In the context of 1932, “Island of Lost Souls” is a bold, experimental picture. This was before the time of “King Kong”‘s effects and the scope of films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Wizard of Oz,” and the most successful horror films were “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” And yet, this film features an elaborate yet modern mad scientist with more ambition than he does servants, hell-bent on seeing how far he can take his experiments on animals. The film does its best to adapt H.G. Wells’ novel with the best technology and effects they could produce at the time.
That being said, “Island of Lost Souls” is incredibly dated. The dialogue and audio has that same scratchy, hard-to-understand tone that most films from the early 1930s had, and the makeup and effects on the many creatures Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) has experimented on are clearly just big guys with lots of hair glued on. The story has been simplified to focus on its big male lead Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and we’re given no reason to sympathize with the mad scientist that should be the focus of the story rather than being the antagonist that has only a few tricks up his sleeve.
The main reason to watch “Island of Lost Souls” these days is to see Charles Laughton play god in the most sadistic yet quiet way possible. He plays the role as if he were the puppet master, where he feels like he can manipulate everyone around him to his whim, toying with everyone without hardly ever raising his voice above a whisper. It comes across like he has everything calculated and planned, like this is all a game of chess to him and he’s already won. His ambition is as big as his ego, and Laughton plays it with as much charm as we’ve come to expect from him.
Overall, “Island of Lost Souls” is fine if dated picture from the early 1930s that is bolstered by a great performance from Charles Laughton. As far as pre-Hayes Code horror goes, this one is about as grotesque as they could get at the time. At only 71 minutes long, the film flies by at a brisk pace and feels like it tells a two-hour long story in less than half the time. If you’re a fan of 1930s horror or are curious how effects-driven films were done at this time, I’d suggest checking this one out.
Final Grade: C+