A freighter bound for Apia, Samoa picks up a shipwrecked man named Edward Parker, intending to drop him off at said port, which just happens to be where his fiance, Ruth Thomas, is waiting for him. He's nursed back to health by Montgomery, a passenger with medical experience, and is shown about the ship, whose cargo consists of cages of wild animals like tigers and apes that are to be taken to a South Seas island owned by a scientist named Moreau. However, Parker has a disagreement with the ship's drunken captain after he mistreats an odd-looking servant of Montgomery's, leading to a violent confrontation, and when Moreau later meets them in the middle of the ocean to acquire his cargo, the captain throws Parker onto the doctor's small boat and sails away. Saddled with him an unwanted guest, Moreau, nevertheless, allows Parker to stay on his island, intending for Montgomery to take him to Apia the next morning. However, when they arrive, Moreau clearly now has new plans for Parker, taking him to his house at the center of the island, whose jungles are inhabited by bizarre, inhuman-looking natives, and introducing him to an exotically-lovely young woman named Lota, whom he's told is Polynesian. While talking with her, Parker hears horrific screams coming from a part of the house that Lota refers to as the "House of Pain" and is horrified to see what appears to be Moreau and Montgomery vivisecting a living person. He tries to escape with Lota, only for them to be corned in the jungle by a large group of the animal-like people. Before they can be hurt, Moreau appears and subdues the beast-men with the sound of a gong, brandishing his whip, and remind them of the "Law," one of the stipulations of which is not to "shed blood." Taking Parker and Lota back up to the house, Moreau tells the young man of his experiments, which started with the accelerated evolution of species of plant and has since graduated to animals, turning them into human-like creatures through his work. Privately, he reveals his intentions to keep Parker on the island in order to see just how human Lota, his ultimate creation, is by having her mate with the young man. And Parker is not the only one who's in danger from the madman's intentions, as Ruth, having learned where her fiance is, has chartered a ship to the island, and when she arrives, Moreau has no intention of letting another opportunity for radical experimentation slip away.
H.G. Wells himself made no secret of the fact that he did not like this film at all and one of the reasons was because they took the character of Dr. Moreau who, from what I've heard, is depicted in the book as a scientist who means well but is very misguided, and made him into an out-and-out villain. It's true, there's no sympathy to be had with Moreau here, as he's portrayed as a mad scientist in every sense of the term, one who is as unscrupulous as you can get and who sees no boundaries to how far he can go. He's also a very cruel and sadistic demigod to the inhabitants of his island, ruling over his creations with an iron fist and keeping them at bay with a crack of his whip, a "law" that he's forced upon them, and threats of the "House of Pain" in which he created them (he also uses some of his less successful creations as slaves to power the equipment he uses in his work). Indeed, he has a considerable god complex, as he goes as far as to ask Edward Parker in a vacant voice, "Do you know what it means to feel like God?", has no qualms about the painful experiments and surgeries he performs on his animal people, and doesn't find the very concept of his creations to be the least bit disturbing, as he feels he's simply accelerating the natural process of evolution. (When Parker is clearly horrified by the revelation that the creatures he's seen were created from animals, Moreau dismissively says, "Mr. Parker, spare me these youthful horrors, please.") When it comes to the experience of pain, particularly the shedding of tears, he sees it as a sign of progress in his creations, such as when Lota's sorrowful crying snaps him out of a brief instance of despair over his experiments seemingly failing because her past animal nature keeps creeping back in. He's motivated to experiment on her again, saying, "This time, I'll burn out all the animal in her!" And as I said, there are no lengths that Moreau won't go to succeed in his work, as he decides to make the inconvenience of being saddled with Parker work for him and introduce her to Lota. He becomes quite thrilled at the possibilities when he sees how she takes to Parker, telling Montgomery, "She's never seen anything like him... You and I don't count. The only reactions we get from her are fear and terror... But how will she respond to Parker where there's no cause for fear? Will she be attracted? Is she capable of being attracted? Has she a woman's emotional impulses? I could scarcely hope for a chance like this short of London." It seems like anyone who arrives on his island is fair game for his experiments, as Moreau infers that he intends to use Ruth Thomas in them as well when she arrives looking for Parker, telling Montgomery that he may not need Parker, and sends Ouran, an ape-like man, to stalk her in an attempt to see if he can successfully mate with her, just as he'd intended with Parker and Lota.
