H.G.Wells’s The Island Of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896, remains one of the most truly nightmarish books I’ve ever read. The novel is told from the point of view of a most unfortunate gentleman who, after being rescued from a shipwreck, finds himself deposited on a remote outpost where an obsessed scientist is carrying out bizarre surgical experiments on imported animals, with the aim of converting them into humans. The trials seem to be successful, in that the various creatures learn to walk upright and even master rudimentary speech, but eventually nature reasserts itself, resulting in a highly dangerous and disturbing environment populated by tortured parodies of humanity who are struggling to contain their bestial impulses. The protagonist of the novel witnesses, and becomes involved in, various distorted rituals, ceremonies and debates before what passes for society on the island descends into chaos.
Given the luridness of its scenario and the potential for schlocky special effects sequences there have been surprisingly few attempts at adapting the book for the screen. There’s a 1977 film starring Michael York and Burt Lancaster which I haven’t seen, and a spectacular misfire from 1996 which connoisseurs of bad cinema should seek out just for the sight of Marlon Brando, no less, camping it up at a grand piano with the smallest man in the world while wearing an expansive white nightdress. The only other English language version I’m aware of is the 1932 Island Of Lost Souls, which has just been released on DVD in the prestigious Criterion Collection range. This one actually came out while Wells was still alive, and reportedly he didn’t care for it very much, but it sure beats the 1996 film by miles.
Island Of Lost Souls is actually a fairly loose version of Wells’s book, probably due to the perceived demands of the cinema audience of the time. It devotes a lot of its crisp 70 minute running time to establishing its characters (even giving the leading man a love interest), and has several scenes set in the outside, off-island, world, which have the effect of providing some relief and contrast from the claustrophobic nightmare that is Moreau’s domain. These changes could easily have diluted the power of the ideas presented in the novel – actually, however, the intrusion of reminders of normal society have the effect of heightening the weirdness of the basic scenario. Key to the success of the film is the casting of Charles Laughton as Moreau: he’s urbane, assured, unflappable, highly civilised on the surface, but in certain shots when he’s seen in half-shadow you can really believe that he’s a reckless and controlling obsessive who will stop at nothing to ensure the continuation of his project. It’s also a very shrewd decision by director Erle C. Kenton not to dwell on the many weird creatures in the film – not because they’re anything but excellently realised, as you can appreciate when you occasionally get to see one in close-up, but because the technique of having them scuttling around at the edges of the frame while the lead actors are having ostensibly rational exchanges of dialogue is highly effective and unsettling. The film is shot in a striking expressionist style, with the contrast between curtains of bright light and heavy shadows in which you can just about make out subtle movements more than making up for the complete absence of incidental music, a convention which at this early stage had yet to be adopted. There are some excellent cave and jungle sets, which come into their own towards the climax of the film, and it’s obvious that this film is an important pre-cursor to the following year’s King Kong (weird jungle beasties, ships ploughing towards isolated islands through lonely seas, unfettered nature bringing chaos to established orders). While Island Of Lost Souls is by no means as iconic or downright thrilling as Kong it certainly deserves far wider currency, and if you’re at all interested in early horror or creature films you should certainly seek it out.