Lost Isles


H.G. Wells famously disliked Paramount’s 1932 adaptation of his 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (which Paramount execs re-titled, more colorfully, Island of Lost Souls). Wells thought the film slighted, or just plain ignored, the philosophical issues he raised in a work he described as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy.” In his tale of the madly vivisecting Doctor tucked away on an unknown island, where he gives free reign to what he calls his interest in the “plasticity of living forms,” Wells examined notions of colonialism, race, slavery, unchecked science, rampant individualism, human identity, the ethical treatment of animals, and (where much of the blasphemy enters) humanity’s relationship with a distant, cruel, and capricious god.

The novel is ironic, cynical, pessimistic; compulsively readable while yet appalling in the cool, clinical tone Wells uses to depict its horrors. In spite of the sensational subject matter, it’s not exactly Hollywood fodder. I’m not surprised Wells disparaged the 1932 film (and I seriously doubt if he’d have liked any of the dismal remakes). The cinematic versions could be likened to skimming over Michelangelo’s “David” just to peek at what’s under the fig leaf: honest, folks, that’s not the whole point.

To be fair, Island of Lost Souls does not entirely discard Wells and his philosophical ruminations. It’s just that, being geared to a mass audience, it soon gets down to what’s on everyone’s mind when it comes to its story of isolated men mingling with aberrant animal hybrids: Sex. And not nice bourgeois sex, either, but nasty, dirty, bestial sex. Stuff that’d draw ‘em into the theater during hard economic times, when every incentive was needed to get hard-hit audiences to unbelt. As Greg Mank points out in the film’s Criterion DVD commentary, Paramount was “hell-bent on topping all horror films in sex and sensation” with this particular baby, and the studio set all gears spinning. Ah, the glories of pre-Code.


I’ll note here where the film does touch on those other, Wellsian issues. Slavery and colonialism? We have oily, plump Moreau (an obscenely mustached-and-goateed Charles Laughton) lounging on his veranda in a planter’s white suit, sipping tea and murmuring how “restless” the natives are tonight, when he isn’t flaying their backs with a bullwhip. Unchecked science and vivisection? There’s Moreau nattering on evolution and human progress, while he cuts up helpless animals into what could pass for crude models for Jack Pierce’s Wolfman. Rampant individualism? Moreau rules his isle like a minor satrap, swaggering his great belly over his swath of ocean real estate like a decimating scythe as he threatens disobedient subjects with the ominous House of Pain. As for blasphemous notions about the Deity—we get that in a throwaway line, when Moreau whimsically asks his luckless houseguest Parker (Richard Arlen), “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” By 1932, however, mad-science-God-playing was old hat; a year earlier Colin Clive had shrieked the same question for shock value as he exulted over a bandaged Boris Karloff. It was been-there, done-that; so what comes next?


What came next, of course, was what Wells’s novel didn’t include: the blatant suggestions of inter-species sex, which the film made the focus of its advertising campaign, most notoriously with the character of Lota the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke). No Lota-ish panther-derived lady is in the novel, even though the literary Moreau’s unfortunate creations are both male and female, Moreau apparently following Biblical dictates to make them so. Instead, the film’s creatures form an all-boys club; as Laughton’s Moreau points out, Lota is the only female on the island. When the hybrids chant their question-and-answer ritual “Are We Not Men?”, they mean that literally. Life for them is a perpetual stag night, unrelieved by feminine company. Lota’s been reserved for other (if equally unwholesome) objectives.


My guess is that the inspiration for the Panther Woman was the character of a female puma that, through most of Wells’s novel, is basically an offstage series of agony-wracked cries issuing from the House of Pain. Eventually this poor animal escapes and kills Moreau (also offstage) by battering his skull in with the fetter that had imprisoned her (a significant detail), before dying. She’s more a symbol than a character, an engine of the hubristic Moreau’s downfall by the very creatures he made.

But the adaptors took this personage and fashioned her into what Mank in his fabulous book Women in Horror Films, 1930s called “Dorothy Lamour-from-Hell”—a fantastic mélange of dark, frizzy hair, kohl-ringed eyes, and a Production Code-defying two-piece sarong. It’s at this point you sense that Wells’s thoughtful, if bitter meditations on reason, morality, and the frail bulwark that each provides to keep human savagery at bay, were not the motives for bringing his book to the screen. No, I bet it was that tiny, felinish hint—indeed, not even a hint, more a wisp, a breath, the lightest frisson of the suggestively perverse—which was blown up into a straight-out-of-Freud Bestial Beauty. A Kinky Kitten; a Temptress Tabby. A Man-Eating Mouser. Take your catty pick. Pussy, in a vulgar sense, made literal.


