All due respect to Christine Smallwood, whose work I had never encountered before reading her booklet essay for the new and essential Criterion Collection edition of Erle C. Kenton's 1932 Island of Lost Souls, but her approach to the material at hand strikes me as a trifle...tentative.
I can't completely hold her at fault for stating, more or less at the outset, that Island of Lost Souls "no longer has the power to shock." We do, after all, live in a world of Hostels and Saws and Human Centipedes and one Saló, blah blah blah blah blah. But I don't know. Bestiality films have yet to go mainstream, and this picture's plot, such as it is, hinges in part on a scheme to get a human guy to mate with an, ahem, "Panther Woman," that is, a woman who's actually somehow been surgically transposed into womanhood from pantherdom, not, as in certain Cat Peoples, a woman who shifts back and forth between feline and human forms depending on whether or not she's had sex. So, you know, that's kind of shocking, when you bother to think about it. Smallwood backtracks a bit and finds herself on more solid ground a little further into the piece: "[...]there is something striking and unusually fresh about Island of Lost Souls' sadism. We've seen and heard a lot of gross and weird stuff on-screen in the past eighty years, but I'm not sure any of it is significantly weirder or grosser than this." True, that, and holy crap, the movie really is almost 80 years old, isn't it? One reason its freakishly bizarre content still registers as strongly as it does is that it's got a real old-school ethos—call it Pre-Code, call it B-picture—in that the 70-minute picture throws you into its outré fray almost right off the bat: Boy gets rescued from sunken ship, boy unwisely picks fight with drunken captain, captain drops boy off on island ruled by mad scientist caught up in lunatic experiments to make men from animals, and trouble ensues. It certainly helps that the boy is stolid and conventionally macho Richard Arlen, whose mode hasn't dated as much as that of the likes of the somewhat more delicate David Manners, who starred in some somewhat similarly bizarre '30s horrors (okay, one, Ulmer's The Black Cat; but he was also in more standard classic horror fare, you know, Dracula and The Mummy).
What makes the film indelible from that point on is the entirely convincing "atmosphere of total perdition" (Robert Benayoun's immortal phrase) in which it is steeped. Witness the white-suited Moreau (a cunning performance by Charles Laughton that's also, for the most part, one of his most oddly understated) prevailing over these beast-men with an ethos he has no actual stock in (and that's apparently lifted from some Kipling), said ethos being repeated by a stentorian authority figure with an inexplicable Hungarian accent. The aforementioned alluring "Panther Woman" (Kathleen Burke), ideal in every particular, except for her killer instinct and, of course, the troublesome "beast flesh" that ever "comes creeping back." Is this the first film in which the natives are described as "restless tonight?" In any event, when future cinephiles of my generation were first exposed to this once-banned picture on late-night or even early afternoon television, the feeling was that we were entering a different world, not one boldly and imaginatively dangerous like the one in King Kong, but one considerably creepier and slimier, a world that could conceivably change and corrupt us.
That was the feeling. After basking in that world again via the wonderful Criterion Blu-ray of the film, I looked for critical buttresses for the feeling and was a little surprised not to find much of use in my library. Trusty Carlos Clarens, in his seminal An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, more or less shrugs off the film, insisting that it "seldom convinces" before allowing that it "never bores." I am hard-pressed to find a reference to the film at all in my similarly trusty anthology of surrealist film criticism, the Paul-Hammond-edited The Shadow and its Shadow, which collects the also-seminal Benayoun essay "Zaroff, or, The Prosperities of Vice" from which the aforementioned phrase originated. (Erle C. Kenton is also excluded from the list of recommended directors in "Some Surrealist Advice," a rather parochial oversight given the accidentally surreal 1945 House of Dracula, but what are you going to do?) Where was I going to find a print confrere on this vital issue? Well, of course, in my old friend Michael Weldon's quite-unfortunately-out-of-print Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, which entry on Island reads, in part, "It was banned in England for years. H.G. Wells, who wrote the novel it was based on, condemned it as being vulgar. It's also probably the best horror film ever made." Is it only on viewers of my own generation that the film has such a grip? Weldon's pal and Cleveland music scene contemporary David Thomas, at the time known as Crocus Behemoth (among other things) evoked the Lost Souls in the Pere Ubu song "Heart of Darkness." Around the same time, closer to Akron, Devo was incorporating the Sayer of the Law's refrain "Are we not men?" into its mordantly comic musical theory of de-evolution. We laugh noe, but it's worth recalling that a large part of the impetus for Devo's formation was the Kent State massacre. The unwitting ambivalence with which the film views both the beast-men and their creator/authority figure is, I think, another large component of its queasy power, a component that was not as readily visible to Clarens and Ado Kyrou or Robert Benayoun as it might have been to an American kid growing up in the '60s. I don't, by any stretch of the imagination, intend to reduce Lost Souls to some sort of sociological tract avant le lettre. But in certain contexts you don't need to stretch all that much to make certain connection. In any event, I am delighted to be revisiting the film (have I mentioned enough how splendid the Criterion edition it?) and am slightly curious to see what kind of reception it elicits from the cool and badass of today. Or not.