That poster is needlessly exploitative and also wholly wrong about what this movie is about. It’s not about the “Panther Woman” destroying men but instead about the horrors of science run amok at the hands of unethical scientists. So, you know, not something we needed to be advertising in Germany in the 1930s…
Island of Lost Souls is a 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the first film version with sound as a matter of fact, though silent versions had previously appeared in France and Germany. It stars Charles Laughton as the amoral doctor, Richard Arlen as the shipwrecked everyman who arrives on the island, and even Bela Lugosi has a bit part as one of the beastmen Moreau has created. On Moreau’s little private island, he runs experiments where he turns animals into humanoid form in an attempt at playing God and creating a human being out of another species. But he has no real love for the creatures he creates, instead seeing them as little more than experiments to further his own research so he can return to England, where he had previously been run out on a rail due to the public outcry against him. Because…you know.
Thus enters our hero, Edward Parker, whom Moreau decides will also make for a perfect experiment by seeing if Lota, the Panther Woman on the poster, can fall in love with him. Parker discovers the horrors that Moreau is performing when he witness the doctor vivisecting a living beastman without anesthesia; then he discovers that Lota is another of Moreau’s creations, and he becomes quite ready to leave. His lady love soon arrives to get him off the island, but not before the beastmen revolt. The film ends with our heroes escaping as the beastmen pull Dr. Moreau into his own surgery room, dubbed the ‘House of Pain,’ and use his own surgical implements on him.
All of this seems aptly timed for release in the 1930s, considering the war that was about to engulf the world, where real life Dr. Moreaus of various nationalities performed terrible acts in the name of science for their governments on peoples seen as subhuman. It’s a shame how relatively few of them ever faced real consequences for their actions such as occurs here. Dr. Moreau’s manner of death is horrible but not necessarily undeserved. As for his beastmen, they are left to ask themselves “Are we not men?” and then reflect on the truth that they were not.
I admit that in my search for monster movies, I watched this for the beastmen, which are monstrous but tragic figures in their disfigurement and ignorance. This is a movie where man is proven to be the real monster. However I want to give special attention to the incredible costuming and special effects work in the film. Humans are made to look like something else through the application of hair, fangs, false ears and noses, and even a prosthetic hoof in one scene. In particular I want to point out Bela Lugosi again, who’s almost unrecognizable under his costume, save for his piercing eyes in closeups.
It is Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law who speaks the critical lines “What is the law? Not to spill blood. Are we not men?”
The movie was originally banned in England and eventually passed in the late 1950s with an ‘X’ rating with the vivisection sequences removed. Nowadays it has a PG-rating with the scenes added back in. Before this, I’d only seen the 1990s film with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, and as much as I have enjoyed Richard Stanley’s other work, that project was taken from him and butchered horribly. Island of Lost Souls offers a much more coherent message on the horrors of science and a much more coherent film as a whole, and I’ve started seeing it appear on more and more “best horror movie” lists. It’s worth checking out.
Oh, and apparently H.G. Wells didn’t like this portrayal because he thought the horror was too overly emphasized. I disagree. I think if anything it helps add to just how terrible the reality of what came to pass in the following decade really was.