Once you’ve got yourself a Panther Woman, everything else must follow suit, like used bath water sucked down a drain. Thus Wells’s dispassionately sadistic scientist becomes, in the film, a dirty old man. Almost everything the movie’s Moreau does or says revolves around sex and its permutations. On introducing Parker to his lush isle, Moreau expands on how its volcanic ash has made it especially “fertile” (a fact of little interest to Parker, too busy goggling at the island’s furry monstrosities). The doctor’s evolutionary experiments have resulted in startlingly yonic-looking flowers and grotesquely phallic asparagus (Moreau seems a bit regretful about that last, as if the engorged vegetables are now no longer edible). This fetid atmosphere, of damply exotic, too-rich abundance, spills over into Laughton’s performance; as Moreau in one scene descants on his hideous experiments to Parker, Laughton lolls on a gurney like a bloated sow wallowing in its sty, enjoying the squishy sensation of muck against its skin. The actor moves with a luxuriantly decadent ease, using his bulk, the very cushioning of body fat against muscle and bone, as a kind of visceral correlative to his character’s soft, spongy pleasures.


Lignam-Yoni cultivations.


But it’s Lota, and her possibilities as an erogenous test subject, who most strongly arouses Moreau’s smirking imagination. Hitting upon the idea of mating her with the bewildered Parker, who’s as yet ignorant of her origins, Moreau encourages the pair (“I’ll leave you two young people together,” he coos with a greasy rub of his hands), spies on them (swish-pan to a glint-eyed Moreau watching in the dark), gloats over their responses (“Oh, how that little scene spurs the scientific imagination onward!”), and even reveals that he had first considered himself as an amatory guinea pig for Lota’s match-up until Parker so conveniently came along. The arrival of the latter’s svelte fiancée (Lelia Hymans) is, for Moreau, just another lubricious test case, as he now eggs on one of his apish hybrids to ravish the lady (“I may not need Parker,” he muses). There seems no limit to what spurs the good doctor’s vile fancy; as Mank’s commentary notes, Moreau’s howl of terror when he himself is torn apart by his tortured subjects is more an orgasmic whoop, the utter endpoint of masochistic thrill. The filmmakers are not leaf-peeking here; they’ve ripped off the foliage and have racked the binoculars up to full power, for us to gaze our fill.


In spite of Wells’s disapproval, I think Island of Lost Souls is a terrific film. It hasn’t the novel’s cold clarity, nor its steady gaze into the depths plumbed by intellectual depravity. But it can stand on its own, as a look into dark, dreadful desires—into the limits of our curiosity regarding our unspeakable wants. In what Mank calls her “Singapore drag queen” get-up, the Panther Woman embodies what the Hollywood Production Code had deemed forbidden thoughts—on bestiality, miscegenation, androgyny, sado-masochism, animal lust of all kinds—every kink and perversion that’s been tamped down in our hot, weary, over-civilized brains, which may now long only for a state of simple animal existence. But the Panther Woman herself, as acted by Kathleen Burke (an untried actress, only 19 at the time), is far from such fantasized vices. She’s instead a sad, forlorn creature, her eyes like those of a lost fawn, seeking for a robbed innocence, and bemused by a misery she can’t grasp—a bereft product of a decayingly corrupt, man-made Eden.

Burke’s own life was defined by this impossible role (just how does one play an animal turned into a human, anyway?); she made only a few movies after this film, a whiff of ridicule having clung to her with her feline labeling, and ended her days in obscurity. Yet Burke is tender and touching here, her low, soft voice seeming to echo the furry calm of a cat’s purr, and the deep, distant darkness of nights in the wild. Such a voice, so redolent with yearning and memory, may also evoke thoughts, ones too deep, too mournful, for expression, but that shake our minds nonetheless. It perhaps hearkens to another desire, one shared by all creatures, yet one denied, so cruelly, to Moreau’s doomed hybrids: the wish for a return, to one’s home, one’s past, and one’s own sense of self, in a bleak, vast, and unwelcoming world.


This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings, from November 16-21, 2015. Please click here to read other posts on the great films listed in the Criterion home video collections.

