Island of Lost Souls

1932, US, Directed by Erle C Kenton

Black & White, Running Time: 71 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RA, Criterion; Video: 1.33:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: LPCM Mono

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) This is the first of three adaptations of the H G Wells book, Island of Dr Moreau (the second being made in the 70s, and the third - probably not final - take being the condemned mid-90s production that Richard Stanley should have directed). Whilst reportedly not being a strict conversion of the material for screen (I haven’t personally read the book), it is nevertheless a powerful film for its time that retains a twisted quality that even some of today’s more open minded audiences may appreciate. The story introduces typical American hero Ed Parker, who is rescued from shipwreck but dumped again, after disagreements with the captain, with a group of odd people that inhabit an isolated island. There Parker discovers that vivisectionist experiments are being conducted to transform animals into humans, these creatures being ruled over by their creator and law-enforcer, Dr Moreau. Initially control is maintained, but soon things begin to get out of order, and the deformed inhabitants of the island gather mob-like to overthrow the crown.

Directed with a flair uncommon in the 30s by Erle C Kenton (whose other horrors include the not-so-impressive Ghost of Frankenstein, and the fun but similarly ill-fated double act that was to end Universal’s more serious monster movie run, House of Dracula/Frankenstein) Island of Lost Souls is striking in its portrayal of the doomed creatures that are forcibly brought out of their natural lifestyle to adopt human characteristics for no better reason other than to prove that it’s possible (and maybe to feed the god-complex of the Moreau character, who here resembles an amoral Dr Frankenstein). Bela Lugosi is amongst them, though not receiving a huge amount of screen time. The most notable hybrid, however, is played by Kathleen Burke - slinky, attractive, and meek, the moment that Parker realises the truth about her still sends a bit of a chill through the veins. What struck me about the spiralling chaos of the final act also was its similarity to that of 70s masterwork, Dawn of the Dead, as the creatures get more and more out of control, eventually taking over the ‘asylum’ as the human survivors make a desparate bid to escape.

I would have bought this from UK suppliers Eureka, but they are unfortunately choosing to release the film in standard definition only (at time of writing), and as matter of course these days I always buy Blu-ray when it’s available. Having said that it is likely that the Eureka will feature unique extras so it’ll be worth keeping an eye on when it arrives in 2012. Criterion’s Blu-ray 1.33:1 Black & White HD (1080p) transfer is comprised of a combination of 35mm nitrate positive (the original negative is unfortunately deemed gone forever) and 16mm print in order to ensure as much audio/video footage, including previously censored material, is present in what we see on the disc. Considering the conditions the film looks very good - soft on occasions, persistently grainy, often pretty detailed and exhibiting good contrast. There is noticeable hiss on the soundtrack periodically but I wouldn’t expect otherwise. I suspect that this could be the best this is ever going to look for home cinema, and would like to think it is comparable to original theatrical presentations. Criterion, as usual, have done their absolute best to preserve and restore a classic movie.

I haven’t had chance to sift through all of the extras yet, but for information they include segmented interviews with John Landis, Rick Baker, Bob Burns, David Skal, Richard Stanley, Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh (of ‘Devo’) - these latter pair also provide a short film for the disc. Also present is a commentary by Gregory Mank, original trailer to the movie, plus a fascinating stills gallery showing off close-up images of the ‘monsters’ along with publicity photos, etc. This is all supported by a lovely booklet giving us an essay on the film, plus details of chapters, cast and the technical side of the transfer. My favourite piece of all this stuff so far is the fifteen minute interview with Stanley, who wanted to and should have directed the 90s remake that Frankenheimer was evetually hired for. This man (who directed the mesmerising Dust Devil if you’re unfamiliar with the name) is always a joy to listen to - he comes across as highly educated, knowledgeable on a range of subjects, relentlessly enthusiastic, and is seemingly the beneficiary of a varied and enviable existence, even if he has had his share of tougher times. I could listen to this stuff for long periods of time. This is the sort of extra that most DVD/BD distributors can only aspire to.

It should be noted that this release is Region A only. The booklet and disc are packed in a translucent, standard-sized Blu-ray case adorned by attractive design work. Whilst I do wish that Criterion’s Blu-rays had more of a physical presence in the manner that some of their DVD releases did (e.g. Vampyr, Videodrome, etc), one cannot argue with the content. Island… proves itself to be among the elite of 30s horror, and at last there is a release that does it justice and is very difficult to fault.

8 Responses to “Island of Lost Souls”

  1. Livius Says:

    I got this on SD the other week - I can’t play Region A BDs - but I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. I did take a quick flick through to get an idea of the image quality and I’m pleased enough. All the more so considering the fact it’s not that long ago that people were saying this movie would never see the light of day on disc due to the terrible quality of the elements.

  2. Paul Says:

    You got the Criterion DVD? I should imagine the difference between SD and HD on this movie is limited by the condition of the source materials, so I think either format will be a good choice. They’ve put together some great extras as usual so I think you’ll enjoy this disc.

  3. Livius Says:

    Yes, I thought about waiting on the Eureka release, but then caved and went with the Criterion. Like I said, I’ve only had a brief scan but I’m happy with what I’ve seen of the PQ. And there are some very nice bonus features indeed.

  4. Paul Says:

    I’m not sure why Criterion are going for region A only, though it was one of the motivations for me picking up a multi-region player. I’ve just had Repulsion (BD) arrive this morning - looks like a really impressive transfer from stills I’ve seen online, can’t wait to check it out.

  5. John Hodson Says:

    It has to be said that Charles Laughton’s performance is absolutely brilliant; charming, sly, brutal, maniacal, egomaniacal. And, of course, the whole production is slathered with a pre-code eroticism and genuine sense of horror. Sex and death; a potent combination.

    I also have the BD and haven’t a squeak of complaint about the transfer. A brilliant package from Criterion.

  6. Adrian Smith Says:

    I have it on good authority that Eureka are now trying to put the film out on blu ray as well, which is why they’ve delayed the DVD release until the New Year. I have a multi-region blu ray player, so just got this Criterion one myself. Looks great!

  7. John Hodson Says:

    Didn’t you get my comment on this recently? Of course, if you didn’t get that (and it fell into the spam trap), you’re hardly likely to see this - in either case, delete…

  8. Paul Says:

    Sorry, John, for some reason we don’t seem to get notification of new comments any more - they just drift into spam! Filmjournal’s falling apart :( I agree with your comments of course - something else from the same era I’d love to see Criterion put out on Blu is Most Dangerous Game. Of course they released a DVD years ago so I don’t think it’s entirely unfeasible…

    Pity Eureka were a bit slower with that release, Adrian, if what you say is true, as I like to support British companies where possible. Because Criterion are doing Region A only though hopefully there will still be quite a few interested parties.

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