October 27th, 2014

Surgeon Pipboy

Gentleman's Vivisection

On an island filled with animals altered through brutal surgery to walk upright and speak like human beings, a perfectly ordinary human being is the monster. Well, "perfectly ordinary" isn't accurate, Charles Laughton in 1932's Island of Lost Souls as Dr. Moreau is absolutely extraordinary. The epitome of men who value their own ingenuity above compassion, simultaneously evocative of a very common sort of man as well as the Nazi and the big game hunter. The first American adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, it diverges significantly from the source material in some ways but is, largely for Laughton and for Kathleen Burke as "the Panther Woman", a surprising and enjoyable film.

Burke is unnamed in the opening, credited as just "the Panther Woman" as though the filmmakers had actually cast a woman who was half woman, half panther. An amusing piece of carnival mentality influencing the production. Burke does do a nice job of capturing something essentially panther like in her movements and in her face. Certainly the makeup helps.

Lantern jawed Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) rebuffs her when he notices she still has panther claws. I don't think that would have stopped most sane people in the audience watching the film. She really is great.

Bela Lugosi is in the film as well, barely recognisable under thick facial hair, but Laughton, as I've said, is the main event. He gives a remarkably naturalistic performance for 1932, lounging about his fortress like home and "House of Pain" laboratory. His believe in his absolute control over the island is so great, though, he readily hands Parker his gun just to put his mind at ease.

All he needs, he believes, to hold back the "natives" is a whip and gong. And he seems to be right.