Literature has taught us that, usually, when scientists are mentally dispossessed, they are gracious enough to go mad on a hidden island. H.G. Wells kicked that trend off, where a mad doctor secludes himself before asking for outsiders to enter. Good on Dr. Moreau, and if there were more like him and the talented, ruined mind he displays in Island of Lost Souls, then the world would likely be a safer place. Slam them onto a tropical island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away and see how they fare. If they develop weapons of some kind, then we should worry. But doubts are looming over their ability to do so when stuck on an island all alone. At least, Earle C. Kenton and his direction here make sure we are worried.
We should be terrified, for Dr. Moreau (here played by the great Charles Laughton) is not just a foreboding freak, but a talented scientist who has a few screws loose. He wanders the island, inventing and destroying what he can. Soon, he finds himself the demigod of mutant creatures. He has enabled his own race to rule over, and it is here that Kenton develops his themes so well. Man wishes to conquer, and what they cannot conquer, they weave and mould into their power. Wells’ novel is adapted with some credibility here, Island of Lost Souls envisions the natural attraction the crazed have to power, and their invariable desire to lead and conquer. That they will, but they do it in their own privacy, away from those that they could cause damage to.
Even then, it is the intentional removal of other factors that makes Island of Lost Souls so encapsulating. By removing the outside world, we can accept, understand and discuss the ethical issues that surround generating and developing a whole branch of humans to rule over. Laughton makes for a typically terrible leading villain, and his adaptation of Moreau is a marvellous one. Strong chemistry and an antagonistic outlook toward shipwreck survivor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). Both men turn in strong performances, and with supporting performers bringing the horrific experiments of Moreau to life, Kenton holds onto the broad, horrifying tones only the best horrors can cling onto. He manages them well enough, briefly, but ever-present. He deviates from those notes every now and then, but never enough to truly remove us from the awful premise of a man becoming the master of a new race.
Bela Lugosi lends his name to the feature and adds that post-Dracula desirability to Island of Lost Souls. Star power is alive and well. No wonder Ed Wood had it so good for so brief a time. Still, it is not the performance of Lugosi that lingers, but the iconography presented by Kenton. Ships sway in the fog, transporting animals locked in cages from ship to ship. Tough captains, crazed scientists and love interests are not just inevitable but integral for the workings of Island of Lost Souls. We are in capable hands with this cast and crew, who work with an efficient style and chemistry, bringing to life the horrid intentions of a man who wishes to be king of his own creatures.