by Stephen Mullen
The Island of Lost Souls is another of those films that might be more horror and adventure yarn than science fiction, though it is certainly science fiction. The basic plot is SF – a mad scientist in his lair, short-cutting evolution with surgery and cellular manipulation, creating monsters to roam the world – though none of this is given a lot of weight. Dr. Moreau’s fictional science is treated as the given of the story, and they move on from there. But the film is also science fiction at a more significant level. The horror themes (monsters, body horror, the slippages of identity and so on) run alongside themes more associated with science fiction: man vs. nature; science’s attempts to control nature, with mixed results; the question of progress, whether progress is necessarily an improvement, whether it is reversible, and so on. These themes run all through the film, they are embedded in its style as much as its story; the story, the film, present a microcosm of dystopia, and a dystopia very much made by human attempts at science. Its science fiction is wrapped around its horror tropes and vice versa – working very well at both.
Criterion’s edition of the film contains an interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, taking about the film’s influence on their ideas and music, its relevance to 1970s Akron, and so on. What did they see in it? They talk about Ghoulardi (who showed it on late night television); they talk about Kent State (where they were students at the time of the shootings); they talk about de-evolution, about the film and its look (its masks, shadows, monsters) and its themes, and what it meant to them. They mention a strange fact – how this film set on a lost jungle island in the south seas looks like what’s outside their doors – 5 o’clock at the Goodyear plant, says Mothersbaugh. It’s true – the film has a strong dose of German expressionism in its veins, and the beast men emerging from one of Moreau’s stone doors and passing a wall where their shadows loom as they shuffle out of the shot, bent knees and backs, look like factory workers shuffling out after their shifts. The same image turns up in another 70s era rust belt song, Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness”: “Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form, nothing I see there isn’t deformed, maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau” – it’s less the images of deformity that catch you, than the beginning – go down to the corner – this is what it looks like, now, today, Cleveland in the 70s.
It’s that congruence between the film and Akron and Cleveland in the 70s – the rust belt, as it started to come completely apart (those Ohio cities getting a head start on what would later wreck Detroit and places like that – Cleveland was a byword for post-industrial doom in the 70s, with its burning rivers and whatnot) – that really marks the science fiction elements and importance of Island of Lost Souls. Look at what those bands took from it: the notion of de-evolution, the decay and despair of their cities in the 70s, the dehumanization of factory work, especially as it started to go wrong. The film is about Dr. Moreau’s efforts to mimic millions of years of evolution on the operating table, efforts that however successful, always come apart, as the “stubborn beast flesh” keeps coming back. But it’s also about that atavism as a universal problem – and Devo and Pere Ubu (particularly, and rather specifically) saw how that story applies to more than Moreau’s monsters, it applies to all of us, to civilization itself. This might be even more explicit in the book, which extends the ending quite some time – Moreau dies and the beast men (and the castaway, Prendick, ( as he’s called in the book)) carry on, the beasts reverting to form, Prendick going a bit native himself. Both the book and film are about decay and degeneration – de-evolution; they are about the dark places in the world, and they make it clear enough that the dark places are everywhere, not just remote jungles. (David Thomas picking up on the connections between Wells’ book and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, name dropping Moreau in a song named for Conrad’s novel.) Both bands take this as a departure point, and make the links explicit – the story of Island of Lost Souls is taking place here and now, they say. We are all beast men.
The same themes are strong enough in the film. Obviously, Moreau’s monsters revert to form when he doesn’t subject them to constant torture, but it isn’t just them that devolve. The same things happen in the outside world. Captain Davies, who rescues, then abandons Parker (the castaway’s name in the film), is hardly better than an animal himself – he is certainly less civilized than M’Ling. He’s a drunk and a bully, attacking weaker people, getting petty vengeance on Parker, then lying to Ruth, while trying to make a pass at her. But when he’s called before the consul, he bows and scrapes and squirms like the beast men in their village cowering before Moreau. He cringes before the Law as much as they do – and is even quicker to abandon its discipline when he can’t see the whip.
And within the story, on the island, the theme of nature swallowing man’s attempts to control it is ubiquitous. The jungle swallows Moreau’s compound – a big stone building being overgrown by monstrous plants. Everything is decaying – or, put another way, nature is thriving, and destroying human civilization. Though then again – it’s not just nature: it’s nature, warped by human intervention – it’s Moreau’s monstrous orchids and asparagus overgrowing his house. That’s an important point – the film doesn’t exactly show a battle between man and nature, nature overcoming man: it shows man (particularly man trying to master nature) and nature as completely tangled up with one another. The jungle (natural and unnatural) invades Moreau’s compound and the beast men come and go, in spite of Moreau’s security; and Moreau imposes his will on the beast men. He made them in the House of Pain – he forces the law on them, making them (in a sense) more ethical than actual men. (How many men refuse to eat meat? or shed blood?) He carries the law to the jungle, even as the jungle invades the house. And really – the house itself is a space that proves almost complete open to everything. Dr. Moreau does not have a secret lab in this film – the House of Pain is right there, down the hall from where Parker is supposed to stay, nothing stops him from running into it unbidden. Of course there is nothing hiding it – the screams from the House of Pain are audible everywhere on the island. And so it goes: the interior of the house is easily visible from outside; Ouran has no problem getting into the house; the beasts are able to chase Moreau into the house at the end – partly because the others left the doors open, so he could return if he needed to. But their attempts to give him an escape route gives the beasts an entry point. There are no real barriers here to anything.
