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.
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 cast, 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.