reader any spoilers. But of course no guarantees can be given.
Thematically, The Island Of Lost Souls does explore the classic features of the mad scientist. Dr Moreau is a man who has isolated himself from the world in his pursuits and forgone the methodology of his discipline. Like Victor Frankenstein, he sneers at the mainstream scientific world and seeks answers in the same sacrilegious way. But of course such isolation creates a greater disconnect from a moral centre which questions his actions, as well as the fundamental aspect of science – peer assessment and the challenging of theories. Moreau, as a result, becomes a man who sees himself beyond reproach and thus the danger has long set in for Moreau. His sense of himself as a ‘god’ mirrors what Frankenstein initially feels. At one point, Moreau literally plagiarises Frankenstein and states “Do you know what it feels like to be God?’ However, Frankenstein’s ‘God moment’ will not last, as he is repelled by his creation and regrets his mistakes. Moreau, however, is undeterred and like the true mad scientist, continues ‘working ‘, not merely intoxicated by his ‘Godliness’ but is completely immersed in it.
Like Frankenstein, Moreau does not wish to be at the mercy of nature. Indeed, his goal is to control it, again reflecting the perception of himself as God. His desire to mate his creations with the at-first unsuspecting heroes of the story, expands on this desire for control. Yet here runs a deeper thematic concern that Moreau is as much a prisoner of this as are his creations. His desire to be God will be his downfall, as is the lot of any mad scientist. Trapped on his own island, Moreau is also trapped by his obsession and unable to look beyond it. Strangely, the concept of reason, which is a fundamental principle of science, eludes him completely. Admittedly, Parker’s attempt to play wiser head to Moreau is not only poorly done but also futile as well as beyond the reach of Parker. Moreau has developed his own logic to suit his schemes and experiments – as any mad scientist who knows his or her business would do.
Moreau is not ‘mad’ in the deranged sense of the world, nor is he a sadist fulfilled by the infliction of pain. Indeed, he is indifferent to the pain, which he inflicts, especially when examining his creations. The scene where he is examining Lota the Panther woman is particularly horrific, not only because of the pain and disgust that it draws from the audience but more so due to Moreau’s complete disconnection from Lota’s pain and the clinical method in which he examines her. As Randy Rasmussen points out in “Children Of The Night’, Moreau is enraged at Lota’s bestial flesh regaining its’ dominance but rejoices at her tears, as they betray her humanity – the aim of his experiments.
But Moreau as God cannot only be sustained by his own self-image. It needs to be fed and endorsed by followers – hence the congregation being his own creations. Like any god, Moreau sets the laws to be lived by, partially so that he can control them but also because it feeds his god-like status and illustrated his control over nature. The laws are spoken as ritual by the creatures and they are further controlled by the fear of the House Of Pain, the place of punishment where the breakers of the law are sent. Moreau’s whip and gun are but extensions of his will, both of which represent law and order rather than any sadistic quality.
The greatest strength of the film is the characterisation of Dr Moreau by the irrepressible Charles Laughton. I would venture to say that his performance is beyond the film and one of the key features that lifts it out of mediocrity. The display of arrogance as an all-knowing scientist with a powerful God complex becomes apparent from the smallest gesture in the way he casually wields his whip to the use of his voice when he commands his creations. The goatee adds a satanic element, contrasting with his white suit, making for a stark appearance. But this is accentuated by the almost relaxed manner in which Laughton strides and the supreme confidence is more than apparent, particularly when he reveals his abhorrent experiments and mad scheme to Parker. Laughton dominates every scene, leaving his fellow cast members looking wooden and staid.
However, in fairness, there is another performance, which deserves mention. It easy to miss Bela Lugosi in his extremely hirsute role as the Sayer Of The Law. Under the layers of hair, Lugosi emanates the tortured soul of Moreau’s creation, repeating the mantra of his creator’s law, “Are we not men?” It is the question, which reflects one of the great questions regarding what makes us human – is it enough to have that consciousness? For Moreau’s experiments, this is the key aspect to what it means to be human. The very asking of the question suggests that human consciousness is present. The ending of the film will suggest even more, with quite the allegory about who makes laws to govern – God or humans?
Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman played a roll which was central to the marketing campaign for the film’s release. Beautiful and sensual, Burke is also effective in the role. Lota is the prize creation for the mad scientist and Burke successfully portrays the duality of the role.
In the end, Moreau will face the terrible and awful dilemma that seems to be the lot of the mad scientist. As tempting as it is, this reviewer will not give away that ending. Needless, to say the audience will recognize the irony for the mad scientist who becomes undone by his own devices. Despite the genius of the mad scientist, being doomed to failure seems to be his or her lot in the genre. Perhaps the mad scientist’s greatest sin is that he commits the greatest sacrilege not necessarily against God but against science itself and the laws of nature.
The Island Of Lost Souls feels like a journey into darkness – one that is disturbing and at times repellent, particularly in view of the cruelty of the key character. The greatest irony is that the mad scientist, believing they are bringing enlightenment into the world, has created that darkness. Instead of improving the world, the mad scientist has inflicted pain, trauma and death. Moreau is the very symbol of the mad scientist and that ultimately the very person that he has fooled most of all – is himself.
The Island Of Lost Souls is available through the Criterion Collection and is a must for not only fans of horror film but also those who are captivated by the mad dreams of the mad scientist.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.