Based on the thriller The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells (yep, we carry that too), Island of Lost Souls chronicles the plight of shipwreck victim Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), who's rescued by a cargo ship transporting various wild animals. Parker strikes up an aquaintence with a discredited doctor, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), in charge of the peculiar shipment and the even more peculiar-looking crew. After a tussle with the ship's drunken captain, Parker finds himself stranded on the island Montgomery, his crew and his shipment were en route to. It's the island home of Montgomery's employer, the equally discredited Dr. Moreau (the great Charles Laughton), who's been performing strange experiments on the aformentioned animals.
Said experiments involve turning the animals into half man/half beast creatures, with the best, or at least seemingly best-realized specimen being Lota the "Panther Woman" (Kathleen Burke). Moreau gives Parker some half-hearted double talk about man somehow influencing evolution through science, but it's obvious he really enjoys being the ruler of his own little kingdom, whipping and torturing the various beastmen on the island. ("Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?" Moreau asks at one point.) Then, just before Parker's finace Ruth (Leila Hyams) arrives at the island in search of her beau, Moreau gets the twisted notion to try and mate Parker and Lota...
Island of Lost Souls is a terrific horror thriller with one jolt after another. The very idea of a film's protagonist performing awful, painful vivisection procedures on animals outraged the filmgoing public when Lost Souls was first released, resulting in various cuts (scenes and bits of dialogue) being made by censors on the film in various states and countries. Director Erle C. Kenton and his screenwriters (two are credited though apparently there were as many as eleven working on the film, according to one of the DVD's extras), who did a fantastic job artistically, really pushed audiences' buttons.
Unlike the typical for-the-time- mad scientist type seen in previous horror films and usually played by Colin Clive, Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, Laughton's Moreau doesn't try to use scientific research as his rationale for his experiments. He's clearly a power-mad little monster who loves terrorizing his subjects and whose wish to bring Parker and Lota together (and later Ruth and one of the beastmen) is more out of sheer titillation than scientific curiosity. Moreau is alternately charming, sarcastic, bad-tempered, reflective and egotistical -never one dimensional- , and, thanks to Laughton's excellent performance, the audience, while still rooting for the doctor to get his just desserts, never loses interest in the character. (Oddly, H. G. Wells himself hated the film!)
And speaking of Bela Lugosi, the actor himself pops up oh-so-briefly as the island's ape-like "Sayer of the Law" 27 minutes in the film, then disappears until the exciting and frightening climax, giving a zesty, bordering-on-insane performance. The makeup Lugosi and the other beastmen wear is awesome and unsettling. Once you've seen these creatures, you won't forget them.
The DVD includes such informative extras as an audio commentary by Gregory Mank, who, among other things, explains why Lugosi had to take the very small part of the Sayer in the film and how Kathleen Burke won her role in a contest sponsored by the Paramount Pictures studio. There's also a nice booklet by Christine Smallwood which also goes over the film's backstory as well as how it was restored by UCLA's Film and Television Archive. If you're looking for an exciting, terrifying thriller that leaves you shaking long after the end credits roll, Island of Lost Souls is worth checking out