In the wake of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein, 1932 was another big year for horror movies. Most of the best known were produced by Universal Pictures but Paramount got into the act with this adaptation of H G Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau.
Edward Parker (Richard Arlen as a fairly conventional hero) survives a shipwreck in the South Pacific and is rescued by a cargo ship full of caged animals, only to fall foul of its captain and be marooned on a remote island inhabited by the urbane but slimy Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) and his curiously hirsute workforce.
Moreau’s reluctant guest gradually realises that the beast-men who roam the island and serve Moreau, and the shipment of wild animals he arrived with, are linked – Moreau is experimenting with bypassing the process of evolution and turning animals into humans. Not only that, but the charming and oddly innocent Polynesian woman Moreau has been trying to fix him up with is in fact his most successful subject to date, and the contrived pairing is just part of his great experiment.
Naturally, Parker’s fiancee arrives just in time, as the beast-men rebel against their maker and subject him to a taste of his own medicine with the surgical instruments in his ‘house of pain’ – though presumably with cruder methodology than he used on them.
Only recently restored to its full glory, Island of Lost Souls is a significant but neglected entry in the canon of pre-code horror movies. It fell foul of censors and failed to make the same impact with audiences as Dracula and Frankenstein, perhaps because it probed a little too closely into what really did disturb them – sexuality, the darker side of human nature, and the terrible idea that we might truly just be other animals, with more in common with the things we eat, hunt and whip than we dare to admit. Then there’s the playing-God-and-messing-with-nature angle, more chillingly plausible here – at least at the time – than Dr Frankenstein’s stitching-up of cadavers. And today, in the light of history, the scene of Parker stumbling into Moreau’s lab to find him cutting up a conscious man-beast, is as chilling at it would have been then. Knowledge of Dr Mengele’s experiments perhaps contributed to the film remaining banned in the UK until 1958.
All this makes Island of Lost Souls a thing apart from the pure fantasy of the Universal horror movies. It’s a true classic of the genre, but although time has softened the impact of the violence and make-up and made the science seem absurd, it’s still not a ‘fun’ watch in quite the same way. Except, that is, for the performances of Bela Lugosi – who has little more than a cameo as ‘The Sayer of the Law’ but nevertheless makes him a tortured and tragic character – and Laughton, delightful in full evil mode. Just watch his cheeky grin as he tells Parker that if he uses a female for his next experiment, he might be able to teach it to talk more easily.
Also from 1932:
Freaks: Tod Browning followed up his success with Dracula with this drama of a gold-digging circus acrobat who plans to marry a rich midget to inherit his wealth. Although it arguably exploits its subjects – the variously-disfigured circus ‘freaks’ of the title – by making them the subject of a ‘horror’, it does at least treat them with dignity, humanity, and at times very touching sensitivity. However this is somewhat at odds with the menacing tone of the finale as they take their revenge on the girl on a dark and stormy night. The various different endings show what a hard time Browning and the studio had to make it acceptable, but it suffered many years of obscurity nonetheless.
The Old Dark House: Director James Whale is clearly having a great time here. Several wet and weary travellers get stranded during a storm somewhere in Wales (Hollywood shorthand for ‘somewhere bleak and menacing’) and seek shelter at a grim-looking house, where they have to deal with the curt hospitality of their reluctant host, his variously insane family who are hidden around the place, and their ill-disciplined butler – Boris Karloff -who can only communicate in grunts (“Even Welsh ought not to sound like that!”).
The Mummy: Director Karl Freund‘s expertise as cinematographer of Metropolis and many other German silent classics is very evident here. That, along with Boris Karloff’s hypnotic performance as The Mummy / Ardath Bey give this a chilling quality that beats the bandages off later remakes (though the Hammer version was also pretty good).
The Ghoul: Karloff decamps to Britain for this story of a mad scientist who seeks to survive death with the help of some ancient mumbo-jumbo. It takes a while to gel, but builds up to a satisfying conclusion. A respectable entry into the genre for British-made horror.
