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'Island of Lost Souls' - the Film

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The Island of Doctor Moreau
'Island of Lost Souls' | The 1977 Film | The 1996 Film

This time I'll burn out all the animal in her!
- Doctor Moreau, discussing Lota

Island of Lost Souls is the first film adaptation of HG Wells' classic novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. This 1932 film is in many ways quite different from the book; it ups the level of sex and violence and reduces the level of satire to create a chilling, haunting story of arrogance, deception, love, lust and bestial, animal desires. Banned in 12 countries and not seen in the UK until 26 years after it was made, it too carries a haunting message of the arrogance of colonialism.


The SS Covena, sailing through the fog, spots a lifeboat. On board is Edward Parker, a survivor from the wreck of the Lady Vain. Parker, who was en route to meet his fiancée, Ruth Thomas, is nursed back to heath by Montgomery, a former doctor. A telegram is sent to Ruth telling her what has happened. During his recuperation Parker takes a stroll on the deck of the Covena and is surprised to see that the ship has a cargo of lions, tigers and bears. He also witnesses Captain Davies drunkenly attacking M'Ling, Montgomery's servant, and is himself assaulted by the captain, an attack which he successfully fends off. In revenge, Captain Davies throws Parker off the ship when they arrive at Doctor Moreau's uncharted island.

Staying in Moreau's well-defended complex, Moreau plans to see how Lota, the only woman on the island, will react to meeting Parker. Parker and Lota enjoy each other's company until Parker hears a scream. Rushing into Moreau's laboratory, known as the 'House of Pain', he sees Moreau performing an operation on a half-human patient. Believing that Moreau turns people into animals, Parker flees with Lota, followed by the Doctor, only to be surrounded by manimals. Moreau restores order with the use of his whip, and by encouraging the beastmen to recite the Law. All three return to the house, and on the way Moreau explains that he created all the men on the island by his scientific experiments, but does not mention that Lota is also one of his creations.

Moreau destroys his own schooner in order to prevent Parker leaving the island, hoping that Parker will breed with Lota as a successful hybrid human-beast baby would be the ultimate proof of his ability to create human life. By now, Ruth Thomas and the American Consul in Samoa have learned that Davies marooned Parker on an uncharted island, and a Captain Donahue is dispatched to rescue Parker.

Parker, attracted to Lota, embraces her and feels claws sinking into his back. Deducing that she is one of Moreau's creations, he confronts the doctor, who confirms his suspicions. Soon afterwards, Donahue and Ruth arrive, prompting Moreau to realise there is another way to create a hybrid human-beast. He allows Ouran, one of his manimals, into the complex. In the night Ouran attacks Ruth, but is driven off.

Montgomery, sickened by Moreau's actions, helps Parker, Ruth and Donahue to flee, but Moreau orders Ouran to kill Donahue, thus breaking the most important Law he has taught the manimals. As Moreau has broken the sacred law, the manimals declare 'Law no more!' and revolt. Who out of Montgomery, Parker, Ruth and Lota will survive? Will Moreau, who bravely tries to restore order, succeed or be taken to the House of Pain to be experimented on by those he has created?


MenDr MoreauCharles Laughton
Edward ParkerRichard Arlen
Ruth ThomasLeila Hyams
MontgomeryArthur Hohl
Captain DaviesStanley Fields
Captain DonahuePaul Hurst
American ConsulGeorge Irving
ManimalsSayer of the LawBela Lugosi
Lota, the Panther WomanKathleen Burke
OuranHans Steinke
M'LingTetsu Komai
GolaHarry Ekezian

Noted English Shakespearean actor Charles Laughton is famous for playing the definitive Henry VIII in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII, for which he won an Oscar. He also starred in and was Oscar-nominated for both Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) as Captain Bligh, and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). In 1955 he directed The Night of the Hunter, now acclaimed as a classic. One of his last roles was as Gracchus in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film Spartacus.

Richard Arlen began his career as a delivery man, and only became an actor when he broke his leg making a delivery to Paramount and was cast in a film in order for the studio to avoid being sued. He made several films from the 1920s to the 1970s, including Wings in 1927, the only silent film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

Kathleen Burke won the part of Panther Woman after being one of 60,000 to audition. Her film career lasted only six years, before she retired.

