Island of Lost Souls is a striking anomaly - a dazzling point of brilliance in an otherwise workaday career. Directed by Erle C. Kenton, whose only other films of note are The Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula, Island of Lost Souls is a genuine classic with superb directing, ace photography, and tremendous acting.
Based on H.G. Wells's 1898 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, which at the time was considered not much more than a "scientific romance" dedicated to the cause of anti-vivisection, Island of Lost Souls more or less stays true to Wells's overall point, although Wells reportedly disliked the picture quite a bit. But instead of providing a sweeping commentary on mankind's cruelty to "lower beasts," Island of Lost Souls sensationalizes one doctor's perversity all the while engaging in a socio-political message about the power of the masses during the early days of the Great Depression.
Despite a dazzling performance by Richard Arlen as Edward Parker, the shipwreck survivor who finds himself thrust into the madness of Dr. Moreau's private island, the true star of the film is Charles Laughton, who plays Dr. Moreau with a quiet civility that belies the darkness that just simply oozes out of him.
Apparently, Laughton's inspiration for the role was Oscar Wilde - the flamboyant Irish writer who not only wrote one of the greatest allegories about perversion (The Picture of Dorian Gray), but who also went to jail for being a homosexual, which Victorian society considered tantamount to bestiality or other forms of mental derangement and sexual deviancy. Although Wilde's humor is nowhere to be found in Laughton's performance, Laughton's Dr. Moreau is certainly some kind of sexual monstrosity who not only enjoys the process of turning animals into sub-humans, but who also at one point orchestrates a near rape involving Ruth Thomas (played by Leila Hyams) and his hulking creation Ouran (played by the German professional wrestler Hans Steinke).
Sexual perversity in the film goes beyond Dr. Moreau himself. His greatest creation, Lota, the Panther Woman (played by Kathleen Burke), comes the closest to meeting Doctor Moreau's ideal - that of the fully emotional human being. More than that, Moreau deeply wants Lota to seduce Parker in what has to be one of cinema's most abnormal love triangles. Hinting at more than just bestiality, the relationship between Lota and Parker not only suggests voyeurism on the part of Dr. Moreau, but critics have long seen it as a reference to miscegenation. Lota, who is early on described as being "pure Polynesian," and Parker's brief love affair scandalizes those more apt to speculate in the audience, for what would've happened if the two were to mate? Obviously, given Arlen's portrayal of Parker as an upright, decent man caught in a thoroughly fallen world, this moment would've resulted in Parker's rejection of Lota (which happens in the film without the two engaging in much more than a kiss).
Besides the relationships that occur within Dr. Moreau's secluded manor home, the film's other major plot point is the surrounding jungle, specifically the beast-man encampment which is populated by Dr. Moreau's specimens. Chief among them is the Sayer of the Law, Bela Lugosi's character who works as Doctor Moreau's chief parrot. Moreau's laws for his creatures are simple: do not eat meat, do not walk on all fours, and do not spill blood. Since this film is a horror movie, expect all three to be broken at some point. Lugosi's droning performance and the nature of his frequent refrain ("Are we not men?") are heavy with implications, especially in regards to the history of slavery (Dr. Moreau's island doesn't seem too far removed from the colonial Haiti that is shown in White Zombie, which was also released in 1932) and Shylock's defense of Jewish humanity in The Merchant of Venice ("If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that").
For others, the situation of the beast-men and their eventual revolt is seen more as a commentary about social class and the authoritarianism that is needed in order to keep workers "in line." Members of the band DEVO, who themselves used the "Are we not men?" line for their own advantage ("Are we not men? We are DEVO!"), claimed in their interview for the Criterion Collection's release of Island of Lost Souls that their views of the beast-men were informed by growing up in blue-collar Ohio during the height of the counter-culture. In this way, the frankly elitist and snotty DEVO assign the more conservative industrial workers of America to the same province as semi-animal slaves on a island ruled by a scientific dictatorship and dictator who relies on the fear that is generated by his "House of Pain" - the laboratory where his barbaric experiments on fully conscious specimens are carried out.
As can be seen, the possible interpretations carried within this film are almost endless, and it should be noted that Island of Lost Souls came out in a year which saw two horror films that both explored the issues of autocratic madness and the dangerous effects of quasi-colonialism (White Zombie and The Most Dangerous Game), plus Island of Lost Souls was released a year before another important film about a deserted island wherein animals and man meet in a dangerous bit of cross-acculturation (King Kong). A disturbing film, Island of Lost Souls might be one the very best horror films of the pre-code age, and undoubtably this film dwarfs all other Wells adaptations.