Vampyr: Hiker Allan Grey (Julian West) ill-advisedly stops at a country inn and finds the village in the grip of some supernatural pestilence. You couldn’t get much further removed from the previous year’s Dracula than this vampire tale from Carl Dreyer, more steeped in authentic old-Europe ghostliness that Hollywood could muster. And it turns out you can kill a vampire by burying it in flour.
Sign of the Cross: Cecil B DeMille doing what he does best – giving us a lot of sensational spectacle dressed up as a morality tale. This one is much the same story as Quo Vadis – Roman Soldier falls for pretty Christian girl and consequently ends up in the arena with all her friends. The arena scenes are particularly lurid, in the original uncut version at least – the most that DeMille would get away with before the censors started to clamp down on this sort of thing.
Tarzan the Ape Man: Though this owes at least as much (stock footage included) to the previous year’s jungle adventure Trader Horn as it does to Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was a successful enough interpretation to set the pattern for Tarzan on screen for the next forty years. Unlike the literary character, Tarzan never goes to England to receive his inheritance and education, but remains a noble savage. I enjoyed this so much this time round I went straight on to watch the other 11 films with Johnny Weissmuller in the title role. The definitive screen Tarzan, he plays it with remarkable naturalness, especially considering he had no acting experience prior to this. His background as an Olympic swimmer is used to good effect though.
The films go downhill a little when production moves to RKO but the six MGM films with Maureen O’Sullivan as a tough and resourceful Jane stand up very well as stories of two very perfect (and yet not annoying) people living a perfect Edenseque life, interrupted only by adventures involving unwelcome ivory hunters and the like from ‘civilisation’. It’s all cleverly calculated to provide ideal escapism for depression-weary cinemagoers.
The Most Dangerous Game: Again on the jungle theme, this neglected adventure has Joel McCrea and Faye Wray shipwrecked on an island (all the rage this year) where they have the bad luck to fall under the protection of resident recluse Count Zaroff, whose hobby is hunting a very specific type of big game… the two-legged kind. This looks much like a rehearsal, or a testing ground, for the following year’s King Kong. The dark tone is quite similar, it’s filmed on the same jungle set, and has one of the first full orchestral scores, a feature studios had previously shied away from because the idea of music from an unseen source seemed odd. In a very short time, of course, it would be perfectly normal.
Grand Hotel: Various guests come and go, and get involved with each other, in a huge Berlin hotel, Hollywood’s idea of the ultimate in European sophistication. Greta Garbo plays a famous dancer, depressed because her career is on the wane; John Barrymore a burglar falls for while stealing her jewelry; Lionel Barrymore a meek, terminally ill clerk who’s taken out his savings to have a final fling. It’s very opulent, very polished – a showcase for MGM’s biggest stars – and just a little bit dull. It strongly resembles a 1970s disaster movie without the disaster. Also notable for an early piece of incidental music during a romantic scene – it only occurs once, as if testing the water for audience reaction to music that only they can hear, as opposed to having a stated onscreen source such as a gramophone in the room (The Public Enemy) or a violinist just outside the hero’s hospital ward (Mata Hari).
Pack Up Your Troubles: Laurel and Hardy get into their feature-film stride, and shift tone slightly, as they play soldiers returning from the war who are lumbered with finding the parents of a fallen comrade so that they can take charge of his orphaned child. A bit syrupy, and clearly riffing (a trifle belatedly) on Chaplin’s The Kid, but with some great moments, such as when they track down the wrong grandparents and ruin their son’s wedding.
Scarface: Paul Muni and George Raft (debuting his trademark coin-tossing schtick) star in this tough, dynamic adaptation of Armitage Trail’s novel, itself inspired by the life of Al Capone. It continues the uncompromising trend set by the previous year’s Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and like them opens with a card proclaiming that they’re showing us this carnage in the public interest, so we can see society’s problems and consider how to solve them. God forbid we should consider it entertainment!
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang: A personal favourite. Paul Muni (having perhaps his best year) plays an honest young man struggling to find work after returning from the war. Wrongly convicted as an accomplice to robbery, he’s sent to prison for years, then escapes, but struggles to stay ahead of his past. The brief but atmospherically charged ending is best watched in silence and darkness.