Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Island of Lost Souls’

Ask a classic monster fanatic what the most unjustly unavailable movie is and that nut would likely respond, “Island of Lost Souls.” Why Erle C. Kenton’s brilliant 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau has been out of print for so long has never been satisfactorily answered. Fortunately, that question is no longer relevant since Criterion has now given this overdue movie its due. We can finally revel in Charles Laughton’s dastardly portrayal of sadistic vivisectionist/mad scientist Moreau and Bela Lugosi’s desperate Sayer of the Law (“Are we not men?!?”) and Kathleen Burke’s sexy, tragic Lota the Panther Woman and Kenton’s enthralling atmosphere and pre-code edginess on DVD and Blu-ray any time we please.

Criterion’s transfer is a composite of several sources of varying quality. The restoration is not immediately striking because the film is front-loaded with the rougher bits. The daylight scenes that dominate the beginning of the film are gauzy, giving the false impression of weak images. The actors almost seem to glow. Once the picture moves into the shadowy, higher-contrast nighttime scenes that dominate it, the restoration looks very, very good. The composite also includes passages of dialogue censored since the film’s original release. They most likely include Moreau’s “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” which closely resembles a similarly censored line from Whale’s Frankenstein.

We get an audio commentary from the charming horror historian Gregory Mank and four very different video commentaries. The most traditional is a scholarly analysis by David Skal, our best monster movie documentarian and author of the absolutely essential Monster Show. He discusses Wells’s novel and the film’s themes and sources, the most-revelatory suggestion being that Laughton may have based his Moreau on Oscar Wilde. I’m not convinced of his claim that the film reflects co-screenwriter Philip Wylie’s misogyny, though. Both female characters are sympathetic and both are responsible for rescuing the men. Only villainous Moreau expresses any contempt for women. Compared to something like King Kong, Lost Souls is practically progressive.

Next up is a fun roundtable with John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns, who geek out about the performances, makeup, and atmosphere. Burns also gets off the best comment on the DVD when Landis asks him why he likes Kenton’s schlocky House of Frankenstein. Burns responds, “It has Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.” Hear, hear.

We also get a talk with director Richard Stanley, who was let go from the disastrous 1996 adaptation starring Marlon Brando and completed by John Frankenheimer. Stanley goes in depth about Wells but is fairly dismissive of all the film versions and could have provided more information about his ousting from his own project.

The oddest extra in the bunch is a discussion with Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of Devo, who talk about the film’s influence on their image, philosophy, and songs (“Are we not men? We are Devo”). The talk leads them on some fascinating tangents about Ohio horror host Ghoulardi, who’s show introduced the guys to the movie, and the infamous Kent State protest/cop-shooting-spree that inspired Neil Young’s “Ohio”. Also included is a valuable Devo short film from 1976, which is basically an edit of music videos for “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo” that doesn’t quite look like the union of German Expressionism and McDonald’s commercials the guys intended it to be.

Get the Criterion edition of Island of Lost Souls on DVD and Blu-ray at Amazon.com.
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