For all the infamous takes on The Island of Dr. Moreau, the third try — after the silent films Ile d’Epouvante and Die Insel der Verschollenen — got it right. Written by Waldemar Young (The Unholy Three, The Mystic) and Philip Wylie (whose Gladiator inspired Superman, The Savage Gentleman led to Doc Savage and When Worlds Collide was homaged by Flash Gordon), this film ended up banned in 14 states for embracing evolution and a line where Moreau says, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” When it was re-released nine years later, any inference that Moreau created the animal/human hybrids was cut. It didn’t make it to the UK until 1957, a fact that pleased original writer H.G. Welles, who hated the movie as it was more horror than a studied philosophical narrative.
Director Eric Kenton took the long way to Hollywood, starting as a school teacher and then doing dog, pony and animal shows at the circus before working in vaudeville. He was a fan of horror, making The Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and The Cat Creeps as well as two Abbott and Costello movies, Pardon My Sarong and Who Done It?
Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) survives a shipwreck and is rescued by a freighter delivering animals to the literal island of Dr. Moreau. After saving M’ling (Tetsu Komai), an animalistic looking man, from the captain, both are thrown off the boat and sent to Moreau via Mr. Montgomery’s (Arthur Hohl, a Pittsburgh native who was also in Show Boat) boat.
Moreau (Charles Laughton, who in addition to a fine acting career also had perhaps the finest one and done directing career with The Night of the Hunter) shows off his animal men to Parker, including Lota (former model Kathleen Burke, who was tied to this role for the rest of her life), a woman who appears human but is truly a panther. But something is amiss. After all, why would she refer to the lab as the House of Pain? And why would Moreau need to hold his men back with a whip and make them recite the Law of Man?
“Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men? Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men? Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?”
The Sayer of the Law is, obviously, Bela Lugosi. And he’s perfect in this.
Lota falls for Parker, which was all a ruse by Moreau, as he wanted to see if she could feel human emotions. Parker is enraged by this, as he still loves his fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) and is shocked to see Lota’s fingernails turn into claws. She’s lost in despair, yet Moreau laughs, screaming that he will burn out the animal left within her in his House of Pain.
Speaking of Ruth, she gets a rescue crew to visit the island and save Parker and that’s when Moreau decides to kill everyone, using one of his creations Ouran (Hans Steinke) as the killer. This backfires, as the rest of his creations realize that if the man who made them doesn’t need to follow the law, they don’t need to either.
“What is the law? Law no more!” they shout as they hold Moreau down and repeatedly stab him with his own surgical tools, just as Montgomery, Parker, Ruth and Lota make their escape. At the last moment, Ouran attacks and Lota gives her life to allow Parker and Ruth to live their lives far from the now burning island.
This is a movie that shocked and upset audiences, with even the sound design causing chaos. Soundman Loren L. Ryder recorded a mix of animal sounds and foreign languages, then played them backward at multiple speeds. The sound that resulted made people physically sick.
As much as Welles disliked this movie, his book was missing the dynamic between Parker, Ruth and Lota. The Panther Woman character was so popular and enduring that she influenced every adaption made after this one, such as Frances in Terror Is a Man, Ayessa in The Twilight People, Barbara Carrera in the 1977 remake and Aissa in the 1996 movie that is so infamous.
This film also influenced numerous musicians. The Cramps’ song “The Natives Are Restless” is about the film, Blondie had the song “Island of Lost Souls,” House of Pain took their name from the movie (and even named a tour He Who Breaks the Law), The Meteors had a song with the title of the film, Oingo Boingo recorded “No Spill Blood” and Buckethead has a song named “Island of Lost Minds.”
Cleveland-based horror rock band Manimals based much of their look on the film and when they played the song “Island of Lost Souls” live, fans would shout “What is the law?”
Van Halen played a song called “House of Pain” that was a progressive rock song that was definitely not the radio friendly rock they’d soon become known for. When played live, David Lee Roth would give a long introduction about how the movie inspired the song and then Eddie would go into an intro that eventually became “Eruption.” The demo of the song — there’s a different version with different lyrics on 1984 — is incredible.
Yet no band was more inspired than Devo. The “What is the law?” dialogue formed the lyrics to their “Jocko Homo,” while they took the question “Are we not men?” for their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Pretty good for a movie with no music on its soundtrack.