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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Island of Lost Souls

To continue, and round out this recent look at ape-men, we digress to 1932 to pick up one of the classics of the mad-scientist-making-beast-man films: Island of Lost Souls (ILS). Paramount produced an adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel, "The Island of Dr. Moreau," that followed the book reasonably well, though not exactly. Charles Laughton starred as the "mad doctor." The film is famous for its "Panther Woman", Lota (played by Kathleen Burke). She is a good reference point for the ape-woman films that followed ten years later. As a point of interest to Monogram's "Ape Man" films, Bela Lugosi plays the Sayer of the Law, wearing much beast-man makeup -- a nice tie-in to later ape-man movies starring Lugosi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Edward Parker, shipwrecked, is picked up by the freighter Covena. He is nursed back to health by Montgomery. When healthy, he has a wire sent to his fiancee, Ruth, in Apia, saying that he's okay and will join her in six days. Afterward, however, Parker runs afoul of the Covena's drunkard captain. Upon completing transfer of Montgomery's shipment of animals to Moreau's schooner, the captain has Parker tossed onto the schooner and steams off. Parker, now the uninvited guest of Dr. Moreau is shown cold hospitality. The natives of the island look odd, and shuffle about rather than simply walk. Moreau thaws some to Parker, as he has a new plan in mind. He wants to introduce him to Lota, his "finest creation". She's the only female on the island. She fears the only real men she knows, Moreau and Montgomery. He hopes Parker will reveal/awaken real human woman traits in Lota. Parker is enticed by Lota's innocent and obvious affections. He and Lota flee, fearing Moreau, but are captured by beast men and taken to their village. He is rescued by Moreau and learns that the natives are Moreau's work. He uses surgery (vivisection) to shape them like humans. Parker, horrified, demands to leave, but the schooner has been mysteriously scuttled in the night. Lota seeks out Parker again. During a hug, he finds that she has claws. She is reverting to her panther origins. Meanwhile, in Apia, the Covena docks without Parker. Ruth arranges for a ship to take her to the coordinates grudgingly shared by captain Davies. Ruth and Capt. Donahue arrive on Moreau's island. Moreau plays the cordial host, but has dark schemes in mind. Ouran, Moreau's lead beast-man, breaks into Ruth's room. Scream. Chase. Captain Donahue sets off to go get some of his crew as reinforcements. Moreau sends Ouran after him. Ouran kills Donahue and takes him to the Beast Man village. You spilled man's blood. You broke the law. Ouran says, The law is no more. HE told me to kill. The beast men realize that if Donahue could be killed, so could Moreau. They mass to revolt. Moreau tries to cow them into subservience again, but to no avail. Parker, Montgomery, Ruth and Lota flee for Donahue's skiff. Lota drops back, sensing a pursuer. She attacks Ouran. Parker, realizing Lota's absence, goes back. With her last breath, Lota says, "you go." The beast men take Moreau up to his House of Pain surgery and each have at him with scalpels. Much screaming. Ruth, Parker and Montgomery row away as the island burns. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
An H.G. Wells story is just bound to be entertaining -- even when put through a Hollywood filter. The story moves right along, and is filled with thought-provoking elements to spawn dozens of conversations.

Cultural Connection
Playing God. This is a very common trait among classic old sci-fi's "mad doctors." At one point, Moreau asked Parker, "Do you know what it means, to feel like God?" Certainly, Moreau had presumed to shape animals into his own image by brute use of medical science. He had also instilled in his creations, The Law, which tried to legislate what the scalpel could not create, and to deify himself. "His is the hand that makes! His is the hand that heals." Most of the mad doctors that were to come to films, would in some way or another presume this same role of smarter-than-the-rest, and wiser-than-all, such that whatever they planned was automatically "good" (in their own minds).

