US | 1932 | Directed by Erie C. Kenton
Logline: After being rescued at sea, then unceremoniously dumped on an island, a man is welcomed by the isle’s deranged resident, a scientist experimenting on the genetic mutations of human with animal.
H.G. Wells novel has been made, notably, three times: as a trashy vehicle for Burt Lancaster in 1977 as The Island of Dr. Moreau, in the notorious hot mess that was Richard Stanley’s ill-fated attempt in 1996 under the same title, and, most impressively, in this pre-Hays Code tenebrous nightmare under the original book's title. A rarity, until Criterion Collection issued a superb edition a few years back, this adaptation by Waldemar Young and Phlip Wylie might not stick closely to Wells’ book, but it captures much of the essence, and it is easily the most unnerving of the three.
Dr. Moreau (played with wicked delight by Charles Laughton) is the obsessed surgeon, having established himself as some kind of deity. He lives in a large villa which he shares with his man servant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and his most prized possession, the panther woman, Lota (Kathleen Burke). Lota is, in fact, the only female on the entire island. The rest of the inhabitants are Moreau’s tribe of half-human mutants, abominations in the eyes of anyone other than the lunatic doctor. But soon enough his lunatic creations will take over the asylum, known to them as the House of Pain.
It’s a lean film, running at around 70 minutes, and told with great narrative efficiency. The stunning monochrome cinematography from Karl Struss plays with elements of expressionism, casting peculiar and striking shadows across the actors’ bodies and faces. The excellent production design and art direction capture a palpable sense of claustrophobia, whilst the jungle plants creep and probe from every corner.
But it is the special effects makeup that is the real star here; Wally Westmore, with Charles Gemora, created some truly astounding stuff. Unfortunately much of it hides in the shadows or is only glimpsed at, as the camera rarely lingers - but on one or two occasions a beastly visage lurches. In the Criterion Collection a bonus gallery of original make-up stills showcases just how exceptional was the work. Bela Legosi plays one of the tribe, the Sayer of the Law. You can recognise him from his eyes.
In the current climate, with science progressing in leaps and bounds, the basic concept of Moreau’s; the grafting of animal anatomy onto humans, and the genetic slicing of homo sapiens with any number of animal species is becoming less and less phantastic, and more and more like a waking nightmare! The dark carnal desires, however, remain unchanged. How would H.G. Wells relate to the shapes of things that have come?!
In a recent interview Richard Stanley stated that he is moving forward with another attempt at bringing H. G. Wells’ science-fiction-horror tale to the big screen, but this time completely on his own terms. He reckons it will be “X” rated, a very dark fantasy movie for adults. If he maintains the moral grey area and the dense shadows of this seminal horror flick, and keeps the practical effects to the fore, it will be a strong contender for best version yet.