Even today, it's disturbing. The British Board of Film Censors banned it three times, in 1933, 1951 and 1957, eventually giving it an X certificate in 1958. Charles Laughton claimed that thereafter for the rest of his life he couldn't go to a zoo, although he might have been joking.
It's an adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau. Wells hated it, incidentally. He thought they'd turned his treatise on scientific morality into mere lurid horror, which is true enough but overlooks the fact that the movie is a stronger treatment of his themes. It's less contemplative, but that's because it's more dramatic. It also invents a more powerful ending, which wasn't really a strength of Wells's, e.g. War of the Worlds.
What made it disturbing, for me, was its resonances. There have been other Dr Moreau adaptations, but there's something unique and horrible about the way this film's themes engage with its era. Today it would be a parable about genetic engineering, which is topical enough, but the 1930s is the height of eugenics and European colonialism. The Nazis were gathering in Germany and would in the following decade create an association between eugenics and "racial hygiene", concentration camp experiments and planned genocide. Mainstream opinion held that coloured people were inherently inferior, if not sub-human. Mental patients were being sterilised across the Western world and soon were also going to start getting lobotomised. In fairness this film contains no Nazis, but it almost immediately underlines its historical context by showing us Leila Hyams living in a colonial outpost somewhere.
These are the resonances underpinning the sight of ape-men being vivisected by a jolly, plummy-voiced Charles Laughton. Furthermore those man-animals are being played by actors with foreign accents. Tetsu Komai is audibly Japanese, while Bela Lugosi hasn't got any less Hungarian since you last heard him.
I'm not saying I dislike the film, mind you. I could understand someone deciding to call it racist, but I think that would be a misjudgement. Trying to disentangle issues of racism and eugenics from Wells's themes would be like trying to design a sun that wasn't hot. What it is however is cutting very, very near the bone.
Our main man is of course Charles Laughton and he's doing something not dissimilar to Peter Cushing's take on Frankenstein, which is to play this mad scientist as sane and almost charming. He reminded me of a good friend, actually. He's polite, highly intelligent and knows exactly what he's doing. It's just that he's also a psychopath who doesn't care about anything or anyone except his scientific theories. It's a powerhouse of a performance from his early days in Hollywood and he's putting so much into it that he comes close to overshadowing everything else in the film put together.
Then there's the women. Did I mention that this is a pre-Code film? Our noble, headstrong and slightly simple-minded hero is Richard Arlen. He has a beautiful fiancee, Leila Hyams, who's all times dressed in pure, virginal white. However on the other hand he also finds himself thrown together with Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman, who wears exotic bikinis and doesn't know how to turn down the sexual volume. They both like him, a lot. He likes them. Mix that together with Laughton's X-rated plans for his captives (including rape and bestiality) and you've got a whole other world of shocking potential.
Lugosi doesn't get much to do, though, and he's almost hairier than he was in The Wolf Man
. However it feels right that he's the Sayer Of The Law.
There have of course been other Dr Moreau movies. There are two Philippines-USA co-productions, from 1959 and 1973, of which the latter stars Pam Grier as the Panther Woman. After that came three American adaptations, of which Marlon Brando's in 1996
had the worst production nightmare ever and the 2004 straight-to-video one
is by Full Moon Entertainment. I'll probably watch them all. I'm not proud. I've seen Full Moon films before and so have you, if you've seen Puppet Master
, Demonic Toys or a Trancers sequel.
Incidentally the mutants' language here was created by recording animal sounds and foreign languages, which were then played backwards at alternating speeds. The results had audiences vomiting in cinemas.
This is quite a film. The original novel was tackling meaty themes, coming out as it did in the 19th century when people still remembered the hysteria over Darwin's The Origin of Species. This film though brings appalling resonances of its own, to which I can't see any other film ever coming close. A modern adaptation certainly couldn't. The 1970s versions will be of interest, but I don't expect them to capture what this film did. There are better or more gothic pre-Code horror films, but of all the ones I've seen it's the most explosive. No sex or gore, but it doesn't need them.
"Do you know what it means to feel like God?"