(Jan 2, 2006)
This is a seriously twisted movie. It's strong stuff to watch even today and back in 1933, it must have made more than a few in the audience suddenly decide they needed a restroom break. Paramount's ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is based on H. G. Wells' THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, but they jettisoned all that philosophical baggage to add some more gruesome moments.
I think by now (considering two remakes and many spoofs) the plot is general knowledge, especially among those of us who are horror film fans. Even THE SIMPSONS did a take on the premise. On a remote island in the South Seas, the remarkably cold-blooded Dr Moreau is conducting his experiments. A shipwrecked man (Richard Arlen) ends up on the island, wanting only to be brought back to civilization where his fiancee is waiting for him. But Moreau has other (and sicker) plans in store.
The natives on the island (including Moreau's servant M'Ling) are a grotesque bunch. Not only are they much hairier and more brutal than anyone would expect, most of them are deformed in strange ways. At first it seems that Moreau has been operating on them, making them into freaks for no clear reason. But the truth is even stranger and more horrifying. They all started life as animals. Pigs, wolves, apes... through surgery and gland transplants and God knows what else, Moreau has been remaking them into as close a resemblance to human beings as he can.
And this is all without the luxury of anesthetics. No wonder his operating theatre is called the House of Pain! The mad doctor's finest achievement so far has been Lota (Kathleen Burke), a former panther made into a woman. (Reference books and articles refer to her as "an exotic beauty" and so forth, but frankly she looks more creepy than alluring to me.) Except for her retractile claws, Lota could pass for a genuine woman and Moreau has it in his head that maybe he can breed her with his guests and see what the results are. (And you thought your girlfriend scratched your back!)
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS was banned in England for many years and I can see why. Vivisection is cruel enough (and was one of the evils which Wells was preaching against) but it just occurs to me that Moreau wants a man to have sex with an animal (alright, one that has been mutilated and rebuilt to look like a woman, but still...). There are a couple of strong taboos being violated here. Even worse, when the visitor's fiancee turns up looking for him, Moreau reflects that here is another candidate for mating with his beastmen (ick).
As Moreau, Charles Laughton is as sleazy and decadent as any mad scientist ever to hit the screen. He gloats and smirks and makes little innuendoes, he rules over these long-suffering creatures with a bull whip and a set of prohibitions that he himself violates (thus bringing about his own end). Moreau comes to the most painful and frightening demise of any movie villain of that era. Even though you could say he deserves it, this poetic justice is really cold.
Aside from Laughton, the rest of the cast is competent but uninspired. Bela Lugosi shows up in a minor role as the bushy-faced Speaker of the Law ("You made us in the House of Pain! You made us things! Not man. Not beast. Part man, part beast...Things!"). The visuals of this movie are striking. Moreau and his despondent assistant live in a fortified structure of white stone, gleaming in the tropical sunlight, surrounding by dark, dank, oppressive jungle in which the sullen monsters move about and watch resentfully. This is one classic that is genuinely scary.
Dir: Erle C. Kenton
(June 17, 2003)
Dir: Jean Yarbrough
An obscure B picture about a mad scientist raising an army of Zombies on a Caribbean island to help him spy for the Nazis, until two American investigators (who are looking for a missing Admiral) and a wise-cracking valet crash-land and investigate. Loved it, really hit the spot.The music alone is a nostalgic treat, with that old-fashioned safari theme setting the tone.
For a short flick with a bare bones budget and a quick shooting schedule, KING OF THE ZOMBIES has a lot of great atmospheric photography of the haunted mansion, the graveyard in the jungle ("...looks like somebody's marble orchard"), staring zombies marching stiffly straight ahead, people running around with candles in the middle of the night... you know, all the things that make a late night viewing treat.
The two leading men, John Archer and Dick Purcell, are so bland and ordinary that they make almost no impression. A little eccentricity in either of these guys would have given them some impact but as it stands, they're almost like Joe Friday and Frank on a case. The sinister Dr Sangre (Henry Victor) does a better job as the zombie maker who uses voodoo and hypnotism in his dirty work, but (although he tries) he's not quite imposing enough to be a first rate villain. A voodoo master is a role that needs to e played with some flamboyance.
It's Mantan Moreland, though, who steals the movie. He really deserves top billing, as he's on screen more than anyone else and he provides most of the entertainment value. Now, Moreland's Southern dialect and jumpy reactions to everything probably offend a lot of people as being offensive* but he IS funny, engaging and interesting (which is more than can be said of the other actors). As Jeff, he has a wise remark for every moment, often pretty insolent for someone who is after all a hired servant. Sometimes, the comedy is a bit forced or flat but for the most part, Moreland is fun to watch.
My favorite part is when Sangre hypnotizes Jeff into believing he's a zombie himself, and Jeff promptly marches a squad of the undead down to the kitchen for a snack.
The other pleasant surprise is Samantha (Marguerite Whittfield) a pretty young Alabama gal who works in the kitchen brewing up the goop that keeps the zombies fuelled up. Her repartee with the flirting Jeff sounds fresh and sassy, very believable. What I like most about Samantha is her blase attitude about the undead, which she has been taking care of long enough enough to become bored with them.("You ain't heard nothing. Just wait'll you see the zombies. Dead folks what walks around...they's all over this place.")
The zombies themselves are impressive enough, stalking around but they don't really get enough to do. For a movie only running 67 minutes, it still seems a bit slack. There's a subdued voodoo ritual at the finale with the usual drumming and torches and so forth, as one of the Americans is about to be zombified.
KING OF THE ZOMBIES is no classic by any means, but it is appealing and well worth a look. Zombies were creepy enough in vintage horror films (being walking corpses, after all) but the way they obediently followed orders and shuffled about slowly enough to avoid, made them not as menacing than other monsters. (Although it's odd that no one ever just took off and outran the stiff arthritic Kharis.) It took George Romero and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to add the touch of predatory cannibalism which made the Undead a real frightening force.
*Sometimes I wonder why all the people who are upset by the 'incorrect' language of 1940s black actors aren't equally offended by the much cruder jargon of today's performers like Chris Tucker in those RUSH HOUR movies. Maybe jive is acceptable in modern characters but not for previous generations?