Sunday, October 30, 2011


Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), survivor of a shipwreck, is picked up by the Covena; he wires ahead to his lady friend Ruth that he'll be arriving soon at the ship's next port of call, but he gets on the bad side of the burly, drunken captain and is thrown off the ship at a small island where several crates of wild animals are being delivered. The island is inhabited by a strange looking tribe of natives—brutish and hairy, looking almost like humans that have devolved to an earlier state—and ruled by the rotund Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a scientist who left England in disgrace over some questionable experiments. It doesn't take long for Parker to figure out that the "natives" are actually Moreau's experiments: animals, such as dogs, pigs, and wolves that have surgically been turned into (almost)-human beings. Moreau makes them abide by a law intended to keep them from reverting back to their animal states: do not kill, do not eat meat, do not run on all fours. He manages to control their behavior, but physically, as Moreau notes, the stubborn beast flesh keeps creeping back. Moreau decides to keep Parker on the island a while, making him part of an experiment, hoping he'll mate with his one female subject, Lota (pictured, presented in the credits as a "panther woman," though it's never said in the film what animal she originated as), but soon Ruth (Leila Hyams) arrives, and instead Moreau hopes that she can be paired up with one of his male subjects.

This film has a strong reputation, and with its themes of bestiality and playing God, was often censored during its initial theatrical runs, but modern viewers probably won't find this especially disturbing. Arlen is a wooden hero, Hyams is colorless, and even the great Laughton often seems uncertain what tone to take: sometimes he's gentlemanly, sometimes he's raving mad, and once, he's downright campy, jumping up on a table and leering at Arlen while he explains his theories. Bela Lugosi does a nice job with his small role as the wolfish lawkeeper—and Lugosi's refrain "Are we not men?" became the refrain of one of Devo's best known songs. The striking photography is a plus, and the make-up used to create the animal men is still quite impressive; the close-ups of these bizarre creatures can still create unease. The effective finale invokes the finale of FREAKS which came out earlier in the year (and also starred Hyams). The Criterion print has a few rough spots in the beginning, but mostly looks fine. [DVD]

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