Island of Lost Souls/White Zombie-attachment0

Island of Lost Souls/White Zombie

Movie Information

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Island of Lost Souls and White Zombie Thursday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Erle C. Kenton/Victor Halperin
Starring: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Madge Bellamy
Rated: NR

It’s a double dose of Bela Lugosi (triple, if you count the preshow chapter of the serial The Phantom Creeps) this week at the Thursday Horror Picture Show. The evening kicks off with Erle C. Kenton’s famous (but rarely seen these days) Island of Lost Souls (1933), one of the grimmest and most overtly horrific of all 1930s horror movies. The real star is a campy Charles Laughton as the utterly depraved Dr. Moreau, but Lugosi’s supporting turn as the Sayer of the Law is unforgettable. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) will follow, with Lugosi as zombie-maker Murder Legendre. It’s the granddaddy of all zombie movies and was one of its star’s personal favorites.

Even for a movie made before the production code of 1934, Island of Lost Souls is pretty strong stuff. It was strong enough, in fact, that it was banned outright in Great Britain until 1958 for being “against nature.” (One suspects this had more to do with Moreau’s plan to “mate” his most successful creation with a human being than with the outright horror elements.) The banning of the film delighted H.G. Wells, on whose novel The Island of Dr. Moreau the film was based—because he hated the film version. Horror fans have always tended to disagree with Mr. Wells on this point. (And if Wells ever saw the subsequent films made from the book, he might have changed his mind.)

Laughton claimed to have based his Moreau on his dentist. Maybe, but it’s also the most outlandishly gay performance of his career—and that’s saying something if you’ve seen his Nero in DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). His Moreau preens, smirks and generally camps it up—and it somehow makes the character even more horrific. The fact that he finds his incredibly cruel experiments (turning animals into something like humans without anesthetic) childishly amusing is more unsettling than any kind of lip-smacking villainy could ever be. When he giggles after saying, “Oh, it takes a long time and infinite patience to make them talk. Some day I’ll make a woman and it’ll be easier,” it’s both funny and chilling.

Lugosi’s Sayer of the Law is one of his more successful works—a kind of werewolf creature—but that success will come to have its price, since the creature’s reasoning ability will not play out in Moreau’s best interests. His most successful is Lota the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke, who won Paramount’s “Panther Woman of America” contest)—yes, he’s already made a woman—and she’s also the most complex and sympathetic of them.

What is truly remarkable about the film is the way in which it doesn’t shy away from its horror content. Its grotesqueries are as grotesque as the studio makeup artists could contrive. Some of the scenes—the camera panning down the pig-man to reveal one human foot and one cloven hoof—are still disconcerting. The ending of the film, for that matter, may not actually show very much, but it hasn’t lost its power to shock and appall. This must be attributable to director Erle C. Kenton, who has never been given much credit. That may be due to the fact that he cribbed wildly from Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), but if you’re going to steal, it makes sense to steal from the best. Regardless, it’s a simple matter to appropriate techniques. It’s something else again to make the techniques work—and Kenton makes them all work.

Victor Halperin’s White Zombie is a different proposition—a film outside the realm of normal filmmaking. Most independent productions of that era are pretty terrible. This one verges on the amazing and sometimes crosses that line. It’s also something of a shameful picture in that its star, Bela Lugosi, received the sum of $500 (a few sources say $800) for his services. (Lugosi was a bad businessman and had an even worse agent.) And the film is not only unthinkable without him, there’s a certain amount of evidence—based on things said by Lugosi’s friend Clarene Muse, who played the coachman at the beginning of the movie—that Lugosi may have directed parts of it. The fact that nothing else Halperin directed—apart from fleeting moments in Supernatural (1933)—is even remotely on par with White Zombie certainly suggests other input was involved.

This is an odd movie. It was odd in 1932 with reviewers at odds over whether it was some kind of art film or a horror film—and in both cases either loving it or absolutely hating it. At the time, the plot was a novelty. The whole idea of voodoo and zombies was new—almost unknown. Its concept of a zombie as a living person trapped through drugs into a zombie state and controlled by another is nothing like later notions. Beyond that, however, the film plays like a weird fairy tale or a bad dream. It isn’t fast-paced, but it isn’t especially slow. It has much in common with late silent movies in that it’s heavily visual. The compositions are always striking—sometimes to the point of feeling downright fussy.

At the same time, it is very much a sound film and it uses sound very effectively. It’s also one of the earliest horror pictures to have a background score—and even that is rather peculiar. It’s mostly cobbled together by Abe Meyer, who amassed a large library of music for the purpose of scoring films—originally (as in this case) with a small orchestra, later with recordings. But there’s an eerie—and just plain peculiar—scene late in the film that’s scored with a black spiritual called “Listen to the Lambs.” Just exactly how and why this came to be in the film is hard to say, but it undeniably gives the picture yet another unusual flavor.

In the end, though, it’s Lugosi’s zombie master that pulls it altogether and makes it work. The character is one of his least sympathetic yet fascinating creations. Using his full range of expressions and his uncanny ability to phrase dialogue with a unique and otherworldly use of pauses, he turns Legendre into an astonishing mixture of sophisticated evil and slightly absurd arrogance. Lugosi never did anything quite like it before and never would again. It isn’t a performance that one warms to in an instant. It’s too bizarre and deliberately stilted—as if he’s coming from another universe altogether and operating outside the film. But he slowly integrates it into the film so that it becomes part of the very fabric of it.

