Monday, November 7, 2011

There's No Island Like An Island of Lost Souls

It's easier to write about something you hate than something you love. Love creates a euphoria that is difficult to articulate. That's why it's sought after, that's why the passionate murder in its name. One can't define love with a few choice words. Words fail in most cases. Music, on the other hand, can convey feelings of association with love. I used to make a habit of sending CD's to women I had secret crushes on. Some fresh girlfriends got them, too.

My love for Island of  Lost Souls ('32), the first movie based on H.G. Wells' 'Island of Dr. Moreau', heightened my excitement and made me impatient for the Criterion Blu-ray. I received it last week, banished all engagements, and watched it immediately.

 An unflattering portrait of the beautiful Kathleen Burke (The Panther Woman)

Like a reliable compass, the film took me straight to the fog-bound island with its crew of grotesque, tragic beast men, and it deposited me there for an adventure that I live anew every time. That's the film's magic. Each journey feels like virgin territory.  Until recently, I made do with a British VHS tape, its images denigrated by too much wear, its sound muted by inferior technology. As it represented my only hold on the movie, I never abandoned the tape, but I held little hope that a superior version would become available one day.

The Criterion Collection  has made Island of Lost Souls available on Blu-ray. So beautiful, so ravishing, so emotionally musical is this version, I'm tempted to send it out like love letters to those deserving of its joys. Written by Wells as a protest against vivisection, it focuses on one man's attempt to create his own men, using innocent beasts as genetic clay.


If you read this blog, you'll know why Island of Lost Souls is a favorite. A favorite? Is that all I can manage?  Describing my love for the film with words like "favorite" does it a horrible disservice. It IS a favorite, but I have many favorites, just as I've known more than a handful of favorite loves over the years, the first being an ethereal creature who opened forbidden gates to me when we were merely of an age deemed appropriate for riding a pushbike. Surely, like the film, she deserves more muscular distinction.

Of similar youth and curiosity, I encountered this Island of Lost Souls on a black and white TV jammed into a corner of my parents' living room at a time when TV wasn't yet a focal feature of the family home. The images of living creatures teetering in a limbo between human and animal engaged my senses and sympathies. Like the malformed stars of Todd Browning's Freaks, I felt sorry for these unnatural wonders, and became fascinated with them. Was my fascination compatible with sympathy? Could I ogle them, marvel at them, desire oneness with them, while fantasizing that I would save them and whisk them off to a safer harbor? Would it, in fact, be safe? Would they be safe with me? Or would I, lacking medical skills, become a purely voyeuristic Moreau, a savior turned betrayer?

Or worse?

The film's 'Panther Woman' (Kathleen Burke) is one of Moreau's finest creations, and she's deliciousness made flesh. As I contemplated her via the Blu-ray image, I was forced to admit that, under such circumstances, I could not merely rescue such a fascinating animal from a grisly fate. No, I'd surely want communion with her, to know her, to explore her, to contemplate the genetic and domestic possibilities she presented.

Director Erle C. Kenton is to be applauded for creating such anxiety in me, for transforming a novel into a horror film that sings a song with the intensity of love, and for leaving us with a trinket that has endured for more than seven decades, its black and white glow an eternal cinematic ember.

Criterion's stunning Blu-ray is a glorious hymn to the movie. Extras include a wonderful, informal chat between director John Landis, make-up maestro Rick Baker, and genre scholar Bob Burns; there is also a terrific piece by director Richard Stanley -- who was fired off the most recent version of the film -- in which he discusses his love for the original novel and film, and explains why he was ousted from his own take on the story. Film historians Gregory Mank and David J. Skal compliment these extras with mountains loads of rich production info.


  1. I watched "White Zombie" (1932) the other day and it was surprisingly good for a movie made 80 years ago, now i`ll have to try to catch up on this one and "Vampyr" (also `32).

  2. I grew up with the 1977 version of Wells's book, the one with Lancaster and York, and loved the novel from an early age too, but only saw this version in the last few years. I loved it. So glad it's available on a great new disc! Great write-up Phantom!

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterNovember 7, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    Phantom, i just realised something that really got on my nerves, when Heather O`Rourke snuffed it Frank Sinatra still had 10 years to live ! ! !, why do some people get allocated 82 years and other people only get allocated 12 years ?, you fucking tell me.

  4. Wonderful writing Phantom. I need to get this ASAP.

  5. Eddie -- All thoroughly good movies. Vampyr is very slow, but atmospheric.

    Will -- I, too, saw the York version as a kid. I didn't see the Laughton version until the late 90's.

    A Hero -- Hop to it, son! It doesn't disappoint. And the creature make-ups are truly disturbing.