Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#586: Island of Lost Souls

(Erle C. Kenton, 1932)

Island of Lost Souls is perhaps the best example of just how much sci-fi and horror have changed from their original talkie incarnation in the early 30s. While films like King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game are arguably better movies, Island of Lost Souls is more provocative, at least in its time. This makes it not just an old-fashioned adventure movie like those mentioned above, but a movie about taboo subjects that pushed the envelope for audiences upon its initial release. While a movie like King Kong is best compared to something like Avatar - a blockbuster adventure film with a relatively gentle social message - Island of Lost Souls was its era's House on a Haunted Hill, a chilling message about man's potential for evil.

What's funny about this characterization is that the film itself is incredibly tame. The creatures, ostensibly horrifying in 1932, border on parody, while Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau (a character who would be mangled by Marlon Brando in the 90s adaptation) is more reminiscent of Sidney Greenstreet's character Ferrari in Casablanca than of any evil genius in later horror films. It's hard to think of any other film that was so controversial when it was released and so tame now. This separates the film's intellectual and historical appeal almost entirely from the experience of watching it, with a few exceptions. The most notable is the scene in which Parker kisses the Panther Woman before realizing she is an animal. His anger at himself, which he then directs towards Moreau, saying he could forgive him everything else but not this, makes for a chilling moment of man's ability to compartmentalize tragedy and injustice.

Mostly, though, Island of Lost Souls is a pretty good time at the movies. While I enjoyed watching it, I doubt I'll ever need to see it again, something that sets it apart from The Most Dangerous Game, a far superior early 30s horror/adventure film, and a Criterion release long overdue for an upgrade.

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