Island of Lost Souls watched via Criterion Blu-ray
In 1956, Paramount Pictures sold the majority of its pre-1948 film library to MCA for quick cash. MCA later merged with Universal, leaving Paramount's early film catalog with that studio. This presented a problem in the question of releasing Paramount's early horror films on DVD, because Universal had its own horror brand that was strongly linked with films that were explicitly produced by that studio. Universal tended to release its horror films in sets or special editions centered around a particular monster. Paramount's horror films were few and tended not to fit in with Universal's marketing/groupings.
At least two of the films, 1932's Island of Lost Souls
(adapted from H.G. Wells'
"Island of Dr. Moreau") and 1944's The Uninvited
(a haunted house tale starring Ray Milland), are bona fide masterpieces, but for a while it looked like they would never see a proper release beyond the existing VHS versions*. In the case of Island of Lost Souls
, prospects were particularly bleak, as no original negatives survived -- only some prints that were in less-than-stellar condition.
Thank the cinema deities for Criterion Collection, which licensed both films from Universal for release on both DVD and Blu-ray. Island
came out in 2011 and The Uninvited
will come out later this month.
I watched this last night after not having seen it for decades and it really holds up. It came in right before enforcement of the Production Code started, so there's a lot of surprising elements, like a quick scene of mad scientist Dr. Moreau (an excellent Charles Laughton) performing surgery on one of his man-animal creations. The ending was just as brutal as I always remembered it being (while being mostly suggested after a tasteful pan away).
There are, unsurprisingly, some major problematic elements. The evolutionary scientist is an unscrupulous madman who casts himself as the god of his creations. There's also a lot of sexism and gender essentialism surrounding the two female characters. One of the underlying themes is "there are things man is not meant to know", but thankfully that's buried under "brutality begets brutality" and "maybe science works best with patience and possibly some control groups" (I may be bringing my own prejudices in here a bit on that last one).
In any case, it's a brilliant, brilliant film, featuring great performances from Laughton as well as Bela Lugosi in a small role as the furry, wide-eyed Sayer of Law. The screenplay is succinct and to the point, while still weaving in the themes I discussed earlier (and a few others). Director Erle C. Kenton works with cinematographer Karl Struss to create some visually dynamic sequences, including some unnerving uses of shadow.
Whatever Criterion did to restore the film works, because it's looking gorgeous. They also put together a rich package of extras. I only had the chance to sample two of them. One is a featurette where Devo's Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh discuss the influence that Island of Lost Souls
had on the underlying philosophy of the band during its formation. The other is Devo's difficult-to-watch-but-impossible-not-
to-watch 1976 short film In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution
, which features them performing Secret Agent Man
and Jocko Homo
I will post about Night Vale Live separately later on. Probably. I will say that Bobak Ferdowsi was there, sitting across the aisle from our group. That was frickin' awesome.
* Paramount had at least one other horror masterpiece from that era, 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
, but that is owned by Warner Bros. for complicated reasons.