Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

One wouldn't associate Charles Laughton exclusively with the horror genre, but the few films he has done are keepers: he was the hunchback of Notre Dame, for starters. I've never seen Lon Chaney's version, so I don't know how Laughton's version compares, but damn, was he good. He was one of the guests in The Old Dark House, though his role in that wasn't anywhere near as showy. He directed Night of the Hunter which, although it's not traditional horror, it's scary in places - such as every time Robert Mitchum is on screen. Plus, Laughton was married to the bride of Frankenstein!

Island of Lost Souls was in keeping with what would become a long tradition of Laughton playing scoundrels, outsiders and villains, and few were better in his time. Souls, of course, is H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau by another name, nor was this Laughton's first association with the famed SF writer. In 1928, he appeared in three shorts featuring wife Elsa Lanchester, written by Wells. (Here's one of them, Blue Bottles.) Wells allegedly didn't like Souls; too much horror, not enough philosophy.

The Moreau story has been redone and parodied enough times where you probably know the basics: mad scientist creates humanoid life forms out of animals; dude trapped on the island has to escape. Laughton is terrific, as you would expect him to be. After this film, he would take on larger-than-life roles: Henry the VIII (twice), Inspector Javert, Captain Bligh. Here you can sense the evolution of his on-screen persona: walking around whipping his animal-men; manipulating people, playing them like chess pieces; even the style of his dress and his goatee are suggestive of somebody different from other mortal men.

The credits list "the Panther Woman" in the part of the vampish were-woman Lota. In reality, she was former dental assistant Kathleen Burke, who won a national contest held by Paramount for the part. She went on to do some other stuff throughout the 30s. Also, an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi plays the leader of the animal-men, though if you listen to his voice, I think you can make him out.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover this was where the band Devo cribbed the "Are we not men?" line. In fact, several bands have paid tribute to this film in song, including Van Halen and Oingo Boingo; plus, there was a hip hop group called House of Pain.

Devo's debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! included the song "Jocko Homo", which can be read to be about the evolution/creation divide, I suppose, but honestly, it's hard to pay attention to the lyrics when you're watching that video. Seriously, take a look at it; this was back when bands made videos that were more like short films, and while this one has nothing to do with the Moreau story per se, it's still got its fair share of Nightmare Fuel.

The Loews JC showed Souls as part of a Halloween triple feature that also included House on Haunted Hill and Halloween, which brought out the biggest crowd, as you can imagine. A dude in a Michael Myers mask played the piano in the lobby. Regrettably, I could only stay for Souls, the second film, but at least I had company...

You're familiar with Aurora, of course. To her left is Monstergirl (AKA Jo) from The Last Drive In and her girlfriend Wendy, both of whom I met for the first time. It will come as little surprise, I'm sure, when I say all of them were there for all three movies. I remember chatting a bit with Jo by email a few years ago when I found out she was local. Sadly, she hasn't posted in awhile. Here's hoping she comes back to her blog soon.

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