Our next Halloween review is dedicated to Pre-Code Hollywood: that magical time between the birth of sound and the dawn of strict censorship when gangster movies could be harsher, romantic comedies saucier, and horror movies more perverse. It is from this era, and this era alone, that you can stumble across as invigoratingly weird as 1932’s Island of Lost Souls.
It is, in so many ways, an authentic trashterpiece: a quickie adaptation of H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, barely over an hour long and directed by a certifiable non-auteur (studio man Erle C. Kenton), whose main attractions are Charles Laughton with a whip, Bela Lugosi in a furry mask, and a slinky actress listed in the opening credits only as “The Panther Woman.” (Historical scholarship tells us that the Panther Woman was a 19-year-old dental assistant from Chicago who won a contest to appear in a Paramount Picture. Hooray for Hollywood).
And yet the appeal of the film, aside from that utter weirdness, is how it finds that B-movie paradise between the tawdry and the serious. There are real technical accomplishments in the film, from the makeup to the cinematography by Karl Struss, who had been behind the camera for more respectable movies, like F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise (1927). And even as it qualifies as primo vintage camp, there’s a subversively playful bite to its allegory as well. Moreau describes himself as “god”, and has made it his project to rid, train, condition, and surgically remove all bestial instincts from animals. Yet suppose this doctor or this god is a fraud, and that animals (and men) prefer to be beasts?
I imagine that this high-minded subtext comes from the H.G. Wells novel, and the rest comes from an early-1930s studio system that didn’t know any better. Enjoy it as such, but don’t dare call it “so bad it’s good”; there are some truly potent moments that no studio man would be able to get away with a few years later. The film’s last few seconds, where a genuinely disturbing horror movie finale suddenly gives way to the inappropriately cheerful, please-exit-the-theater end credits music, never fails to make me smile at what the industrial system of Old Hollywood was capable of.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.