Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not men?
—“The Law,” from “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (1896) by H.G.Wells
After several years of having no choice but to enjoy its lurid charms via a "gray market" DVD of a print of it culled from Turner Classic Movies, one of my all-time favorite flicks, 1932’s (or 1933’s, depending on your source of info) ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, is finally available on legitimate DVD from those loving preservationists over at Criterion, and I pre-ordered it the second I heard of its imminent release.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a fantastically sick and twisted little movie that got in there just before the infamous Hayes Code was instituted and took away all the really nasty sex, violence and evil shit that made moviegoing worthwhile in the early days of Tinseltown.
After the Hayes Code was in place, Hollywood cleaned up its act considerably, under threat of serious penalties, and didn’t really get its balls back until the 1950’s, a shot in the arm that led to the freer expression of the Sixties and Seventies (and then, for the most part, films pussied-out again bigtime, but that’s a subject for another post).
Anyway, I first saw ISLAND OF LOST SOULS during my formative years but I was too little to fully grasp exactly why it had been banned in the United Kingdom for some twenty-five years after its release. It was a black & white flick about some queeny guy with a mustache and a white suit who lived on a remote island and made really lame-looking human/animal hybrids. There was no graphic violence, no cussing, and certainly no naked ladies, so what was the big deal?
Oh, the wisdom that comes with growing up and seeing the same movie through eyes that had gone on to witness films such as DAS CAVIAR DINNER and BARNYARD BANG...(Don't ask.)
For those not in the know, the movie’s based the 1896 novel quoted at the start of this post, and it centers around a guy who gets unwillingly stuck on the island of one Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton, utterly burning down the house with a spectacular display of major league gayness and questionable sanity), a medical genius who has somehow managed to create a horde of grotesque and disturbing “men” from a variety of wild animals.
Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton) and friend.
The products of apparently anesthesia-free radical surgery and ray treatments, Moreau’s creations are rather a sorry lot who have been conditioned to live by a series of laws intended to curb their innate animal behaviors and mold them into regular Joes. Don’t ask me what the purpose of such experimentation is; I guess simply to be able to say that he was able to do it? To fulfill some crazed need to play God? Fuck if I know, but one thing becomes clear very early on: Moreau is barking mad, his cultured exterior masking a whip-wielding psychotic who appears to get off on the suffering of his “children.”
Just another fun-filled day on the Island of Doctor Moreau. NOTE: the dude with the serious sideburns is none other than Bela "Pull the string!" Lugosi as the Speaker of the Law. Yowza!
Being stuck on Moreau’s creepy, vine-tangled and fog-enshrouded island is bad enough, but our uninteresting castaway is set to be married to an equally uninteresting fiancée (who of course sets out to find him), so Moreau decides to give his most successful creation a field test. The Doc unveils Lota (Kathleen Burke), a sultry brunette in a pre-Dorothy Lamour “exotic” island girl getup (this was back in the days when hot, non-Caucasian chicks were considered exotic) who has never seen a fully human male other than the Doc and his assistant (actually a big deal; those two seem like an obvious couple to me, and as this was a pre-ccode film, they very well could have been), and hopes sparks ignite between Lota and the stranded cipher.
Kathleen Burke as Lota, the Panther Woman: say hello to your grandpappy's stroke-material.
As the viewers figure out before our boring hero does, Lota is revealed to have been altered from a panther into a prime piece of surfer-boy’s masturbation fantasy — no "pussy" jokes, please — but her shy and tentative attempts at “making friends” with the castaway go straight down the toilet once he notices her hands are reverting to their original clawed configuration and is understandably freaked the fuck out. Moreau orders poor, terrified Lota back to “the House of Pain” for a surgical touch-up, and awaits the arrival of the fiancée so he can turn one of his male hybrids loose on her. So not only do we get crazed punishment with a bullwhip and twisted medical experiments, we are also treated to Moreau’s intention to see if regular humans can successfully mate and possibly reproduce with his semi-human creatures, many of whom resemble a bunch of hairy, shirtless skells of the type that staff many restaurants in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. And when you think about it, the castaway would have gotten off (pun intended) relatively easy in the bargain since Lota is a bit of a looker (though the scratches would suck), while his virginal fiancée would have been relegated to savage rape by a literal man-gorilla (or something; it’s not made fully clear just what the guy is). It’s just plain sick, offensive, and gross.
And I love it.
Can you imagine being in the theater in 1932 and having your sensibilities offended by sadism, unholy “scientific” delvings, and intimations of bestiality and rape? That stuff’s still heavy nearly eighty years on, so seeing ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in those days must have been a serious brain-melter. Even the Doc’s well-earned and horrifying fate comes off as weak in comparison (thematically, anyway; being vivisected sans anaesthesia by a bunch of clumsy manimals would really bite the big one).
So what was the delay in releasing this dark and sleazy classic to DVD? Today’s youth needs to see that it wasn’t all Busby Berkeley creating a religion for show tunes devotees or the Our Gang kids putting a positive spin on juvenile truancy, and that when their elders piss and moan about how today’s cinema is leading to moral turpitude they’re talking out of their asses. I’d love to see a contemporary director even attempt to go where this dusty old hairball did and not be publicly executed by watchdogs for decency in film. Good luck with that one, bucko. And any movie that serves to inspire some of Devo's classic work — specifically "Jocko Homo" and the title of their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! — is automatically okay by me, but this movie earned its place in my heart on its own very twisted merits.