Just as much of a villain as Moreau himself is Captain Davies (Stanley Fields), the drunken bully of a captain of the ship that picks up Edward Parker. Davies was so drunk that he didn't even know that they had picked Parker up until he'd been nursed back to health by Montgomery and he and his passenger get off on the wrong foot almost immediately when he mistreats M'ling, Montgomery's servant (and the first beast-man you see), for a simple accident. The captain is infuriated by Parker's comment over his actions and takes a swing at him, only to get knocked unconscious himself. When Moreau meets them on his own small boat to take his cargo, Davies decides to get back at Parker by throwing him off the ship and onto the boat, pulling the ladder before he can climb back up. He has no sympathy for Parker's plight, telling him he can swim to Apia for all he cares, and when Moreau says that he can't have Parker aboard, he suggests he throw him overboard like he did. Davies' actions soon come back to haunt him when he reaches Apia and Ruth Thomas, who also takes an immediate disliking to him, informs the American Consul (George Irving) of what he's done. He takes Davies to task over his actions, telling him that Moreau's island was anything but a suitable port to drop Parker off, and while Davies is never seen again after this scene, we can guess that he probably faced severe repercussions for it and might have lost his license, as the Consul threatened him with. Soon afterward, Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) is introduced and he's a much more agreeable and likable captain, willingly taking Ruth to Moreau's island and looking out for her, although she makes it clear to him that she can take care of herself. Like her, he's pretty impressed by the island when they arrive, and he takes advantage of the doctor's hospitality, drinking a couple of glasses of wine at dinner that night and getting a tad bit inebriated, but despite that, he proves to be more than competent later when he rushes to Ruth's aid along with Parker when Ouran tries to break into her room. Upon seeing this, Donahue attempts to head back to his ship and get the crew ready so they can leave but Moreau has Ouran kill him, leading to the creatures deciding that the Law is no more and rising up against their creator.
As it was another Paramount production, a number of people who worked on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were brought over to Island of Lost Souls, one of them being production designer Hans Dreier. While location shooting of Moreau's island was done at Catalina, most of the scenes were filmed at the Paramount Movie Ranch, where Dreier created the jungle and Moreau's house in the middle of it. You can tell that the jungle itself is an artificial environment and feels much more claustrophobic than a real one would but it helps with the mood and atmosphere the film's going for, giving an otherworldly feeling to this place where science has run rampant and created a race of hideous yet pitiable creatures. The jungle is especially unnerving at night, as there seems to be pitch blackness everywhere, and then you have the presence of the animal-people lurking within, living in a small village near Moreau's house like crazed natives and behind a hill with a gong perched atop it that Moreau hits to get his creations' attention when they're being unruly. The main centerpiece of the film's art direction, though, is Moreau's house itself which, at first, is a fairly homey and cozy-feeling place sitting in the middle of the jungle, complete with nice bedrooms, a quaint, sunlit little dining room, and a lovely fountain out on the front lawn, but it's not long after you first hear the agonized sounds of Moreau's unwitting test subjects that you begin to see the more sinister aspects of the place. There's a big, barred, sliding gate on the wall at the front of the house; bars on the windows; plants, like orchids, lilies, and asparagus that Moreau has made monstrous through his experiments placed here and there throughout the house; cages where animals are kept for experimentation; a cell-like room where Lota is kept (the door of which has a small, sliding window that Moreau can use to look in on her); and the laboratory, known as the House of Pain. We don't get to see much of the inside of the House of Pain but it does indeed have that cold, clinical feel of a place where ungodly experiments have occurred, with lots of strange lab equipment, stretchers, an object that looks like a rack where subjects are strung up before being skinned (a similar such thing can later be seen in the Universal horror film, The Black Cat), and, as we see during the climax, sharp surgical instruments that Moreau has used to cut on the animals in order to make them more human-like. None of this production design is a particularly striking or iconic but it gets the job done, as does the ship that picks up Parker at the beginning, which you see enough of to know it's quite grimy and filthy from carrying big animals for so long and isn't the type of place you'd want to be by choice.
Cinematographer Karl Struss was another Jekyll and Hyde alumnus who was brought onto this and his contributions to the film are considerable, as he really helped to give it a mood just as much as, or even more so than, the production design. Before we get to Moreau's island, the film has already had an unsettling and mysterious feel thanks to the way Struss shoots the fog that the ship is often enveloped by (said fog was real, by the way, and is kind of similar to the one that the Venture has to go through to reach Kong's island in King Kong the following year), how he makes even the scenes that clearly take place in broad daylight feel overcast and dark (which you often get in early black-and-white films like this, thanks to the primitive nature of the filters), and how he backlit and obscured the "people" that are on the boat with Moreau when he meets up with the ship, as well as those waiting for him on the island. His cinematography and lighting during these early scenes are so good that I actually thought this gorilla you see in a cage was real but it was actually veteran gorilla performer Charles Gemora in a really good-looking suit, that was also helped by his very realistic performance. Getting to the island, as I said, the jungle there is often obscured by deep darkness, especially during the nighttime scenes, adding to the creepiness of the animal-people's look when they emerge from it, and Struss doesn't make the interiors of Moreau's house any more inviting, as there are many, many shots of deep, long shadows obscuring and enveloping the characters, particularly whenever Moreau is showing his most sinister side. The dark and shadows also add to the feeling of both Parker and Montgomery being trapped on the island, unable to escape for their own, individual reasons, and this is punctuated further by how tight and claustrophobic both the jungle and the house's interiors are framed in the shots. Moreover, there are some shots that are filmed straight through the bars on the house's gate, windows, and such, making it feel as though the characters really are imprisoned in this nightmarish place.
