The horrors Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls might seem obvious at first glance. The freakish man-beasts that are the result of Dr. Moreau’s experiments feature still-impressive make-up work. The jungle on the island is close and foreboding, with expressive shadows and light. Charles Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is sadistic and sinister. But the fear and discomfort that the film carries and eventually leaves us with is of bodily violation, mutilation, and disfigurement. Moreau forces animal bodies into shapes in which they don’t fit and don’t belong, and he destroys any sense of bodily or even sexual autonomy to which sentient creatures are entitled. It is a horror film about physical violation. This is Cronenbergundian (to use that director’s preferred descriptor) before there was a Cronenberg.
The film was famously banned in the UK for 25 years, in no small part due to Moreau’s claim to be like a god. This does not seem to be a baseless claim. In the film we see him “elevate” creatures to sentience and near-human intelligence, subverting biological or theological design. He sees himself as above them, handing down laws from on high and punishing sinners. The House of Pain – Moreau’s laboratory – where he violently punishes insubordinate creatures is also the place where he gives them their new bodies and minds. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Moreau pointedly doesn’t use anesthetic in his experiments. He wants to inflict pain in order to establish himself as the one with the power. Pain is power, and Moreau has ensured that he is the only one allowed to cause it. The beast men that he creates echo the hollow mantra “Are we not men?” lead by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi). The three laws establish the hierarchy of control. Not to eat meat, not to go on all fours, not to spill blood - they deny their true nature at the behest of Moreau seemingly out of desire to be human, but it’s clear that it’s out of fear of the House of Pain, of vivisection and torture. They desperately want to please their abuser. To further explore the horror of violation, the screenwriters Waldermar Young and Philip Wylie introduce a sexual element to H.G. Wells’ story in the form of a new storyline and characters. The hero Parker - played with headstrong stiffness by Richard Arlen - is given a fiancé named Ruth (Leila Hyams) and Moreau is given his most “perfect” creation, Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When Moreau forces Lota to attempt to seduce Parker, the question of her consent or desire never seems to enter Moreau’s mind. He gleefully watches her forced and clumsy attempts at flirtation and seduction. Seemingly, he wants to see how well his greatest creation mimics human women. But when Parker rejects Moreau’s experiment upon discovering the truth about Lota, he orders one of his beastmen to rape Parker’s fiancé, abandoning any pretense of scientific exploration in his desperate attempt to exert his violent control on everyone he encounters, whether animal, human, or something in between. He will rape, torture, and dismember whoever he chooses to achieve his ends. But Moreau is human, and when his desperation becomes clear, Moreau’s beastmen finally see that Moreau is not God, only a torturer, and that he has mutilated them into their current ill-fitting forms. They turn on him, returning him to the House of Pain to force his own tortures back upon him. The film closes on a shot of the laboratory burning, Moreau’s own howls of pain echoing through the dark jungle.There is an unfortunate subtext of eugenics, anti-miscegenation, and racism in this film (Parker at first believes Lota to be “full Polynesian”) which marks it as a product of its time. But it’s the horror of vivisection, of rape and sexual violation, of bodies forced into shapes that they don’t fit, which creates such revulsion, a visceral reaction that remains potent today. Moreau exerts his will through violence against mind and body, and the audience is not spared the consequences.