Based on the Book -- ILS follows Wells' 1896 novel fairly well, with some of the usual condensing and Hollywood tampering. In Wells' novel, there was no seductive Lota character trying to charm the protagonist. There was no fiancee, Ruth, coming looking for him. Indeed, Wells' story had none of the romantic angles that Hollywood insists upon. Later remakes, such as 1977's Island of Dr. Moreau and 1996's remake with Marlon Brando, would harken back to the novel for source material in their own ways, but would also build off of the story line of ILS, such as having an animal-woman. Actually, Wells' novel featured an ape-man, just to cement the tie-in to our recent topic thread.

Imperial Footprint -- Woven throughout Wells' story, and still evident in Paramount's movie, is an indictment of old-world imperialism. (As was War of the Worlds) Surgical "science" was the tool, but the goal was the same -- make the "natives" look and sound "just like us," no matter how painful. Moreau's methods were physical rather than cultural, but the analogy fits. Having Laughton dressed in colonial white (vs. his creatures' drab grubbiness) with whips and pith helmets, fit that model. The revolt of the Beast Men was a startlingly accurate prediction of the uprisings that ended colonialism.

Misread Blasphemy -- Censors in the UK banned ILS several times. Partially for the implied cruelty to animals, partially for the presumed blasphemy. It's a pity those religious objectors did not see the analogies supportive of biblical views. Consider how Moreau's imposed order was all that kept his creations from reverting to pure animal. When that order was removed, their primal, uncivilized beast nature took over. This was even paralleled within Moreau himself. When he cast aside God (as a youth), he became a cruel "beast" himself -- completely selfish and insensitive. This all paralleling the biblical view -- man, when he's cast away God's standards, has nothing left but his own "fallen" self-centeredness as his guide. No good comes of that. "Modern" man, who becomes is own god, is capable of great evil. This was theme common to many of the mad-doctor genre. It's actually more biblical than blasphemous.

Dark Science -- Mary Shelley gave the notion a voice in her novel, "Frankenstein." Science was just as capable of going "bad" as doing good. Most of the mad-doctor genre echoed this theme.  Moreau, like many a mad scientist of films, could be seen as a parallel to Satan. Cast out of heaven (civilized London) for his transgressions. He looks like a heavenly being (dressed in British colonial whites), just as Satan can appear as an angel of light, but inflicts a reign of torment on the earth (represented by the island). Moreau did, en masse, what Frankenstein did only once.

Short-Lived Animal Women -- It seems that Hollywood (and audiences) liked the character of animal-women, but playing one on-screen was not the path to stardom. Kathleen Burke was hyped as the panther woman, but went on to only a few more films, mostly with small parts. Later animal-women (such as Acquanetta, the ape-woman of the 40s) would find similar career arcs. As much as execs and audiences liked them, they didn't seem to want to bring them home to meet mother.

Bottom line? ILS is a classic that should be seen by all sci-fi fans -- that is, those who appreciate more than slobbery-toothed monsters, laser battles and explosions. ILS is one of those foundational movies, like Frankenstein ('31) which later film makers would reference, adapt and remake. On its own, ILS has enough of Wells' complexity in it to provide hours of conversation (with the right people). ---


Randall Landers said...

Definitely a MUST SEE for any sf/f fan. The interesting notion in your review is that Moreau is indeed Satan, and I'm moved by the white outfit argument. Interestingly enough, Moreau can be translated as a horse with a shiny black coat. I wonder what Wells, whose antipathy toward religion is well-known if often misinterpreted, had in mind with the choice of that name.

Nightowl said...

Hi Randall,
Thanks for the comments. I didn't necessarily mean that Wells was consciously invoking a Satan metaphor, so much as the mad-scientist trope itself was developing into a sort of parallel archetype. As a storyteller, the trope would be a familiar one for a villain.

Yes, Wells had a rather complex personal Theism. Not "atheist" in the current "anti-theist" spin. He was not as much opposed to spiritual elements themselves, as he was railing at how men abused the power of their positions.