Even among the most fanatical enthusiasts of the horror genre, many of the greats fall through the cracks and rarely see the light of day. This happens, of course, most often with the early movies when film was still in its infancy. Unless we're speaking of Universal's famous monster films, a great majority of wonderful motion pictures from the silent and pre-Hays Code Hollywood era are largely ignored by contemporary audiences, but among the more devoted aficionados of the genre — those deeply entrenched with its history and with a fascination to its origins — these films are highly admired and influential classics. 'Island of Lost Souls' is one such beloved horror gem which is all but forgotten with modern moviegoers.
From director Erle C. Kenton, who later went on to director 'House of Dracula,' 'House of Frankenstein' and 'The Ghost of Frankenstein,' the film is often remembered as the first adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau. Written for the screen by Waldemar Young and respected science-fiction writer Philip Wylie, it is also arguably the creepiest version made as it follows shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arten) wondering about an island with the strangest-looking inhabitants. Part of the movie's fascination is the result of legendary make-up artist Wally Westmore ('Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)') and Charles Gemora, who did a phenomenal job making the cast disturbingly animalistic, particularly Bela Lugosi as Sayer of the Law.
Continuing the film's allure is the stunning cinematography of Academy Award winner Karl Struss ('Sunrise,' 'The Great Dictator,' 'The Fly'). The entire production itself is extraordinarily well-made and simply beautiful thanks to the design work of Hans Dreier. Struss engulfs the set and each room of Moreau's house with deep, ominous shadows, setting an otherworldly tone where anything can jump out at you from behind the darkness. Kenton makes wonderful use of Struss' lighting, not only in establishing a forbidding atmosphere but also for character placement and development. While others are always surrounded by light, Moreau is constantly seen moving in and out of the shadows, often completely consumed by them and barely visible.
The point is very clear. The scientist may see himself as a brilliant individual with complete control of the physical world, even developing a god complex, but his genius is limited by his madness, a man who has succumbed to his own sinister, corrupt motives. It's here that the presence of Charles Laughton, the ill-fated director of the marvelous 'The Night of the Hunter,' as Moreau is so essential and absolutely crucial. He does not disappoint. This is his show and he's utterly spectacular, delivering one of his most disturbing performances. He gives the character a very warped but oddly genial sensibility, incredibly confident of his actions and never seeming worried until the last minute when he realizes he's lost control of his creation — meaning, he knows he longer has power.
'Island of Lost Souls' is a magnificently crafted and darkly stylish motion picture oozing with a mysterious ambience and haunting imagery. Two of the best memorable scenes feature Laughton's Moreau at his most perverse and at his weakest. When he explains to Parker what he's done to the seductive Lota (Kathleen Burke), he looks directly at the camera as if talking proudly to the audience of his sick actions. Towards the end as he's captured by his creations, his panic and frantic desire to live is very real, and the frame is from afar as oppose to close and personal like earlier. Kenton may not be a name that has grown into a Hollywood legend, but this beautiful 1933 horror gem nicely demonstrates his talent and ingenuity behind the camera and lives as a beloved classic of the genre.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Island of Lost Souls' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #586) as a Region A-locked, BD50 disc housed in their standard clear keepcase. Inside is also a 12-page booklet with a couple production stills an essay by Christine Smallwood entitled "The Beast Flesh Creeping Back." There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According the booklet accompanying the Blu-ray disc, Criterion struck a new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode from a variety of available sources. The original camera negatives no longer exist, so the company put together a fresh master from three separate prints, each with their own inherent damage. One was a 35mm fine-grain master positive while the other was a 35mm nitrate positive borrowed from the UCLA Film & Television Archives. The last was a 16mm screening print from a private collection, used to repair some of the damage and missing frames found in the first two. In the end, their efforts seem to have paid off because 'Island of Lost Souls' looks beautiful on Blu-ray and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Going on nearly 80 years for a movie mostly forgotten by the general audience, the classic sci-fi horror film is definitely showing its age but holds up rather well. Definition and resolution are stable and consistent, allowing viewers to really admire the amazing make-up work of legendary Wally Westmore and the beautiful art design of Hans Dreier. Individual hairs, foliage and lines on the architecture of Dr. Moreau's house are very nicely detailed and fairly sharp considering the film's bad state of repair. The image comes with a hazy, dreamlike appearance, but background info maintains excellent visibility, even in the many darker portions of the picture. Viewers can appreciate the stunning photography of Karl Struss, a striking display of light and gloomy shadows which add to the movie's creepy atmosphere. Contrast is spot-on with clean, crisp whites throughout, and blacks are inky rich and intense, making the entire presentation highly attractive.
Much like the video, there is really only so much that can be done with the audio. The booklet explains that the uncompressed PCM mono track was made from a combination of the 16mm print and the 35mm from the UCLA archives. For the most part, and considering the restoration efforts made, the high-rez track is quite stable and uniform with excellent, intelligible dialogue reproduction. Particularly in Charles Laughton's performance where his holier-than-thou delivery is an important aspect of the character, listeners can clearly make out that egotistical, self-satisfied tone in his voice. Although restricted to only one channel, the lossless mix carries a welcomed sense of space and presence with strong acoustical detail.
The only complaint worth mentioning is a mid-range that often feels limited and a bit restrained, where the higher frequencies come off too sharp and slightly distort with excessive noise. But, of course, this is the natural result of the process used for preserving an otherwise wonderful soundtrack and is an inherent issue to the original recording. Overlooking that minor issue, the presentation is marvelous and one which fans will greatly enjoy.
Criterion brings a nice collection of supplements, specially designed just for his release.
A mostly forgotten horror gem , which is quite unfortunate, 'Island of Lost Souls' remains just as effective and creepy as ever, featuring one of the best performances of the great Charles Laughton. This 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells's sci-fi novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, is marvelous classic of filmmaking technique, displaying an expressive use of light and shadow while the camera skillfully establishes an air of foreboding. It's a beautifully crafted motion picture devoted horror aficionados can appreciate. Criterion brings the wonderful film to Blu-ray with the best possible video and audio presentation, given the damage and quality of the source elements. The bonus collection is also amusing and informative, providing fans and newcomers alike an opportunity to rediscover a much-admired horror classic.