15 March 2012

ARE WE NOT MEN?

With a thin week of wide releases and nothing in the art house looking worth the trip the best course of action seemed to be to arbitrarily pick a few DVDs that have been staring me in the face, unwatched, and make a theme of it. Thus do I declare the first day of '30s Week at Antagony & Ecstasy.

It's hard to tell which seems quainter: that there was once a time when the very idea of a mad scientist creating human-animal hybrids was so offensive to common standards of decency that it could get a film more or less banned, or that there was more recently a time when the title The Island of Dr. Moreau didn't first call to mind the ghastly spectre of Marlon Brando at his most uncompromisingly degraded.

Such a time, in fact, as 1932, when Paramount Pictures made one of their few entries into what was then the fairly new world of paranormal horror films. That was still but a single year after the release of Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein, and mainstream American filmmakers didn't really have a handle on the genre yet; it was still viewed as borderline pornographic in some quarters, and other than Universal itself, there are only a few examples of true horror from the other majors until well after the end of WWII; it was just a bit too hot too handle. This was a truth Paramount learned the hard way with their adaptation of H.G. Well's 1896 novel Dr. Moreau under the new title Island of Lost Souls, which even by the roaring standards of pre-Code Hollywood was such an edgy film that it was nearly impossible to find it in an uncut version, or any version at all if you lived in Great Britain, where it remained banned for two and a half decades.

Nowadays, on the backside of the Hammer Gothics, the slasher, the torture porn, God knows how man vampire and werewolf movies, and network television programs that lovingly describe violence that would have made the hardest-core gorehound of the 1930s blanch, Island of Lost Souls has, of course, lost a whole lot of its gruesome edge, though perhaps not quite all of it. The film retains a certain power that comes from the disjunction between its age and its content; there are certain things one learns to expect from a '30s movie, and seeing them violated is jarring for us moderns, though of course not as jarring as it would have been at the time. I am reminded of showing a friend The Band Wagon, and him observing that a brief flash of Cyd Charisse's panties in one shot was more erotic than the overt sex of a contemporary movie, because of the way it feels like the movie was getting away with something naughty; and so it is with Island of Lost Souls, which has the plunging black shadows and square compositions of a film made late during the transition-to-sound era, but which has a free approach to violence and warped sexuality that does not fit the aesthetic, and gives the film a charge beyond what a mere description of its contents might suggest.

Such a description, for those who have not read the novel nor seen any of the cinematic interpretations more or less based upon it, concerns a traveler named Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), who is caught in a shipwreck in the south Pacific, and rescued by a passing freighter; he is regarded with something akin to murderous fury by the ship's captain (Stanley Fields), and dropped at the very next sign of habitation they encounter, an island so tiny and remote that it doesn't show up on any sea charts. Its proprietor is a certain Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a portly fellow who takes Parker in for the night; but in solid Most Dangerous Game fashion, Moreau has a secret: the island is the site of his experiments in genetically engineering animals to look and act like human beings, and if it weren't enough that this is something of a useless perversion, it would be enough to secure the doctor's evil genius credentials that he seems to take more delight than is necessary in acting as god to the beast-men, and in causing pain to them in the course of his experiments. This is, among other things, a crystal-clear example of the conservative impulse in horror, the most inherently conservative of film genres; it is about things being changed and manipulated solely for the perverse love of change, and what is horrifying is above everything else the idea of being contaminated by these unclean things. The scholar of horror sociology can hardly hope to find a better example of the moral play about tampering in God's domain.

At 70 immensely fleet minutes (and it could have used another five in the middle, honestly), Island of Lost Souls doesn't have the luxury to do much with this situation other than introduce it and then bring along Parker's girlfriend, Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) to save him; in fact, the addition of a love interest is one of the main breaks this film makes with the novel. The other is the introduction of Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), the only female in Moreau's menagerie; the doctor immediately sees the arrival of a man of breeding age as exactly what his attempts to humanise Lota have been wanting. That means, in other words, that Island of Lost Souls gets an added dose of specifically sexual horror missing from the book; one suspects that this is partially what made it so particularly offensive to 1932 audiences. And it frankly still works, 80 whole years later.

In fact, for all the considerable representational advances in horror since the film was new, it's impressive just how much icky energy Island of Lost Souls can still kick off. There's the sexual aspect, plainly, which doesn't just include Lota either. There's also the phenomenal design of the beast-men, make-up effects designed by the legendary Wally Westmore that don't look "real" even according to the standards that Boris Karloff's monster in Frankenstein looks somewhat like a quilt of corpses. Thing is, in the context of the film, that unreality works: it adds a layer of artifice to the creatures, a feeling that they are made and not in anyway natural that is far uncannier, if perhaps less disturbing, than really persuasive effects might have done.