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  1. Great essay, really enjoyed your scene and acting descriptions and analysis of source vs adaptation. Sensationalized but as a result, such a fascinating pre-Code specimen. Thanks so much for joining this event 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Kristina! The film is really one of those movies that defines what we mean by ‘pre-Code’, that era’s audacity and daring in its movies; and this version still resonates today (and tops all its remakes). Looking forward to reading all the other Blogathon posts!

  2. I agree with Kristina – I liked how you compared the novel with the film adaptation. (Neither of which I’ve seen/read, which is shameful, I know.) The film sounds like quite a wild ride!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for bringing this saucy pre-code along! 🙂

    • Yes, the film is quite wild (it’s one of the most blatant of the pre-Codes). It’s also well-acted and written, so it’s more than schlock horror. With its “Are We Not Men?” chant, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. Definitely a must-see film! Thanks for your comment and for hosting this great Blogathon!

  3. Agreed. This is a fantastic, well-written essay. I actually haven’t seen the film — an omission that I will correct soon — but I have seen plenty other Well adaptations, some of which worked and some that didn’t. I like how you went beyond the film and discussed the novel. That type of exploration is ripe with many of his films, especially something like Things to Come where he had more control.

    Thanks for participating!

    • Thanks so much -I’m enjoying being a part of this blogathon! The film is certainly a must-see (and it’s on a Criterion disk, so natch!), and really exemplifies the kind of perverse subjects that were allowed in pre-Code films. I recommend listening to Greg Mank’s commentary on the Criterion disk; he gives a lot of informative background on the making of the film and its censorship problems.

      I confess, I’ve never been much of a fan of Things to Come, and I wonder if it’s because Wells was in control of it–the film always struck me as more of an intellectual exercise than a dramatic story. Yet his early novels (of which The Island of Dr Moreau is one) are vividly written, packed with action, while also offering food for thought. My sense is that as Wells grew older, he focused his novels more on his political/social ideas (such as The Passionate Friends) rather than on drama and character. And Things to Come does come across as a film of ideas more than of narrative. Certainly many other films adapted by other filmmakers from his novels often discard the ideas to focus on the dramatic situations, as in Island of Lost Souls. Thanks for commenting!

      • You are speaking to the choir. I am not a fan of Things to Come either, and I think Wells was ultimately the problem. I’ll check out that commentary when I delve into the disc. Thanks again!

      • I recommend it – Greg Mank is a terrific writer, specifically on pre-Code horror films, and he knows his stuff!

  4. Excellent write-up. This is one of those films that I waited for years to see (after seeing all those stills in Famous Monsters as a kid) and when first viewing as a 13 years old it packked quit a wallop. I showed it recently to a couple of people we were pretty much unaware of it and it and they were pretty amazed at all the weird sexual stuff lurking about (you gotta love pre-code !)

    • Thanks so much! I find Island of Lost Souls to be one of those pre-Codes that really does live up to its notoriety. It does not disappoint! So much of pre-Code horror touches on quite perverse and disturbing material (eg, the 1932 Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde; Freaks; Mystery of the Wax Museum; Murders in the Rue Morgue). Today’s horror concentrates on gore, but it doesn’t get close to what these early films were actually implying (and showing).

  5. What strikes me about SOULS is Laughton’s playing of the Mad Scientist as Naughty Schoolboy– refreshing & chilling at the same time.

    • Yes, I agree – you’ve made a fascinating point, as the ‘naughty schoolboy’ quality is also exhibited by Dr Moreau in the novel, highlighting the utter lack of moral responsibility of this character. I’m a fan of Laughton’s performance in this film, but he supposedly did not like the movie and was uncomfortable with the story during filming. Yet he was such a pro that he really does an accomplished and thought-out piece of acting. Thanks!

  6. Congrats on winning an award!

  7. Great write up! I have never taken the time to read the novel, however, after reading this I think I might have to crack it open. Along with turning the commentary on next time I watch the film. I agree with you, Souls is one of those pre-codes, like Freaks, that I show to my friends and they’re like “Seriously?”. And thanks for linking Mank’s book. Another book into the Amazon wish list!

    • Thanks so much! Greg Mank is a terrific writer (he writes frequently on pre-Code horror), and he’s done several DVD commentaries on horror films (he’s also done commentary for some Val Lewton movies also) – always informative, well researched, and amusing.

