Sunday, October 30, 2011

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS IS HERE! One of the most long-awaited and eagerly-anticipated DVD releases has finally arrived -- just in time for Halloween. The 1932 classic film based on H.G. Wells' anti-vivisection novel has at long last been released on DVD . . . and from none other than Criterion, yet! The Paramount film directed (astonishingly) by Erle C. Kenton and starring Charles Laughton was very strong meat indeed; coming as it did from pre-Code Hollywood. Banned in England and hated by H.G. Wells, the film has since become an acknowledged classic of the first Golden Age of sound horror initiated by Universal's DRACULA in 1931. That film's success, along with its follow-up FRANKENSTEIN, caused every studio in Hollywood to mount a horror production and Paramount's ISLAND OF LOST SOULS was a corker! Charles Laughton as the icy Dr. Moreau, decked out in his tropical white suit and (according to David J. Skal) channeling the ghost of Oscar Wilde in his performance, has set himself up on a deserted island in order to continue his sadistic experiments changing animals into humans; he does this by mysterious means involving vivisection in his aptly-named "House of Pain" laboratory. A shipwrecked Richard Arlen slowly begins to realize what his laconic host has been up to -- but has no idea the plans Dr. Moreau has for him and his genetically-engineered panther woman Lota (played by the winner of a nationwide actress search Kathleen Burke). The film is filled with queasy and uncomfortable images and implications: the white-clad Moreau cracking his whip as the bestial "Sayer of the Law" (Bela Lugosi) repeats to him the law like a catechism. "What is the Law?" bellows Laughton. "Not to run on all fours," Lugosi responds, "That is the Law. Are we not men?" "What is the Law?" "Not to eat meat. That is the Law. Are we not men?" "What is the Law?" "Not to spill blood. That is the Law. Are we not men?" Devo aside, this is a classic exchange in classic horror filmdom. Laughton coolly prods and examines a wailing beast man strapped to an operating table in the House of Pain completely oblivious to his suffering; showing the poor creature off to Arlen as if he is a model car he's just finished building. When Arlen's fiancee Leila Hyams shows up on the island to rescue him, Laughton whispers a command to one of his beast men ordering him to rape her. This will fit in with his experiments trying to mate Arlen with Lota the Panther Woman. Why did Moreau have to wait for Arlen to land on the island to try this out? Why didn't he just have sex with Lota himself? Laughton's performance (which is not suggested in the script or stage directions) makes it obvious that he's incapable; he's channelling Oscar Wilde, remember. Homey don't play that.
The new Criterion DVD features a new digital restoration of the uncut original release as well as a nice group of special features: audio commentary by horror film historian Greg Mank, short interviews with John Landis, Rick Baker, Bob Burns, David J. Skal, Richard Stanley (director of the 1996 remake), and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo. There is also a short 1976 film by Devo, the theatrical trailer and a booklet written by Christine Smallwood. As always, the Criterion disc is of the highest quality and horror fans everywhere will be leaping for their whips to corral the DVD into their collection.
Today's Halloween Comic Book Cover of the Day is BLACK CAT #48.

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