If for KING KONG alone, 1933 would already be one of the most important years in film history, but it’s astonishing to see how so many other movies made a literal lifetime ago are still so vibrant, relevant, and straight-up wackadoo. Take, for instance, James Whale’s THE INVISIBLE MAN and Erle C. Kenton’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Both films are based on novels by visionary author H.G. Wells — ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a retelling of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU — and like Wells’ work, both films have themes, ideas, and images that continue to thrill and fascinate, eighty years later. But THE INVISIBLE MAN, as one of the great Universal horror pictures, has become a Halloween hallmark, like the rest of the Universal Monsters.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a different kind of beast. For one thing, it’s a Wells property that ended up at Paramount, not Universal, so it has a different vibe to begin with: Different studio lots, different stock players (Bela Lugosi aside), different auteur — Erle Kenton, who later directed the aforementioned HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, does not feel quite as much personally present in the DNA of his films as James Whale does. That’s not to say that ISLAND OF LOST SOULS isn’t just as captivating and unshakeable as a Universal Monsters picture. In many ways, it’s weirder, certainly more perverse. That’s a direct effect of the subject matter.
Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton in this telling) experiments on animals and turns them into human hybrids. There’s something truly creepy about seeing half-animal people develop their own consciousness, only to resort to violence after all — and that’s not all that’s creepy. The animal-men revolt, demanding independence from their creator, and that’s eventful enough, but there’s also a panther-woman in the movie, to fulfill the bizarro-sex quotient. People were really into that panther lady as a drawing point, as you can see from the poster. I guess this movie predicted Comic-Con by several decades.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS has a pretty punk-rock rep as far as vintage horror flicks goes, probably due to the censorship issues surrounding its original release, and its aftershocks continue to turn up with every generation. Weirdly, it has influenced musicians as much as anyone, its references surfacing in the work of acts as disparate as Devo, Van Halen, and House Of Pain. Maybe there’s an aura of adjacent hipness to the film, since it combines Bela Lugosi (DRACULA) with the legendary Charles Laughton — who not only played THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME but also directed the cult classic NIGHT OF THE HUNTER — and Leila Hyams, who also appeared in the incredible cult film FREAKS. Or maybe it’s just that unforgettable. Both are probably the case.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is screening all day today at Film Forum. [More information here!]
— JON ABRAMS (@JONNYABOMB).
And for more animal-man madness, check out the DG Podcast concerning THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, an ISLAND OF LOST SOULS rip-off from the 1970s starring Pam Grier as Panther Woman!
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