Island of Lost Souls: Criterion Collection Blu-ray ReviewNovember 04, 2011
In 1896, acclaimed author H.G. Wells released his novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, a chilling tale that was equally disturbing and controversial. Since then, Hollywood has consistently tried to bring the story to the screen, often with mixed to mediocre to flat out awful results. One of these films, however, serves the original story justice while at the same time existing on its own merits and that film is 1933's Island of Lost Souls.
A long thought lost classic from the beginnings of the sound era (resurrected and brought to the High Def world by the always wonderful Criterion Collection), Island of Lost Souls is a tremendous horror/thriller that manages to work on one level as a genre picture, but also has a layer of social commentary that touches on some subjects that is still to this day a bit taboo, making it even more so in the 30's when it was released, leading to its often banned status in several countries across the world.
The film begins with Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), the lone survivor of a shipwreck being lost at sea. He is rescued by a passing ship helmed by Captain Davies (Stanley Fields) that is on its way to a remote tropical island to drop off its precious cargo; hundreds of caged exotic animals. Parker is able to get a wire to his fiancee, Ruth (Leila Hyams) saying that he should be arriving back to her soon, but an altercation between him and the Captain ends in a bit of fisticuffs and Parker finds himself stuck on the island.
It's not long before Parker notices some peculiar "beast men," who appear to be indigenous to the island, and soon after meets the man in charge, Dr. Moreau (portrayed exquisitely by Charles Laughton). He, with the aid of his assistant, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), runs the island and maintains order amongst the beast men, instilling them with a sense of fear, and as the film progresses, the reason for that fear becomes abundantly clear. That fear will eventually lead them to question Moreau's rule, as the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) rallies the beast men to think for themselves.
There's a horrible secret to these beast men, and Dr. Moreau lies at the heart of it. A mad scientist if there ever was one, he's conducted heinous experiments in his "House of Pain" and plans to use Parker to fulfill his biggest achievement, mating with the sole female of the island, Lota (Kathleen Burke), who carries a secret of her own.
Island of Lost Souls, much like the book that inspired its creation, digs deep into the idea of man playing God, and the price that is entailed in doing so. When the true nature of the beast men is revealed, it's actually quite a turn on what living things deserve their own rights to live and be spared from such experimentation, and what does man give up of himself in taking part in such deeds.
The cast is pretty well-rounded, talent wise, and even at times bring some comedic notes that lighten the heavy mood just a bit. Everyone, however, pales in comparison to the performance given by Charles Laughton. Laughton's portrayal of the mad doctor is beyond brilliant. It would have been easy for anyone to have just played the Dr. as your typical mad man, but Laughton infuses the role with layers of personality, sometimes with just his glances or body language. His is a true performance that any avid film fan would be remiss to pass up.
In regards to the visual presentation of Island of Lost Souls, I think it's important to first read this snippet from the included booklet:
"Because the original negative no longer survives, this new digital transfer was created from a number of sources, including 35mm fine-grain master positive with some inherent damage; the UCLA Film & Television Archive's 35mm nitrate positive, which also had defects but contained lines of dialogue not heard since they were censored upon the film's theatrical release; and a private collector's 16mm screening print, used to help repair scenes with missing frames and scratches. These elements were scanned in 2K and HD resolution on a Spirit Datacine and a SCANNITY film scanner, and then combined to create the most complete version of the film ever to appear on home video. Finally, thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction."
As one could surmise from that, this "lost" film was narrowly pieced together, and most of the materials haven't weathered well the test of time. Taking all of that into consideration, it's an impressive presentation, especially considering it was compiled from several different sources. Despite some soft spots early on in the film, especially during the bright outdoor scenes, the picture does have many instances of detail and fine quality. There's a few scenes with close ups of the creatures and the effects really shine, showing off the amazing effects work that would still hold up today.
As one would expect, the state of the audio shares much in common with the picture. Criterion has given the film a LPCM 1.0 mono track and although it's also compiled from several sources, it comes across cleanly and, in some cases, is rather impressive. All sound is centered and strong, although there is some minimal hiss now and again. Sound effects are very strong, although some action moment that would warrant sound have absolutely none, but this seems more an aspect of the original creation and nothing to do with the transfer. Overall, it's a great package considering the state of the materials and that the film is nearly 80 years old.
Beyond The Feature
The Criterion Collection is well known for its inclusion of quality supplemental material, and Island of Lost Souls is no slouch in this area. Every piece is not only incredibly informative, but none of the information ever seems repeated or doubled up, giving each bit an individuality often lacking in special features, yet when combined as a whole makes for one incredible addition to an already stellar film.
Audio Commentary - This feature length commentary is provided by writer and film historian Gregory Mank. It goes very in-depth into the makings of the film and is quite enjoyable, although he can come off a bit dry at times.
Landis, Baker and Burns (HD, 17 min) - This is a wonderful discussion between Director John Landis, Creature Effects guru Rick Baker and legendary horror film fanatic Bob Burns. The three discuss many aspects of the film, from the cast to the director and show a lot of focus, deservedly, to the astounding effects found within the film. Being a long time horror fan myself, this was an absolute treat to watch and beyond informative in the many tangents the trio gets into. It's also fun seeing just how kooky Landis is.
David J. Skal (HD, 14 min) - Skal is a writer and filmmaker and in this video interview he discusses Wells' original novel, Island of Dr. Moreau, and how much of it carried over to the film version. He also goes a bit into the time period and other controversial films of the time, such as Tod Browning's Freaks.
Richard Stanley (HD, 15 min) - Director Richard Stanley has had a lifetime obsession with the Dr. Moreau story and tried for years to be able to make his own film version of it, which was to be the 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau. The movie was plagued with issues from the beginning, most notable of which was Stanley's firing and replacement after only four days of shooting. Stanley goes into frank detail about the ordeal and how he got one of the FX people to do him up as one of the beast men and he continued to stay on set. A truly unexpected, but fascinating look at one man's obsession and how cruel the movie making process can be.
Devo - This feature is split into two equally excellent, yet completely different parts. The first, a conversation with Casale and Mothersbaugh (HD, 20) goes into the pairs fascination with the film and how it helped inspire them to create their band Devo. The second part is a Short Film (HD, 10 min) created by the members of Devo titled In the Beginning was the End: The Truth about De-evolution. This piece is, as one may expect, a bit bizarre but equally fascinating and features two of Devo's early songs, including "Are We Not Men", which is a direct reference to Island of Lost Souls.
Stills Gallery - A standard collection of production stills and behind the scenes photos from the film, most featuring the beast men of the film and truly showcasing the artistry that went into making those effects
Trailer (HD, 2 min) -The original theatrical trailer for the film.
Booklet - One of my favorite aspects of every Criterion release, the included illustrated booklet features cast listings, information on what went on to create the transfer as well as a new essay, "The Beast Flesh Creeping Back," written by Christine Smallwood.
Island of Lost Souls is an incredibly stirring film filled with excellent performances and top notch effects work that holds up to this day. It truly boggles my mind that this film got so lost in the fabric of time. It was released during the height of the Universal Monster craze, and is on par with many of those in terms of quality and execution.
I applaud The Criterion Collection for not only giving this film the treatment it deserves in regards to the PQ, AQ, supplements, etc., but also for just helping this lost classic finally see the light of day, in one of the best packages of the year.
- Matt Hardeman
Shop for Island of Lost Souls: Criterion Collection on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 25, 2011 release date).
Browse all Amazon.com Blu-ray pre-orders