Ed Parker is shipwrecked on an island ruled by mad scientist Dr Moreau, who has raised animals to semi-human shape and intelligence in the laboratory. Moreau plots to mate Parker with his finest work, Lota the Panther Woman.
This adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, outrageously gruesome for 1932, was banned by the British Censors for decades.
Chubby Charles Laughton, with an obscene fleck of goatee and a voluminous ice-cream suit, is a magnificent, whip-wielding sadist and all-round pervert who transforms animals into near-men in the way a small boy might cut the legs off a fly.
Made during the first great Hollywood horror boom, this combines the mad science of Frankenstein (as Moreau wields a scalpel in a laboratory his creations call ‘the House of Pain’) and the surreal jungle island adventuring of King Kong (with a horde of barely-glimpsed monstrosities gathering in the undergrowth) and throws in value-for-money sleaze in the shapely person of Kathleen Burke (who won a national contest for the role) as the claw-nailed, sarong-clad Panther Woman.
There are conventional pith-helmet melodramatics from staid hero Richard Arlen, who unaccountably isn’t that keen on mating with the Panther Woman, but Arthur Hohl is fine as Moreau’s drunken, self-hating assistant and Bela Lugosi intones Wells’s ominous laws of the beast-people (‘Not to go on all fours, are we not men?’) from behind a faceful of bristles. Incidentally, this is the source of the oft-quoted (and parodied) line ‘the natives are restless tonight.’
Remade officially twice (with Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando as Moreau) and often imitated, this exercise in surreal dementia has never been matched – especially in the horrid finish as hairy hands smash glass to pick up the medical implements that are used by the rebel beasts to ‘operate’ on their mad master.
This may have been made (and banned) in the 1930s, but it remains a neatly disturbing horror with a definitive ending.
Reviewed by Kim Newman