While he doesn't get to play with the camera as much as he did on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Struss still gets a few opportunities to do some interesting things with it. Like in that film, there are a number of really tight close-ups, not just on people's faces (the most notable of which are on the Sayer of the Law in his first appearance and on Moreau and Parker during their face-off after the latter discovers what Lota is, the two of them slowly approaching the camera, leading up to Parker slugging Moreau), but also on the appendages of the animal-people, like M'ling's furry ear, which Parker sees after Captain Davies has knocked him to the deck, giving him his first clue that there's something weird going, and on Lota's returning panther claws, which leads to Parker's confrontation with Moreau. Speaking of Lota, the most creative bit of visual storytelling in the film occurs during the scene between her and Parker at the fountain, where she tosses the book he's using to try to build a radio to call for help into the water because she doesn't want him to leave. The camera cuts to the surface of the water as the book drops into it, obscuring the reflection of the two of them with the ripples, and it stays there while the water clears as they continue talking, with Lota sitting on the edge and sticking her feet into the water, which leads into the moment where Parker briefly submits to his instincts and kisses her. It's something you could definitely see Rouben Mamoulian doing if he had been the one directing this.
The year after he worked his magic on Frederic March, Wally Westmore once again proved that he was more than a match for Jack Pierce when it came to creating monster makeups, and this time, he had to create far more than just one. Because of that, he was also helped by Charles Gemora, the aforementioned gorilla suit performer who was also both a stuntman and a makeup artist, whose specialty was putting hair on people. (His talent is on display in that moment at the beginning there, as that great-looking gorilla suit he wore was also made by him, according to Bob Burns, who was a friend of his.)The results of their joining forces are not only cool to look at but also quite unsettling in many cases, mainly because, unlike the other adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau that came later, the creatures look human for the most part ant yet, there's still enough animal in them to where you can get an idea of what they were before Moreau experimented on them. M'ling (Tetsu Komai), Moreau's house servant, is the first prominent one that you see, as he's with Montgomery on the ship that picks Parker up, and he looks Oriental but you can tell that there's something inhuman about him right away with the loping way in which he moves before you see his furry, pointed ears, his sharp teeth, and slightly dog-like nose. In fact, near the end of the movie when he tries to help Moreau when the other animal-people are rising up against him, Montgomery refers to M'ling as a "loyal dog," revealing that's probably what he was and, in fact, the "dog" that got loose from Moreau's lab while he was still in England could have been him in an early stage of what he would eventually become. I'm not sure what the Sayer of the Law was supposed to have been, as the coarse hair that covers his face and head, as well as what little we see of the other parts of his body, don't give many clues, although I've heard that he was possibly a wolf. If that's true, that would be really ironic, given how Bela Lugosi would do on to play the werewolf that curses Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man. Ouran (Hans Steinke), the big, burly, hairy creature that we see quite a bit of amongst the others on the island and who takes an interest in Ruth when she first arrives, was clearly an ape at one point, more than likely a gorilla like the one that was seen on the ship. He's significant in that he not only tries to get to Ruth per Moreau's instructions (making this another film that, like Murders in the Rue Morgue the same year, seemed to predict the release of King Kong a year from then) but his murder of Captain Donahue and his proclaiming that Moreau told him to violate the Law leads to the uprising. Aside from Lota, of course, the other animal-people in the film are just faces that make up a crowd and their designs are somewhat basic, although some of them do manage to stand out, particularly this pig-man (Buster Brodie) who informs everyone of the arrival of Ruth and Donahue's ship and who is the most unsettling-looking of them all to me (his high-pitched voice doesn't help), and this one creature that, when he charges at Moreau with the others, you can tell was once a hoofed animal, possibly a horse, given his right foot. (I've also seen images of this really freaky creature with a half-leopard face that wasn't used in the finished film and that's a shame, because it was nightmarish, to say the least.)
