Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick from me and blog friend Karen of Shadows & Satin, when we each choose one gem from this era that’s showing on TCM.
It’s an old story–the mad genius in a remote location, creating unnatural beings, then abusing or oppressing them and believing he is God. Inevitably in most of these plots those beings begin to comprehend that they’ve been mistreated since the moment of their creation, and revolt with deadly results. From this early example, based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, through a long line of adaptations and variations, to recent AI twists like Ex Machina (2014) and Westworld, it’s a fertile and satisfying story about the dangers and ethics of tinkering, altering, engineering in the name of improvement, and about the nature, essence and origin of “humanity.”
Here, shipwrecked Ed Parker (Richard Arlen) has the misfortune of ending up on the island of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), where he learns the doctor’s been surgically changing animals into near-human things with varying results. Parker’s presence, and his fiancee Ruth’s (Leila Hyams) effort to rescue him lead to a revolution and the place’s complete destruction. It’s a nightmarish situation that in director Erle Kenton’s hands generates plenty of shocks, suspense, impressive imagery and dark humour.
Taking inspiration from Karen’s Pre-Code Crazy posts, here’s other stuff I love about this movie:
The jarring and effective use of subjective camera during the conversation when Moreau explains his reasons and works to Parker. It’s a device (used so well in Silence of the Lambs and Apocalypse Now, for example) that brings Parker and us uncomfortably close to Moreau’s madness with a direct, honest, intimate gaze.
Charles Laughton gets much to do and is excellent. Mild, almost sweet at first, he soon reveals a terrifying glee and egotism and intentions to keep Parker there to mate with his beasties, to test their capability for human emotions. “I hope you sleep well,” he says to his rattled guest.
Bela Lugosi gets little to do and is excellent, at first obediently relaying Moreau’s commands and rules to the lesser beings, then conveying a tragic sensitivity and dignity under facial fur that covers all but his eyes. Those eyes flash with the realization that Moreau is no god, has no right to crack that whip, impose The Law, or torture them in his House of Pain (where Moreau gets chilling comeuppance).
Arthur Hohl’s work as Montgomery, and his shame when Parker first asks him if he’s a doctor: “Yes…at least I was, once upon a time,” Montgomery says, before turning away, head bowed and voice trailing off ruefully. Disgusted with himself, but still cares enough to warn Parker about a bullying authority figure–not just Moreau but also the drunken cargo ship captain who beats and tosses Parker overboard. Montgomery expresses his reservations about Moreau’s work and finally quits when one too many innocent humans are endangered.
That set: the walls, bars, gates and winding staircases, the dense jungle, all so well lit and photographed (by Karl Struss), with memorable effects like camera sweeping up a slope overlooking a fire-pit area where the “natives” gather, or the giant shadows cast on a wall as our heroes flee in the night. Moreau’s grand deco villa, and the white clothing of the humans; it makes a pristine, clinical and classy contrast to the perverse reality of the place. Also the trees and branches encroach and allow the creatures access to windows and into bedrooms; clearly nature will uproot and reclaim human structures, especially such unsound ones. Just as Moreau can’t artificially eliminate the natural beastly fur and claws of his subjects, he also won’t hold back their rage once they realize their tormentor is just a man who “can die.”
Wally Westmore’s creature makeup is great.
There’s no music, instead an unnerving silence that makes the isolation, Moreau’s snooping, the simmering tensions, the piercing screams and animal calls and cries, all the more eerie.
Moreau’s introduction is well-done, coming after much teasing dialogue, and questions about why live cargo is headed for his uncharted, nameless island, and what he does with it. Parker sees one servant’s furry ear, witnesses anxiety about the place and the man, and hears from a sailor that they’re better off not knowing what Moreau does, or forgetting it, if they’re unlucky enough to find out. When Parker finally meets Moreau, the doctor seems such a playful and considerate gentleman that it only adds to the mystery.
Watch Island of Lost Souls on TCM June 28th, and now please click here to see which Pre-Code film Karen has picked for your viewing pleasure.