Dumped with a cargo of caged animals onto a barge helmed by frightening and unusual deckhands, rescued shipwreck survivor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) sees his fresh run of good fortune turn grave as the vessel heads into the mist toward a mysterious, uncharted island. The captain is Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who is not only the recipient of the animal cargo, but also the owner of the hidden island. As the vessel docks, charming Moreau assures Parker he will be sent to a local port in the morning, providing he can rely on Parker's discretion about some of the strange things he may see while an “uninvited guest.”
As Parker follows Moreau through the jungle, he sees brooding natives who appear human but have distinctly feral features. Moreau, brandishing a whip on these bizarre creatures, reminds Parker about discretion as they approach his compound. Once inside, Moreau introduces Parker to a shy, beautiful, young woman, Lota (Kathleen Burke). Later that evening, Parker and Lota are interrupted by horrible screams from within Moreau's compound. Terrified, Lota explains to a shocked Parker that the screams are coming from the “house of pain.”
When Parker storms the “house of pain,” he is horrified to find Moreau hunched over an agonizing hybrid of animal and human, performing a savage surgery. Quickly realizing that the strangely feral natives are born in Moreau's “house of pain” laboratory, Parker grabs Lota and opts to sail from the island right away. As they race through the jungle, numerous “half-breed experiments” follow, cornering the pair at a settlement of dozens more frightening “experiments” led by a hirsute creature, the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi). Moreau intervenes and the terrified creatures scramble. Parker and Lota reluctantly turn back to the compound. Moreau explains his diabolical experiments to a horrified Parker, who learns that Lota is a creation from a leopard. Moreau wishes Parker to help him prove Lota's humanity by impregnating her. “Do you know what it means,” the sadistic doctor asks, “to feel like God?”
The early 1930s saw the horror genre flourish in Hollywood after the success of Dracula and Frankenstein from Universal in 1931. Paramount began production on more fiendish adaptations, including H.G. Wells' novel of a mad doctor and his evil practices, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Director Earle C. Kenton had a first-rate creative team on Island of Lost Souls, including art director Hans Dreier and cinematographer Karl Struss, ASC (Sunrise, Aloma of the South Seas). Struss, an accomplished still photographer from New York who had reestablished himself as a cinematographer upon relocating to Hollywood in 1919, seemed the obvious choice for Island after his atmospheric work on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Indeed, Struss' work on Island took his previous efforts on Mr. Hyde a step further with its arch, looming shadows, often unusual camera placement and multi-layered grey scales illuminating Dreier's ornate, exotic and always sinister sets and the film's few Catalina Island locations.
The Criterion Collection has stitched together a Blu-ray of Island of Lost Souls from several film sources as the original negative no longer exists. It is important to note that the film was shot “pre-code,” before the Hays Production Code got a grip on Hollywood, requiring subsequent re-releases of the film to be censored. The liner notes explain the painstaking effort to restore the film to its original content. Most satisfying about the high-def image quality is its general contrast and stability, considering the varied sources. While there are occasional scratches and debris visible, the presentation is remarkably clean, with excellent details in shadow and black levels. Image grain seems organic, and there is no evidence of DNR. Struss' moody, often heavily diffused lighting has never looked as sharp. There is an overall, seamless, very film-like and appealing texture. The LPCM 1.0 audio is clear, with distinct, monaural tonality that rarely betrays its age.
Accompanying Island of Lost Souls into the digital age for the first time on Blu-ray and DVD are a host of supplements, the most interesting of which are writer Christine Smallwood's excellent essay and film historian Gregory W. Mank's informative audio commentary. In addition to a solid, 14-minute video interview with film historian David J. Skal, there are a theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills and an awkward-but-enthusiastic interview with director John Landis, make-up artist Rick Baker and genre expert Bob Burns. Finally there is an unnecessary interview with the “fired” director of the 1996 remake, Richard Stanley, and a dubious, 20-minute interview with members of the new-wave band Devo, who tediously discuss the film's influence on the band.
Originally considered a lurid, tasteless shocker and banned in several countries, Island of Lost Souls had several censored re-releases and became a late-show staple on American television. Earning cult status over the years, the film's eerie appeal continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. Although the shocks may pale by today's standards, is it possible to ignore the miserable, downtrodden island natives created by the mad doctor as they cry out to the night skies, “Are we not men?” This excellent Blu-ray is the perfect way to visit this island of the truly damned and find out.