Saturday, February 16, 2008

Island Of Lost Souls

The Island of Dr. Moreau [1896]
Written by H. G. Wells

Island of Lost Souls [1932]
Written by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young
Directed by Erle C. Kenton

"The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in youthful blasphemy. Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation." - H. G. Wells

The setup for The Island of Dr. Moreau has become a part of our cultural currency: a mad doctor performs horrific experiments on animals in order to reshape them as humans. The tale has grown in status in the age of genetic modification. In fact, in light of recent advances in technology, some of Moreau's early experiments don't seem too far beyond the pale. What is lost in the shuffle though is how exactly Moreau performs his work---he is a vivisectionist. Dr. Moreau combines creatures the old-fashioned way: he cuts them open (alive and without anesthesia) and excises the bad tissue and sutures in the new tissue (species match be damned). Wells never wallows in gore, but, like a Hitchcock murder, the reader gets enough information to, pardon the pun, put the pieces together. Moreau's assistant, Montgomery, tells the narrator, Prendick, how Moreau's work in London was exposed after a flayed dog escaped the doctor's laboratory and tore skinless through the city. That image alone disgusts me more than the ample flying viscera in the countless splatterpunk books I've read.

The above quote from Wells comes from his introduction to a collection of his early science-fiction novels (The Time Machine, Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods). Within the same essay, Wells acknowledges the influence of Jonathan Swift on his work. Upon closer inspection, once you've made it past the rank smells of animal-men and spilt blood, The Island of Dr. Moreau is revealed as a Swiftian satire along the lines of "A Modest Proposal." Wells was an atheist; Moreau is a nasty display on the use of religion as societal control. In the novel, Moreau and Montgomery keep order amongst the beast people with The Law. The Law governs the conduct of the beast people in all facets of their lives. The Law prohibits the eating of certain foods (flesh and fish). The Law requires absolute monogamy. The Law prohibits killing. And those who break The Law will be punished! Sound familiar? Like it maybe came for the Torah, Bible, or Koran perhaps? Even better, when Moreau dies, Prendick and Montgomery tell the beast people that he (Moreau) left his earthly body behind and had gone into the sky to watch over the beast people eternally. Subtle, I know....

The first film adaptation of Moreau, Island of Lost Souls, shies away from the religious satire (though Moreau opines at one point that he now knows how a God feels), but replaces it with more outright kinkiness. In the novel, Moreau had created creatures both man and woman; in the film, he has only recently created the irresistible Panther Woman...and he needs a hot young stud to take his handiwork out for a test drive. The Prendick analogue, here called Edward Parker, seems like a perfect male specimen for the interspecies hijinks, but he's engaged and won't cheat on his sweetheart with some hot feline jungle bimbo. (This is quickly becoming a Joe Bob Briggs-styled review: "We've got beast man-fu, whip-fu, and even some hot feline jungle bimbo-fu." ) Of course, Parker's girl ends up on the island just in time for the whole place to go apeshit, literally. The animal men revolt and drag the evil ole' Moreau into the surgical theater, aptly known as the House of Pain, for some poetic justice. The engaged couple and Montgomery flee as the island burns.

Although not that faithful an adaptation, Island of Lost Souls holds up today as an above-average pre-Code Hollywood horror flick. The makeup is good for the time; worthy of particular praise is the work done to create the beast man M'ling. The glimpses we get of Moreau's demise are chilling without being over the top grotesque. And Bela Lugosi is priceless in full furface getup as the Sayer of the Law. You might not recognize his face, but that cat's accent jumps right out with every line he gets (and, considering his character, he gets some great lines).

Definitely read the book; check out the movie if you can find it (it's not on DVD just yet, but the VHS seems to be readily available). Both movie and book seem to be key influences on two American New Wave bands. Devo took the repeated chant "Are we not men?" from the Sayer of the Law's liturgy. Oingo Boingo wrote an entire song about the novel: "No Spill Blood" on the album Good For Your Soul. Got that, ya Hot Topic shoppin' little babybats? Danny Elfman thinks it's cool. So put down your Johnen Vasquez comics and read a muthafuckin' book!

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