The early thirties were a golden age for horror films – many of them drawn from literature, especially from the late Victorian period: Dracula, Wells’ books (this and the Invisible Man, notably), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s an interesting fact that those books, and the others being adapted about the same time, like Frankenstein, were themselves hybrids of horror and science fiction. Those genres weren’t quite defined as genres when the books were written (more like, they were the books that defined the genres) – but it’s a striking combination. Science fiction was grounds for horror in the late Victorian period: they went together easily. Even the one book that isn’t really science fiction at all, Dracula, is packed with science and technology. It has wireless and blood transfusions and telegrams and modern travel – but it also treats its supernatural material in an almost scientific way. Its heroes are doctors, who treat the strange events they see scientifically, taking careful notes, monitoring the health of their patients and so on. The chief hero, Van Helsing, is more scientist than mystic himself, for all his willingness to believe in the supernatural. He treats Dracula like he would a natural phenomenon – study him, find his strengths and weaknesses – assume, always, that there are discoverable rules behind what he can do – and in the end, defeat him with, well, science.
In its adaptations, Universal tended to lean closer to the horror side of things. There is a pretty strong thematic unity to their films, at least the high end ones – the James Whale films, films like The Mummy. Those films are very much about the connections between the monsters and us. They are full of sympathetic monsters – monsters as victims – a not very strongly disguised sense that we are getting the whole story backwards. (That’s where Frankenstein takes us – book and films; the creature is far more admirable than the creator, or most of the humans around them.) They are made in a way that rewards a kind of double perspective: the immediate thrill of the plot, the shocks, the horrors of the monster as something hideous and dangerous to be defeated – and the hidden (not always all that well hidden) sense of the monster as victim, monster as a projection of the heroes, or of us, or of some different kind of marginalized group. (Gay or foreign or artistic or disabled, or whatever it is.) This is extremely common in the Universal horror pictures.
Paramount’s entries aren’t quite the same. I suppose on the surface, they’re close enough – they’re really looking for all the sex and violence they can pack in, all the sensationalism and horror they can find. Which is there in spades. Beyond that, they are less consistent. (Thinking, here, mainly about the two great adaptations, this and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Jekyll and Hyde, of course, makes the divided allegiances of the Universal films explicit: the hero and villain are the same man. Duality is depicted directly – two sides of one character, rather than two ways of reading the characters. Island of Lost Souls is even more straightforward – Moreau is pure evil. Fascinating, strange, almost seductive evil, but still, unambiguous. And the monsters are monsters – though not quite so unambiguously evil. It’s clear who is to blame – they were all made, and made to be the way they were. This is clear enough in the film: Parker calls the panther girl “tragic” – Lugosi’s speeches are to the point. He is right: they are not men – not beasts – things! In this, it is a bit like Freaks – though the freaks are always the good guys (even when they get their vengeance). Here? well – Lota does nothing wrong, and is consistently wronged; M’Ling is loyal and decent; the Pig Man is always benign. And Lota and M’Ling go beyond this, beyond anything the humans do, both giving their lives for others.
What it comes to is that where Universal’s best horror films put most of the ambiguity and thematic weight on the characters, Island of Lost Souls puts most of the weight into the story, and the situation. And that, I suppose might be the aspect of the film that most clearly distinguishes it as science fiction. It creates a world, self-contained and detailed, that starts with our world, and changes it. What if this was different? my god – what if you could do this? It creates a world where these wonders are true – gives them at least a hand-waving natural explanation – and then works through the consequences. The world it creates is one that mirrors our own – bringing in real issues from the world (vivisection, say), genetic and surgical experimentation (Dr. Mengele graduated med school about the time this came out – fiction coming to reality in the not too distant future); it creates a microcosm of real world society – class conflict, colonialism, the relationships between labor and the rest of society, a parody of the Law, of religion, and so on; and it sets it in motion and plays it out. It’s a world, of course, that goes to ruin – it is hard to imagine science fiction in 1932 being anything except dystopian. If you were trying to show the tendency of the world at large in a film – it wasn’t likely to get better…. And they did it all so well – too well, apparently, as the film bombed in 1932, outraged censors everywhere, and was banned or butchered for decades to come. But still out there, on late night TV in Ohio, influencing a new generation of dystopian utopians… (Sons of Ghoulardi? a joke I can’t avoid – because the actual son of Ernie Anderson, Paul Thomas A, might well count as another son. Speaking of influence: how many of PT Anderson’s characters could be read as beast men, of a sort? But especially, Freddy Quell in The Master – who’s barely better than an animal when Lancaster Dodd gets him – is civilized – but then leaves, and starts to return to his original form…. why not?)
And so. I haven’t said a lot about the film here, beyond alluding to its virtues. It has Charles Laughton almost supernaturally good; a fine supporting cast; it features gorgeous German style photography; the sets are fantastic – great looking, and thematically rich (shadows and dark doorways and windows, bars on the windows, giant tree limbs reaching into the house, vines twisting into the house, blending inside and outside); the direction, by the mostly anonymous Erle C. Kenton is worthy of it all – many cleverly composed and directed scenes, and the fine acting, and tight editing. A very great film, indeed.