Island Of Lost Souls REVIEW

Charles Laughton in Island Of Lost Souls.

The Man From Del Monte soon regretted saying no.


1933 | PG | 70 minutes | £19.99 (double-play Blu-ray)/£29.99 (steelbook edition)
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
Director: Erle C Kenton
Cast:Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke

If the censors who passed judgement on this ‘30s horror could be transported forward in time to see it granted a PG certificate, they’d be appalled. On its original release, the film was banned outright in the UK. It was 1958 before it was passed (with cuts) as an X certificate. As recently as 2001, when it sneaked out on a double-bill DVD, it was awarded a 12. Watching it, you might wonder whether the BBFC have made the right call.

Much of the film’s still-potent shock value stems from the source material: HG Wells’s classic 1896 novel The Island Of Dr Moreau, in which the victim of a shipwreck encounters a crazed scientist who’s transforming animals into humanoid abominations. These tragic creations still impress, and although the camera discretely shies away from the sharp end of surgical horror, the pictures that play in your mind’s eye are disturbing enough.

Charles Laughton is sublime as Moreau, an urbane sadist who’s politely offering a cup of tea one moment and viciously cracking the whip the next. His intense, Mephistophelean portrayal is greatly boosted by cinematographer Karl Struss, who repeatedly shrouds his features in Stygian shadow.

What’s really alarming is the stirring of sex – and, specifically, bestiality – into the mix, in a way that’s surprisingly up-front. Moreau sees the arrival of his young visitor as a chance to test the sexual urges of his masterwork, an augmented Panther Woman; and when the hero’s fiancé arrives on the scene, drawing admiring looks from the island’s beast men, the threat of rape hangs heavy in the air. Of all the horror films of this period, perhaps only Freaks retains as powerful a transgressive charge. PG? Only if that stands for prurient and grim.

Extras:

A case of quality, not quantity. Horror expert Jonathan Rigby delivers an overview which thoughtfully draws out some of the film’s themes and places it within a historical context (14 minutes), while Simon Callow (author of a biography of Charles Laughton) concentrates on the actor’s performance (12 minutes). A trailer and a 32-page booklet (containing an essay by Kim Newman and some glorious stills of the beast man make-ups) complete the package.

Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman

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