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Friday, February 22, 2008


Not to go on All-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not men?
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

One of the problems facing the lover of movies is the surprising fact that many classic films are simply not available on DVD, for whatever obscure reason, so where does one turn to for the unavailable films one simply must have to round out their collection of favorites? The so-called “gray market,” that’s where. The “gray market” is that niche in the video/DVD-collector’s universe where, if you’re an enterprising hunter who’s willing to put up with possibly dodgy prints culled from privately owned prints or transfers from showings on Turner Classic Movies, you can find damned near anything you’re looking for (although a really good copy of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON remains elusive). Being the obsessive movie junkie that I am, it’s a given that I’d know where to find most of what I seek, and fortunately for me I live a short subway ride from a couple of gray market goldmines.

Today, during my lunch break, I wandered to one of the aforementioned shops and stumbled across one of my all-time favorite flicks, 1932’s (or 1933’s, depending on your source of info) ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, 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.

Will H. Hayes: the douche who ruined old school Hollywood.

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 lead 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 UK 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...

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, burning down the house), 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-white chicks were considered exotic) who has never seen a fully human male other than the Doc and his assistant (a big deal; those two seem like an obvious couple to me), and hopes sparks ignite between Lota and the stranded cipher.

Kathleen Burke as Lota, the Panther Woman: say hello to your grandpa'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, 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 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 some seventy-six 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 by a bunch of clumsy manimals would really bite the big one).

Lesson to be learned: be kind to animals!

So when I found the gray market edition — in glorious Bootleg-O-Scope® — I snapped it up immediately and gave it a quick once-over on my office laptop, and I’m happy to report that the print is downright cherry. But it still sucks that there is no legit release on DVD. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS cries out for all the extras one can cram onto a disc, and I would love to see a “making of” and some commentary material along the excellent lines of those found accompanying the terrific Universal horror collections from a few years back. What’s the delay in releasing this dark and sleazy classic? Today’s youth needs to see that it wasn’t all Busby Berkeley creating a religion for the 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 one, bucko.


John Bligh said...

For my money, IOLS is the best of the early run of Universal Horrors (though I'm not positive it was actually a Universal flick). It's better than "Frankenstein" and "The Wolfman" and as good as the "Bride of Frankenstein". And it's way better than the now-dated and boring "Dracula" and "The Mummy". Of course, the first 10 minutes of "The Mummy" is better than all of them put together. It's a shame the rest of the film is so dull...

Anonymous said...

You are so right about this film; seeing it as a child on TV (Channel 5, NYC) on a Saturday afternoon, a lot of the truly creepy and nasty stuff just went right over my head; implied bestiality, a man trying to play God (which is the theme of
many early '30s horror flicks)

For one thing, this is just about the EERIEST film from that time: the out of focus camera work regarding the thick, hot, oppressive jungle; the sound of unseen things following you; scary stuff!

Laughton's Moreau is the signature portrayal of homosexual kinkiness in a Pre-Code film, and the smug delight he shows at being thought of as God is truly unsettling. Arlen, long one of my favorite leading B-film action heroes in okay, but a little out of his depth here. Watch for that punch he lays on Laughton after basically being told, "I want you and Lota to mate!" Katherine Burke, the winner of the nation-wide "Leopard Woman" contest is one of the most exotically gorgeous women I've seen in a '30s film. Unfortunately, she didn't go too far in Hollywood; she may have been a little TOO exotic for Depression America!

If you can, people, find a copy of a near-companion film from Paramount made the
same year as this one, "Murders in the Zoo," starring another creepy Englishman, Lionel Atwill. Kathleen Burke also appears in this one, looking just as hot in in
regular clothes. The first scene will knock you OUT! Think about this for a bit: in a one year period, Atwill made this film, Doctor X, The Vampire Bat and The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Whew! Hell, Laughton made The Private Life of Henry VIII that same year as Island of Lost Souls and won an Oscar!

One last thing, I used to work in Alexander's department store in the early 1970s, and there was a TV in the employee's lounge. Well, one Saturday, I had this playing and the people watching it were just about crapping themselves during
the climax----- "Part man, part beast! Part man, part beast!"