Plot: Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) finds himself at odds with the captain of the ship he travels on, as the crew heads to a mysterious, isolated island. The island is an odd place with a shady reputation, thanks to the most prominent resident, the eerie Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). After another argument with the captain, Parker finds himself stranded on the island and is taken in by Moreau. While Parker has a weird vibe as soon as he arrives, he begins to suspect there is a lot going on in Moreau’s compound that is hidden. This is due to a blend of odd events and Moreau’s own malevolent presence, both which push Parker to dig deeper into what the island holds. But is Dr. Moreau just an eccentric who enjoys the tropical lifestyle, or is he some kind of twisted scientist involved in horrific experiments?
Entertainment Value: The movie business has made a few runs at bringing H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau to the big screen, but none have been able to capture the spirit of the source book. Even so, the best of the lot is Island of Lost Souls, a dark and bleak slice of pre-code cinema. The narrative here is what you’d expect and while the movie doesn’t follow the book’s paces to the letter, it is fairly in the ballpark on some fronts and to me, gets a lot right in the process. The tone is dark and often brutal, with a lot more edge than some might expect and Island of Lost Souls certainly takes advantage of the creative freedoms the pre-code era afforded. The sadistic side of Dr. Moreau is brought to life and the general mood is so oppressive, you just know things will get much worse before the final curtain falls. The pace is remarkable, as Island of Lost Souls runs just 70 minutes, but imparts so much development, so not a single minute is wasted and the efficiency is impressive. I always admire these kind of lean movies that eschew filler, as they’re often so effective and of course, quite rare. The visuals, the atmosphere, the cast, all the piece fall into place with this one and while it might wander from the source, this is the best adaptation of Wells’ book out there.
I think most of the performances here are quite good, especially given the dark, b movie vibes involved, but Charles Laughton steals the show. He really embraces the darker aspects of Dr. Moreau and thanks to a fearless script, he is given plenty to work with and he delivers a memorable villain. Of course, he doesn’t think he is a bad man, just a man with visionary goals that mere mortals could never understand. Laughton isn’t afraid to dial up the melodrama and camp things up at times, but never loses that dark edge and the bursts of mania only serve to make him seem more unstable. It is a powerful and memorable performance, a centerpiece for Island of Lost Souls and you need a great Moreau in this narrative, which he more than lives up to. Kathleen Burke is also more than a little memorable in a smaller role, while Richard Arlen is a solid lead and our hero of sorts for this piece. I do think Arlen tends to get outshined by Laughton, but the good guys are rarely as much fun to watch as the villains, so it makes sense Arlen would be upstaged often here. The cast also includes Bela Lugosi, Leila Hyams, Arthur Hohl, and Stanley Fields.