What’s so incredible about Island of Lost Souls is how Charles Laughton doesn’t overpower the entire picture. Laughton’s take on the mad scientist role–playful, gleeful, callous, cruel–is a joy to watch and it definitely contributes but it doesn’t make Souls. Even with Laughton, Kenton’s direction is still a must, as are the performances of Richard Arlen and Arthur Hohl.
Arlen’s an unlucky shipwrecked man who ends up on Laughton’s island, Hohl’s Laughton’s assistant but also the guy who helped save Arlen. Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie’s script gives Hohl a lot of time to establish himself before revealing his profession. The big things in the film–Laughton, the island, the enormous action sequences–are all hidden at the beginning. It could very well just be the story of a man shipwrecked and tempted by a Polynesian native girl, a riff on a Maugham South Seas outing. And then things get very strange.
There’s no big standoff between Arlen and Laughton; Laughton’s not exactly an antagonist throughout the entire film. Instead, Laughton leads into the next antagonists… only they’re the most sympathetic characters in the film. The film moves fast and demands the viewer keep up pace. There are occasional humor payoffs, but things eventually just stay rough.
Kenton and cinematographer Karl Struss do these wonderful one shots of Laughton being evil. Laughton takes such a joy in the role, frequently smiling at himself.
Great supporting turn from Bela Lugosi. Maybe his best work.
Souls is an excellent picture.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie, based on a novel by H.G. Wells; director of photography, Karl Struss; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen (Edward Parker), Arthur Hohl (Montgomery), Leila Hyams (Ruth Thomas), Kathleen Burke (Lota), Stanley Fields (Captain Davies), Paul Hurst (Donahue), Hans Steinke (Ouran), Tetsu Komai (M’ling), George Irving (The Consul) and Bela Lugosi (Sayer of the Law).