      Island of Lost Souls, like Freaks, is one of those pre-Code shockers that really draw people – it’s like they can’t believe they’re watching anything this kinky. The novel Island of Dr Moreau is both disturbing and fascinating; it’s a read that sticks in your mind afterwards. But it’s quite well-written; like many of the early HG Wells novels, it’s hard to put down; Wells gets a rhythm going and you’re inexorably drawn along.

  8. skeletonpete

     /  November 17, 2015

    Having grown up with those creepy stills of the “man-imals” plastered all over Famous Monsters magazine it was a revelation to finally get to view this steamy slice of exotica when Criterion released it a couple of years ago.

    Thanks for a great piece.

    • I think Criterion put out an excellent DVD on this film — good print, informative commentary, and some fascinating featurettes. The film deserves such serious consideration. Interesting that the film apparently had a reputation back in the 50s/60s in horror film magazines while apparently not yet widely (re)seen – I think it doesn’t disappoint on viewing. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Now HOW can I posssibly be frightened of “Island of Lost Souls” ever ever EVER again, after reading a line like this: “…I bet it was that tiny, felinish hint—indeed, not even a hint, more a wisp, a breath, the lightest frisson of the suggestively perverse—which was blown up into a straight-out-of-Freud Bestial Beauty. A Kinky Kitten; a Temptress Tabby. A Man-Eating Mouser. Take your catty pick. Pussy, in a vulgar sense, made literal.” Oh man, Congratulations on winning The Criterion. Good essay!! 🙂

    • Thanks so much! I think you’re right, that the film is so campy at points that it may not seem too frightening. But the ending (when Moreau is set upon and cut up by his hybrids) is still chilling to watch. Indeed, just the whole look of the film is creepy. Supposedly Charles Laughton was so freaked out by working on the movie that he had bad dreams about it, and claimed (somewhat jokingly, I presume) that he could no longer visit a zoo!

  10. Reblogged this on The Last Drive In and commented:
    This is an absolutely engaging read! Part of the #CriterionBlogathon HUGE event… Grand Old Movies writes a witty, enlightening & critical piece that had me laughing and cringing all the way through!

  11. Seen this many moons ago, really need to re-watch it. Great review.

  12. You know how sometimes a movie or some other cultural touchstone just keeps popping up all at once, where before you had almost no idea it ever existed? This has now happened to me with “The Island of Lost Souls”, as I just recently watched the documentary on Richard Stanley’s failed Island of Dr. Moreau film. It was further mentioned in another blog post, and now you’ve given it a great treatment here. I think I may actually have to check this one out, now!

    Cheers, great piece.

    • The film seems to have run under the radar for many decades after its release (probably due to censorship, which always creates an aura); and then I think the song by Devo brought it to greater attention (suddenly everyone was saying “are we not men?”). I’ve read about the 1996 version of Dr Moreau that Richard Stanley DIDN’T get to direct – it sounds an appalling mess (which of course makes it a must-see!). But the 1932 version is definitely the one to check out. Thanks so much!

  13. John Greco

     /  November 17, 2015

    This is a great film! Way ahead of its time in some ways. Nicely done, my friend!

  14. Gee, you almost make me feel guilty for liking this movie as much as I do. Almost. I know one thing for certain, I’ll never watch it again without thinking of your article!

  15. Well done! Great film from the pre-code era and miles ahead of the remakes. I see you too are a fan of Mr. Mank’s books and studies.

    • I agree, the 1932 film is much better than the one from the 1970s (I saw it once; pretty dull, I recall). I’ve only seen the 1996 version in clips, but I feel that Laughton and Co. have it all beat. Also glad to know of another Greg Mank fan. He’s an excellent writer, does great research, and has a genuine love of and appreciation for Hollywood classic-era horror. And his interviews with the horror actresses of the 1930s and 1940s are a treasure, real historical documents. Thanks for your comment!

  16. I don’t know why I haven’t seen this yet—especially considering how much I enjoy Charles Laughton. Great review!

    • Thanks so much! Oddly, Laughton disliked this movie, even though he gives a wonderful, full-out performance as the sadistic doctor (or maybe not so odd, considering the film’s subject matter). The image of him, with that simply awful little mustache and goatee (inspired, he said by the facial hair on a doctor he visited before filming starting), is one you never get out of your mind. Certainly a must-see for Laughton fans.



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