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Island of Lost Souls (1933) - The House of Pain

Updated on February 9, 2017

A rarely seen horror classic released by Paramount Studios in Jan 1933, Island of Lost Souls was directed by Erle C. Kenton and starred Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen and Bela Lugosi. The film was based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H.G. Wells.

The screenplay is fairly faithful to the novel, a book considered so horrifying that it was banned in some countries, including parts of the United States. Dr. Moreau is described in the book as "a benign-looking doctor who lives and works on his own private South Seas Island." The doctor's mysterious island and creepy experiments are discovered by Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), who was shipwrecked and lost at sea and than picked up by a ship heading for the uncharted island.

At first the doctor is a considerate host and offers Parker a ride back to the mainland the next day. Moreau even offers up some "feminine" companionship for his guest in the form of Lota (Kathleen Burke), a panther-woman.

Hearing screams from a building Lota calls the House of Pain, Parker enters and discovers to his horror that Dr. Moreau has been busy creating a race of half-human, half-animal creatures on the island. Parker's arrival was just what the doctor needed to complete his experiments - to have Parker and Lota mate and produce a child, a hybrid of man and animal.

The matchmaking fails when Parker notices that Lota has claws rather than fingers. Spurned, Lota weeps on Moreau's shoulder. Far from being sympathetic, the mad doctor takes delight in her pain, impressed that his experiment has such emotional depth.

Parker tries to escape the island and runs into a pack of growling beast men led by the half-beast Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi). Dr. Moreau appears, angrily cracking his whip and calls out –

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?

Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?

Beast men (in unison): Are we not men?

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?

Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?

Beast men (in unison): Are we not men?

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?

Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?

Beast men (in unison): Are we not men?

Eventually the beast men revolt, they turn against their cruel master and take him into the House of Pain where they proceed to eviscerate him using his surgical instruments. The laboratory is set on fire and Moreau’s world goes up in flames. Parker manages to escape the island

Charles Laughton, fresh from shooting James Whale’s The Old Dark House is elegantly evil as Dr. Moreau, a man with a God complex who is ultimately destroyed by self-loathing and his own creations. Laughton once said he based his portrayal on an oculist, and has "not been able to visit the zoo since." He would win an Oscar the following year for The Private Life of Henry VIII.

Lota the Panther Lady is the emotional centre of the film; her character inspires pity rather than fear. Lota doesn’t appear in the novel. Screenwriters Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie added her to pump up the sex appeal of the film and add a pinch of romance. 19 year old Kathleen Burke won the role after Paramount staged a publicity-grabbing, nationwide "Panther Woman of America" contest.

Bela Lugosi, his face covered in hair and looking like a werewolf, plays the Sayer of the Law. In the film's most famous sequence he lays down the law — Not to run on all fours, not to eat meat, not to spill blood — followed by the question, "Are we not men?" It's a chilling scene, effectively shot by cinematographer Karl Struss. The climax of the movie features a beautifully rendered shot of the beast men running through the jungle, casting eerie shadows on the House of Pain.

Director Erle C. Kenton was a former Keystone Kop in Mack Sennett silent comedies, he also directed the horror classics Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) for Universal.

Island of Lost Souls was banned in Britain three times before being granted an X certificate in 1958, as far as I know it has never been shown on TV in the UK.

In the US Criterion have released a digitally restored and uncut version on DVD and Blu-ray, included are a commentary, featurettes and a booklet. Premiering on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK in 2012, and released by Eureka Entertainment.

H.G. Wells novel was also adapted for the screen in 1977 - The Island of Dr. Moreau starred Michael York, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart as the Sayer of the Law and Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau. It was directed by Don Taylor.

The disastrous 1996 version 'The Island of Dr. Moreau', was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred David Thewlis, Val Kilmer, Ron Perlman as the Sayer of the Law and Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau. The film was nominated for 6 Golden Raspberry awards, winning for Brando’s eccentric performance.

The Critics wrote –

“A gripping, uncompromising tale whose entire appearance conveys gloom and misery... a maturity and harshness rarely found in fantasy films.” (Photon)

“A genuinely terrifying horror movie acted with over-the-top gusto by Laughton who turns in a memorably chilling picture as the sadistic Moreau, probably the screen's finest mad scientist. Easily Kenton's best genre film. ” (Alan Frank)

“While the action is not designed to appeal to other than the credulous, there are undoubtedly some horror sequences which are unrivaled.” (Variety)

Some parts are colourlessly acted, and stock situations creep in, but the impression of a spine chilling and truly 'fantastic' reality remains to stamp this as a first class horror film.” (MFB)

"A remarkably powerful horror film with sadistic-erotic overtones, featuring a marvellously degenerate performance by Charles Laughton." (Christopher Tookey)

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    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Mary, appreciate the comment. You grew up watching this film while I had to wait for the internet to arrive before I could see it too, thanks to British censorship.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Very good explanation and depiction of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This movie has fascinated me since I first saw it in the late fifties. It has been on American TV numerous times. I have always felt for the 'creatures' from the first moment you see them on the ship you know they are not natural. Laughton was wonderfully despicable Voted up and interesting.

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      6 years ago from London, England

      If anyone's interested this old classic is now remastered and available on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray discs. It's still unavailable in the UK.

      And a belated thank you for commenting Zavala.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      7 years ago from Texas

      I lovedlooking at he old movie posters. This is a much watch once it comes out. Thank you for sharing.

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      7 years ago from London, England

      Cheers Hinton. I think it's coming out on DVD by Criterion in the States, I don't think it was ever released on disc before, maybe laserdisc? But it should be easy to find on the net, I'll bet youtube has the entire film. :)

    • hinton1966 profile image

      hinton1966 

      7 years ago

      So is this available in the United States? nicely done hub. A winner in our book. Voted up and beautiful, awsome art.

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      7 years ago from London, England

      I saw that info on those actors appearing as Beast Men but you really can't tell who's under the makeup. The only recognisable actor I could see was Lugosi.

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      7 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Cogerson. The guys on my movie forum have been chomping at the bit waiting to see this old horror film released on digital disc and it looks like it might actually happen this year.

      I only saw it for the first time a few years ago thanks to the world wide web, it just never appeared on TV or video here in the UK. All I could do was stare at pictures of the film for decades, very frustrating for a fan of classic Hollywood.

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 

      7 years ago from Virginia

      Ok so after reading your hub, I had to go to IMDB and see what they said....things I found interesting....Charles Laughton's first US film(in one of the photos you attached he looks like Charlie Chan)......and possible rumors that Buster Crabbe, Randolph Scott and Alan Ladd might have been some of the creatures.....I wonder what the story behind that is....voted up and useful again

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 

      7 years ago from Virginia

      Well I had no idea that there was another version of this story, I thought the Michael York version was ok, the Brando version defies words for how bad it is....so maybe this version is the one to see. I will add this one to my list of movies to watch. Thanks for posting....voted up and useful.

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