Kenton - 2013 08 02 - Island of Lost Souls

USA 1932
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Running time: 71 minutes
Format: 35mm

To my knowledge, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS features the first-ever opening dissolve that transitions between the Paramount logo and a real, story-world mountain. The move garnered renewed interest in 2008 when Paramount released INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (Spielberg). But this is perhaps the shallowest of traditions ignited by this influential pre-code horror film. In 1932, Universal Pictures was the fledgling champion of the monster movie, having released DRACULA (Browning) and FRANKENSTEIN (Whale) only a year earlier. Both tonight’s feature and Universal’s THE MUMMY (Freund) were slated for a December 1932 release. It is perhaps interesting to note that, while Kenton does depict literally disfigured beasts and horrendous mutants (like Universal’s titular monsters), the film’s most blatant monstrosity is the very human Dr. Moreau, played assiduously by Charles Laughton, whose sadistic, lecherous tendencies have been sublimated into the mad science of biological experimentation.

Seem unlikely? Well, a 1939 issue of Photoplay might change your mind. In its final write-up, “What is Hollywood Thinking?” the issue asked, “Do you advocate the sterilization of mentally unfit persons?” On the verge of WWII, 91% of our nation’s popular imaginateurs answered yes. So if you must suspend your disbelief, don’t do so for the sake of fiction, do so for the sake of history. (Credit goes to blogger Nitrate Diva for the anecdote.)

Cinematographer Karl Struss’ low key-light setups, shadow effects and ominous foregrounds are unsettling and profound. The photographer won a Best Cinematography Oscar for his work on SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (Murnau, 1927) and lensed DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (Mamoulian) for Paramount in 1931. By 1949, Struss was pioneering stereo cinematography (3D, for the uninitiated). It’s hard to imagine masterful horror films like EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Franju, 1960) or even WAKE IN FRIGHT (Kotcheff, 1971) in a world without ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.

02 August 2013