My 35-year wait to see ‘Island of Lost Souls’ comes to an end — the TCM Film Festival in review
It was just a 79-page paperback with some basic facts about classic horror movies, largely focusing on the Universal cycle, but including many others, as well, including “Island of Lost Souls” (1932, Paramount). I was fascinated by the description of the film and the stills of Charles Laughton as the evil genius Dr. Moreau and Bela Lugosi as the Sayer Of The Law. I knew I had to see it.
For some reason, however, I could never catch “Lost Souls” on television. A couple of times I was channel surfing and came across it somewhere in the middle, and turned away immediately as I wanted to see it from the beginning. Later, horror movies became one of my lesser interests, as war films, other types of dramas and comedies moved to the forefront.
I did put the Criterion DVD release on my Amazon wish list last year, but hadn’t pulled the trigger on it. When I saw it would be screened at the TCM Film Festival, I penciled it in, figuring I would see it unless I was too exhausted for a midnight show on Day 3.
As it turned out, I took the only “break” I had during the festival that Saturday evening to have dinner with one of my best friends, a former co-worker, and was still fresh for the “Lost Souls” screening at the Chinese Multiplex.
There was a bigger crowd than I’d expected, a fun group that still had plenty of adrenaline after a long day.
DeChirico also singled out character actor Stanley Fields for praise. She said she admired his portrayal of a character with no redeeming features, who takes pleasure in getting drunk, punching shipwreck victim and hero Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and tossing him overboard onto Moreau’s ship instead of taking him to a safe port, in a flagrant violation of maritime law.
Laughton was as good as advertised so long ago in “Movie Monsters,” I was happy to see. The performance seemed properly modulated; there were moments of bluster when the script and the emotional demands of a scene called for them, but when Moreau is laying out the intellectual framework for his experiments, and the results, Laughton displays the detachment of a scientist — one whose humanity has been warped, yes, but a scientist.
**** SPOILER ALERT ****
Also solid, in the supporting role of Montgomery, the disgraced doctor who helps Moreau carry out his experiments, was Arthur Hohl. When Montgomery finally turns on Moreau to help Parker and his fiancée (Leila Hyams) make their final escape from the island, it is believable because Hohl has conveyed enough of the character’s inner doubts and remorse from early on.
Arlen does what he can with Parker. He is competent, coming alive most notably when he angrily discovers that Moreau has created The Panther Woman, Lota (Kathleen Burke), who is fully equipped to arouse Parker’s sexual interest, but finally betrayed by her beast-like claws.
I was vaguely irritated by Lugosi, who pounds out a one-note performance as The Sayer Of The Law. I don’t know that I should have expected more; after all, the character isn’t exactly subtle. Still, I could feel myself frowning when he says one of the tenets of Moreau’s law (and, in the end, “There is no law.”).
I liked “Island Of Lost Souls.” It was a great way to end Day 3 and start Day 4. Its message that nature is nothing to trifle with remains relevant, and the Laughton performance alone makes it worth revisiting. And I now have more reason to see the extras on that Criterion disc.
— David B. Wilkerson