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Sunday, September 2, 2012

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

This last of the Pre-Code Hollywood Horror classics to appear on DVD in a properly restored edition (via Criterion) is well worth the wait. A free adaptation of H. G. Wells, and much censored over the years, it’s nearly as creepy & unsettling as it must have seemed 80 years ago. In form & setting, it’s cousin to THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME/’32 (isolated island jungle, mad master-race ruler, shipwreck opening, Richard Arlen in for Joel McCrea), while its theme of tampering with human life is a fun-house mirror of FRANKENSTEIN/’31. Charles Laughton, showing plenty of acting discipline as Dr. Moreau, has seen his experiments in surgical eugenics go horribly wrong, populating his island with near-human monstrosities. These unfortunates still have the power to cause some real shivers, especially when Moreau goes to work on them in his ‘House of Pain’ operating room. The whole cast seems caught up in the dreadful atmosphere with Arlen & Bela Lugosi doing some of their best work while supporting stalwart Arthur Hohl, as Moreau’s second-in-command, shows what he could do given a multi-dimensional character. Helmer Erle Kenton spent most of his career on low-budget fare, including some Frankenstein retreads in the ‘40s, but here, with a decent budget & the great cinematographer Karl Struss, he shows a remarkably fluid technique for the day.* Even with a restored running time, the film shortchanges us on exposition & motivation, yet it’s managed not to acquire the antique charm of its horror brethren, still giving off a clammy sense of doom that’s hard to shake off even in our ironic, post-modern times.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *With good production values and the prestigious presence of Charles Laughton, this was a plum assignment for director Erle Kenton. But its general look, especially the atmospheric opening reels, may owe just as much to his deference to Paramount’s great cinematographer Karl Struss. Those fog bound waters with ships passing each other, and the introductory scenes on the island look like the Hollywood horror pic F. W. Murnau might have made. After all, Murnau’s NOSFERATU/’22 may be the first great horror pic, and Struss co-shot SUNRISE/’27 for him @ Fox with Charles Rosher. NOSFERATU remains a problematic title, but is much improved after a major 2007 restoration. Try the latest 2-disc edition from KINO.

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