Just as disturbing as the way the animal-people look is the very idea behind them. The theme of loss of humanity has always been one that I felt was very palpable, which is why I, more often than not, respond to any types of films about people becoming monsters, like werewolf movies, the various versions of The Fly, the body horror films of David Cronenberg, and so on, but this I find to be even more unsettling. The idea of Dr. Moreau performing painful, surgical experiments on various types of animals and causing them to become freakish creatures that are very human-like but not quite is not only infinitely more disturbing but also more a significant violation of nature than anything that happens to the people in those movies I mentioned. I'm not a crazed animal rights activist by any means but the fact that there are laboratories and other facilities that use them as test subjects in various ways is something that always gets under my skin, even if it is done legally and for a good cause, and this movie is like the most extreme version possible of the horrors they must go through (that was one of H.G. Wells' incentives for writing the original novel). Not only is it the cutting, the vivisection, and what they've ultimately become, but the way that Moreau has also taught them to talk and think much in the same way as people in order instill the fear of the "House of Pain" in them (just look at how terrified Lota is when she realizes that Moreau is going to work on her again in there) and even go as far as to make them think of him as their god with the Law whose commandments they must obey. Speaking of the House of Pain, it provides the moment that's the biggest source of nightmare fuel in my opinion. Before we find out what it is, we've already heard the agonized sounds from it emanating throughout Moreau's house, but after Parker has made his failed escape attempt with Lota and has been brought back to the house, Moreau takes him into the lab and shows him the creature that he saw him and Montgomery performing surgery on earlier. As it lies there on a stretcher, Moreau examines its head and mouth, as it lets out a bloodcurdling, high-pitched scream that's not quite human but not quite animalistic, either. I can remember being thoroughly unnerved by that the first time I heard it (it still gets to me every time I watch the movie) and it's made all the worse by how unaffected by it Moreau is, as well as his nonchalant dismissal of Parker's reaction to learning that it and the other creatures were once normal animal.
You also have the notion of how the creatures' two sides appear to be at war with each other, as they have to obey the Law and yet, they experience the desire to act like beasts, as seen when M'ling tries to attack the unconscious Captain Davies when he recovers from being shoved to the deck and when Parker and Lota are cornered by the "natives" in their village before Moreau intervenes. You also have to wonder how they deal with the alien thoughts that must be constantly running through their heads and the confusion they must feel, particularly when Moreau orders Ouran to violate the Law by killing Captain Donahue, leading them to realize that there is no power to the Law if it can broken so easily and that Moreau can die just like Donahue. Nowhere is this conflict clearer than in the character of Lota, whose curious nature leads to her feeling love towards Parker, an emotion that she doesn't recognize or understand, and then, the discovery of what she is when it's revealed that her fingernails have become claws, leading her to shed tears of sorrow over Parker's rejection and Moreau's frustration, which is another emotion she probably doesn't fully understand. One she does understand, though, is fear of the House of Pain, which she comes to feel full on when Moreau declares that he will "burn" what's left of her animal side out of her and he can only cackle like the madman he is while she recoils in abject terror. Whatever good Moreau may have initially seen in his experiments makes little difference in the face of all this, especially Lota's sad existence (it's not hard to understand why this really horrified and infuriated Parker), hitting home that what he's doing is just morally wrong.
While I like it, I wouldn't put Island of Lost Souls on the list of my all-time favorite horror films or even on my list of the best horror films of the 1930's because, as many things as there are to like about it, by the time we get to the third act, I'm ready for it to end. It's not a long movie at all (just 70 minutes), but the lack of any memorable characters aside from Dr. Moreau, Lota, and the animal-people begins to take its toll by that point, as I don't really care what happens to Parker and Ruth because of how bland they are, and I feel the climax devolves into little more than a bunch of chaos, with the creatures turning on Moreau, their uprising causing a fire that threatens to consume his house and the entire island, while the couple, Montgomery, and Lota attempt to make their escape. There is the nice comeuppance that Moreau receives when his creations cut him apart in the House of Pain and the idea after Lota's death that there will be nothing left of his work once it's all over, which is as it should be, but those are about the only thing I like about the climax, as it feels like all of the film's deeper aspects have been tossed aside for the routine Hollywood ending of the period. Maybe the book ends in this way, I don't know, but by the time we get that last shot of the survivors rowing away from the island, it feels like what started out as a really unsettling film for the time led to a very typical ending.
As you might expect, this is one of those early sound films that doesn't have a music score to it, save for the opening and ending credits, which feature stock, jungle-style music by Arthur Johnston (who would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for the title song of Pennies from Heaven) and Sigmund Krumgold, and it acts as a mixed bag in my opinion. On the plus side, the lack of music punctuates the sounds of the jungle surrounding Moreau's house, be it the normal jungle sounds or the small village of animal-people nearby, as well as the ungodly sounds of agony coming from the House of Pain; on the other hand, though, in scenes where nothing that significant or eerie is happening and there's no dialogue, the lack of music, combined with the muted sound quality of the time, tends to have something of a lethargic effect on me due to the lack of stimulus. Now, some horror movies of this period are quite eerie due to the poor sound quality and the lack of music, with Dracula being a prime example, but in other cases (M being another), it makes me feel really fatigued and works against the movie, which is kind of the case here. It's probably a case of personal experience on my part but that's how it makes me feel.