Also at this week’s Thursday Horror Picture Show, see “Death Stalks the Highways,” the second chapter of the 1939 Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps—which offered more action and more prime Bela in its first chapter than we got out of the whole of The Return of Chandu (1934). And that’s not even mentioning the coolest robot ever (so what if it doesn’t do much?). Let’s hope for similar excitement this round. The movies start at 8 p.m., but the serial kicks things off at 7:40 p.m. Be early.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

13 thoughts on “Island of Lost Souls/White Zombie

  1. Dionysis

    In my opinion, Island of Lost Souls is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and it’s a crying shame it has not been released on DVD yet (as far as I can tell). It puts the two re-makes to shame (as suggested in the review). I still marvel at the creativity that went into the special effects, and agree that it was among Bela Lugosi’s best roles.

  2. Ken Hanke

    it’s a crying shame it has not been released on DVD yet (as far as I can tell).

    It hasn’t. We’re getting it from laserdisc. I don’t mind that Universal brought out Murders in the Zoo at least, but I don’t understand why they chose it over this.

    It puts the two re-makes to shame (as suggested in the review).

    Three, if you count the uncredited, bargain basement Terror Is a Man from 1958.

  3. Dionysis

    “Three, if you count the uncredited, bargain basement Terror Is a Man from 1958.”

    Right, I had forgotten about that film, even though I recently bought it (but haven’t watched it yet).

  4. Ken Hanke

    I recently bought it (but haven’t watched it yet).

    Let me know if it has the audience warning that you’re about to see something so ghastly that you might want to look away.

  5. Dionysis

    “Let me know if it has the audience warning that you’re about to see something so ghastly that you might want to look away.”

    That might be an appropriate warning to issue right before screening Vampires Suck, based upon your review.

  6. Ken Hanke

    That might be an appropriate warning to issue right before screening Vampires Suck, based upon your review.

    You know, if the guys who make those movies were even half that clever, the movies would suck a lot less.

  7. In my opinion, Island of Lost Souls is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and it’s a crying shame it has not been released on DVD yet (as far as I can tell).

    We have a copy in our free section. It looks nice and probably taken off the laser.

    There’s a pretty short list of highly desired films that need to come out on dvd/blu-ray. Island of Lost Souls is close to the top.

    Universal now has burn to order dvds like Warner Archives. Maybe we’ll see it in the near future?

  8. Ken Hanke

    Universal now has burn to order dvds like Warner Archives. Maybe we’ll see it in the near future?

    Maybe. My guess is they’ll use it like they used Murders in the Zoo to anchor a TCM set with less desirable titles.

    What I wish is that they’d do DVD-Rs to order from their library. I’m sure it will happen one day, but it hasn’t happened yet. Still, if they’ve made a film like Whale’s Remember Last Night? in a copy good enough to broadcast on TCM, it oughtn’t be that big of a deal to produce a DVD-R of it. Ditto Broken Lullaby, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, etc.

  9. Dionysis

    It appears that ‘Island of Lost Souls’ was released on DVD in Europe (PAL format) about ten years or so ago, and disappeared quickly. It was paired with ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’, and reportedly both titles were taken from poor quality sources, so it is likely that the old laserdisc version is the best quality so far released.

    I suspect Ken is right about using it to “anchor a TCM set…” but if so, I wish they’d go ahead and release it. I’d buy it regardless of what other titles were bundled with it.

  10. Ken Hanke

    It was paired with ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’, and reportedly both titles were taken from poor quality sources

    I know European holdings and alliances are odd sometimes. (Why does Universal own the L&H films from Hal Roach/MGM in the UK?) Still, I can think of no possible corporation tie-up between Universal and the WB stuff, which makes me think that was a grey market offering.

    I suspect Ken is right about using it to “anchor a TCM set…” but if so, I wish they’d go ahead and release it. I’d buy it regardless of what other titles were bundled with it.

    I was happy enough with the 1940s B’s they put with Murders in the Zoo. I actually wanted The Strange Case of Dr. RX. Universal holds enough interesting titles — The Mad Ghoul, Terror Aboard, The Mad Doctor, Among the Living come to mind — for another set.

  11. DrSerizawa

    There are 13 VHS copies of IOLS on Amazon right now. No feedback on quality.

    You know, if the guys who make those movies were even half that clever, the movies would suck a lot less.

    Maybe some William Castle showmanship like eletric shocking seats at movies like Vampires Suck? Would probably violate the Geneva Accords though.

  12. Ken Hanke

    There are 13 VHS copies of IOLS on Amazon right now. No feedback on quality.

    Universal put it out on VHS, so those are probably OOP legit copies.

    Maybe some William Castle showmanship like eletric shocking seats at movies like Vampires Suck? Would probably violate the Geneva Accords though.

    Well, it would have certainly woken Justin up. He apparently watched part of it and nodded off.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I feel the need to apologize to anyone who attended tonight’s movies. Island of Lost Souls went alright, but suffered from some sound dropouts — usually lasting no more than a word or two. However, White Zombie was an unmitigated disaster in the sound department. My suspicion is a bad fiber optical cable. It is, in any case, being looked into and we’ll reschedule White Zombie for a later date.

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