It helps that most of the time we see the beasts, they're creeping out of the dense bushes of the backlot jungle at erratic intervals, positioned by director Erle C. Kenton (who never came close to the level of this film again) as both background elements and a constant, pulsing threat; aiding considerably to the sense of menace is the extravagantly good lighting, filled with the kind of clotted blacks that reach into your throat and choke the life out of you. It was shot by no less a figure than Karl Struss, the cinematographer on Sunrise, and shares with that film a German Expressionist flair that manages to be even more rich and atmospheric thanks to the great amounts of money in the American film industry than the German, and it bears, in every claustrophobic nighttime exterior and every cobwebby, corroded interior, the mark of a man who used lighting not subtly but oh so potently.

Who knows how much of the film can be credited to any one person, all these decades later; but Struss's visual flair really is all over the place. The year prior, he'd shot Rouben Mamoulian's extraordinary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and that film shares with Island of Lost Souls an exceptionally progressive idea of how to frame images that bears no resemblance to other projects in Kenton's career, or anything else being done in America. The use of direct address, as it were - shots of characters staring right into the camera, usually with ill intent - is almost as impressive as it was in that film, and far more in line here with visual shortcuts that wouldn't become standard in the horror filmmaker's toolkit for another 30 or 40 years. It is an aggressive movie, not just for its content, but for the immediacy with which that content is presented: imagery that throttles us, and sound design that screams at use. The soundtrack in particular is a fascinating thing; '32 was still at the tail end of the transition to sound, and it shows up in places like the film's limited use of music, but at the same time the amount of information communicated using off-screen space is advanced as anything else of that year - as far as I am aware, this is the first horror movie to use the trick of keeping the camera away from the carnage going on, but replacing it with evocative and uncomfortably specific noises, screams and the like, that encourage us to visualise things much more gruesome than the filmmaker could have depicted, and while that has become a standard trope a thousand times over, in the context of an actual early sound film, it still registers differently than it does in name-your-favorite-torture-porn.

All in all, a pretty nifty piece of filmmaking; but what pushes it over the edge into the realm of actual genius, and keeps it a haunting and effective movie, still as watachable now as it was four generations ago, is Laughton's absurdly good performance as Moreau, one of the great pieces of horror movie acting that I have ever seen. It was the actor's breakthrough year - he'd win an Oscar for his very next movie, The Private Life of Henry VIII - and a more commanding introduction would be hard to imagine; in a film unusually well-stocked with compelling performances, for a horror picture (Arlen is a tremendously credible protagonist, Arthur Hohl is outstanding as Moreau's second-in-command, and Burke gets a lot of mileage out of a barely-playable role), Laughton still mops the floor with everyone else fromthe first moment he appears onscreen. Unlike films of even just a couple years later, his natural pudginess here doesn't have a corrupted, bulbous quality; he seems more like a satanic baby, with a clipped little beard and mustache, and a mouth that keeps twitching upwards as though he constantly thinks of funny things but can't be bothered to share them with the rest of us. It is a singularly self-satisfied turn that constantly steals attention and belittles everyone else - but that is, of course, precisely who Moreau is. With the word "native" being favored to describe the creatures, he's cast as something of an ignorant colonialist, assuming power for the simple reason that no-one would dare to take it from him, and dominating every moment and conversation because it is his godly right to do so.

Don't get me wrong, without Laughton, this is still a great film - it looks as good as any other picture from 1932, for one thing, with those magnificent German dark patches, and it's perhaps the only American horror film from the 1930s that I know of that is visually frightening for even a short patch, in the reveal of all those terrible animal-men. But Laughton is what makes it timeless; a horror masterpiece in line with the best of that era (which in practice means the best of Universal, which in further practice means that Island of Lost Souls is one of the only movies that can stand up with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein). It is a movie, thanks to that actor, that dives into the nastiest and most selfish of humanity - not the insane, only the destructively egocentric - and pulls absolutely no punches in confronting us with all the horror that man can provide. No wonder it was so outrageous and unacceptable in 1932, for that kind of merciless intensity is vanishingly uncommon even today.

3 comments:

James R said...

It's incredible stuff. "Warped sexuality" is an understatement; it leapt out at me in this film more than almost any other supposedly "sexy" pre-Code film I've seen.

John said...

Don't forget that genuinely haunting ending. It's so grim and abrupt it always takes me by surprise. "Don't look back."

Tim said...

James- That's exactly how I feel, too. I think it's the same double-standard that exists today, which is that violence mixed with sex is somehow more "okay" than just plain sex, since there's some degree of punishment involved. Even so, this film is kinkier than anything I've seen from the next three decades or so.

John- Absolutely. I didn't want to go into it and spoil it for newbies, but the sternness of Richard Arlen in that final scene shocked the hell out of me. It's so dark as to almost be upsetting.