Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, makes its debut on Blu-ray and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.
The original negative is long gone and the film had been chopped up and reedited over the years thanks to censors horrified by its content so this transfer is made from a reconstruction that uses many elements to deliver the most complete version of the film possible, including a 35mm fine-grain master positive, a 35-mm nitrate positive and a 16mm print from a private collector. Because of the mix of sources the quality of the image varies greatly from scene to scene, even shot to shot. The most obvious jump is when we go to the 16mm source (which was used to restore dialogue previously cut out—according to the commentary many were hung up on dialogue that referred to men/creatures being cut up or referred to anything sexual.) Here the image loses a lot of detail, grain becomes very heavy, and the image becomes generally blown out as if contrast has been boosted. Thankfully these moments are brief and far between. The remaining moments in the film are in generally decent shape, presenting a few marks, scratches and tram lines, but they’re not excessive.
The transfer itself is fine, presenting no noticeable artifacts, and contrast looks decent with some fine blacks and clean gray levels, other than during the 16mm moments, which again look blown out. The image always looks a little fuzzy and details aren’t as great as one may expect on Blu-ray but I’m confident this is related more to the different sources used and the general quality of the material and not the transfer itself. Film grain is present but overall it is fairly clean and natural. Again the 16mm segments present a heavier amount of grain but it still looks natural at least and nothing like noise.
The source materials hold the image back severely but the digital transfer is clean and incredibly stable with no issues itself. 6/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
We get a handful of supplements on this edition starting with an audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank. Mank, who sort of reminds me of Bruce Eder, talks a lot about the horror craze that was going on at the time thanks to Universal’s successful horror films, the “Panther Woman” contest that occurred to cast someone to play the Panther Woman, with the role going to Burke of course, the make-up effects, and many other details about the production, including a story about an extra who supposedly almost had his arm torn off by a tiger. On top of this he talks about how Lugosi became involved with the production and gets into detail about Laughton as well, while also talking about Wells’ novel to a certain degree. The commentary becomes most fascinating when he talks about the many cuts the film experienced since its release, which were done state by state, province by province (in the case of Canada, with B.C. sounding to have cut a lot out), and then the attempts by Paramount to get the film re-released after the Motion Picture Code became mandatory. He also talks about the other movie versions of the novel, including the 70’s Lancaster version and the 90’s Brando monstrosity, and even mentions Wells’ reaction to the film; he hated it, and this is mentioned in just about every other feature on this disc as well. Though the track sometimes goes quiet only to have Mank suddenly chime in with an odd comment I found it relatively entertaining and informative. Worth listening to.
Criterion next includes a 17-minute discussion between director John Landis , make-up artist Rick Baker, and “genre expert” Bob Burns. In the interview the three talk about the advanced make-up effects for the time, the gorilla costume and the art of wearing a gorilla costume, and then gush over the film, the performers (Laughton in particular), the novel, and then Landis talks up director Kenton, who he feels never did a film nearly as good again (though Baker and Burns come to Kenton’s defense.) It’s more of a gush-fest but there are some great details about the make-up and how it would have been applied.
Film historian David J. Skal provides a 13-minute interview where he discusses Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau and other influential horror/sci-fi novels from the Victorian period (including Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to name a few) and their eventual movie adaptations. He talks a little about how evolution played a lot into these stories in one way or another, and he also talks a bit about the 30’s horror films out of Hollywood. Skal covers a wide variety of subjects in his short time but he covers each one relatively well, giving a decent primer on the 30’s horror era and the novels on which they’re based.
One of the more interesting inclusions would be a 14-minute interview with director Richard Stanley, who was the original director for the 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau before New Line shut him down and handed the project over to John Frankenheimer. Here Stanley first talks about discovering the book at a young age and goes over the many themes found within the novel that no film adaptation has ever captured. He continues on about the film versions, including Island of Lost Souls, and then the 1977 and 1996 versions. He then goes into detail about what happened with his film version (which he intended to be the ultimate, true version of Wells’ novel, though issues arose early on), how New Line canned him, and how he discovered production was back on with Frankenheimer now at the wheel. He talks a little about crashing the production and then explains what went wrong overall with the production and film, ultimately offering his apology for what little part he had in it. He’s an interesting character (I’ve never actually seen him before) and his stories about his film version attempt are interesting I was actually more enthralled by his thoughts on the novel. Great addition by Criterion.
Criterion then steps outside the box a little and gets an interview with Devo members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh. This may seem like an odd addition but the film played a huge influence on them and the formation of Devo, which is a play on “de-evolution”, which they felt was an issue with America and the growing “herd mentality”. They both talk about how they first saw the film (surprisingly in the same way) and then how the film managed to creep its way into their work (the phrase “are we not men?” making its way into their song “Jocko Homo”.) It’s actually a fairly intriguing and thoughtful 19-minute interview, but then Criterion tops that and includes the 10-minute short film In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution, which is an experimental piece featuring the songs “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo”. In all another thoughtful addition to the release.
The disc then closes with a small stills gallery featuring a variety of creature photos, and production and promotion photos, and then the film’s theatrical trailer. The booklet includes a nice essay by Christine Smallwood about the film, the novel, the many film versions of it, and 1930’s horror.
Surprisingly there’s actually very little on here (including the commentary there’s barely 2-hours’ worth of material) but it’s all strong and satisfying, brief and to the point. I found everything on here pretty worthwhile. 8/10