I haven’t necessarily seen a lot of pre-Hays Code films. A few of the classic Universal horror films pre-dated the code, like Dracula. However, the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, is one that I’d been meaning to watch but I’d never gotten around to, until now.
The story of the film has Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) a shipwrecked man who is rescued by a freighter only to get punched out and dumped on the supply ship of Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton) – who is picking up supplies from that ship. Moreau sends, of his creations, the woman he considers to be his masterwork – the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke) to seduce Edward until she starts to revert. Meanwhile, the freighter has arrived in port, where Parker’s fiancee, Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams), awaits, having received a telegram Parker had sent from the initial ship. When Parker doesn’t disembark, she goes to the consulate and puts a rescue mission together.
This leads to Moreau telling Parker about his experiments, horrifying and fascinating him. Around this time Ruth and the skipper of a rescue ship arrives. This gives Moreau a plan B for his plan for one of his creations to conceive a child with a normal human – if the Panther Woman fails to get a child from Parker, then Moreau can get one of the beast-men to rape Ruth.
The rape is thwarted (this is a 1932 film, not a 1972 film), Ruth and Edward escape with the help of Moreau’s assistant, Mr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), while Moreau’s violation of the rules that he set for his beastmen causes his creations to turn on him.
H.G. Wells notoriously panned this film, considering it to be too much of a horror film. I can’t help but feel that I don’t think Wells didn’t quite get the visuals his work evokes – this film heavily interprets the best-men as proto-body horror, which I’d consider to be a legit interpretation. Even if Wells envisioned the beast-men as funny animals, it’s a concept that is still pretty creepy, something which is played up by Wells intent behind the work as an anti-vivisection text.
If I was going to fault the film, it would be about the rapey-exploitation elements of the film. Without those, Moreau is creepy and sinister, but with complicated elements, but with those elements, he becomes so exaggerated a villain as to lose all sympathy.
That said, the Beast-Men do have more of a sense of sympathy, and this is best exemplified by the great Bela Lugosi as the Keeper of the Law. Lugosi as Dracula had gravity & menace. However, Lugosi as the Keeper of the Law (and later as Dr. Vornoff in Bride of the Monster) evokes a tremendous sense of pathos – in particular his evocation to Moreau that “You made us things! Not beasts! Not men! Things!” which is delivered with such a tremendous sense of range and pain. It really makes it clear just how underrated Lugosi was an actor.
In short, Island of Lost Souls is an interesting and incredibly engaging adaptation of Wells story, and one that probably hasn’t been matched by later adaptations, and unless a modern director wants to dive hard into the body horror, it may not be matched in the future.