Bela Lugosi, who plays the Sayer of the Law, is most famous for being the first Dracula in a sound production. When he made Island of Lost Souls, Bela Lugosi had filed for bankruptcy and, desperate for money, agreed to be the lowest-paid actor in the film, earning only $875. The two other main beastmen, Ouran and Gola, were played by wrestlers Hans 'The German Oak' Steinke and Harry 'Ali Baba' Ekezian.

The Making of

Paramount Studios made Island of Lost Souls as a way of cashing in on some of the success that Universal Studios was enjoying with successful horror adaptations of classic gothic novels, including Dracula and Frankenstein. As Paramount's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had been successful, they were keen to adapt The Island of Doctor Moreau, a novel written at the same time with many of the same themes.

The film's screenwriters Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young added an element of sex with the introduction of two characters: Parker's fiancée Ruth, and the erotic, animalistic Lota, the Panther Woman. By holding a nationwide beauty contest to find the woman who would be cast in the role, the studio generated enormous excitement and publicity before filming had even begun. This is reflected in the film's promotional posters and the opening credits, when the film's stars are listed as:

  • Charles Laughton
  • Bela Lugosi
  • Richard Arlen
  • The Panther Woman

The film was shot by noted cinematographer Karl Struss, and directed by Erle C Kenton who already had more than a decade of experience behind him, and who went on to make many more horror films in the 1940s.

The Making of the Make-Up

The make-up and masks worn by the beastmen were crafted by legendary make-up artist Wally Westmore. Westmore was head of Paramount's make-up department and was known for his work on the Oscar-winning film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was the son of Isle of Wight-born George Westmore, patriarch of Hollywood's Westmore dynasty. George founded Hollywood's first make-up studio when he noticed that the film stars of the day were doing their own make-up, and doing it badly. After humble beginnings, making wigs for film stars out of prostitutes' hair, George's six sons, including Wally, continued his tradition, doing the make-up for over three hundred films during the Golden age of Hollywood.

Wally was in turn the uncle of Oscar-winning make-up artist Michael Westmore, famous for his make-up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.


The Tempest

A key influence on this film was William Shakespeare's The Tempest, also set on a mysterious island. Doctor Moreau reflects the characteristics of Prospero, the authority figure who had left civilisation years earlier in order to pursue his magical research. Moreau, too, left civilisation to pursue his research into the creation of intelligent life, an act which is indistinguishable from magic. Lota can be seen as Prospero's naïve daughter Miranda, and Edward Parker as heroic Prince Ferdinand, with beast-like, deformed Caliban as Moreau's creation, Ouran. Just as Caliban attempts to rape Miranda, Oran attacks Ruth, with the intent of rape heavily implied.

Of course, Island of Lost Souls is not the only science fiction film or series to have been inspired by The Tempest. This is most notably seen in Forbidden Planet, with Morbius in Moreau's role, complete with a 'plastic educator' that increases intelligence, and a strange creature stalking the planet. Moreau wants to use Parker to make Lota act more like a woman, a theme also used in the Star Trek: The Original Series episodes 'Menagerie' in which a female survivor of a spaceship crash-landing is attracted to Captain Pike, and also 'Requiem for Methuselah', in which the character of Flint creates a robotic woman and witnesses her fall in love with Captain Kirk.


Another key influence is Dracula, especially the 1931 film version. Both films featured Bela Lugosi as characters who at first glance can be mistaken for humans, but are revealed to be inhuman, soulless creatures. Not only was the Sayer of the Law an animal, Dracula too is a beast, which we see through his transformation into a bat. The character of Edward Prendick has been renamed Edward Parker for this film, perhaps in homage to the character John Harker who innocently visits Dracula and becomes his victim. Both Harker in Dracula and Parker in Island of Doctor Moreau inadvertently bring their fiancées into danger. Ouran's attack on a sleeping Ruth is very similar to Dracula's attack on the slumbering Mina. Just as Dracula features a woman, Lucy, who has been transformed into a subhuman vampire, Island of Doctor Moreau features a woman, Lota, with claws.

Differences from the Novel

There are several differences from HG Wells' novel. Some are trivial and largely insignificant: Captain Davis becomes Captain Davies; M'Ling is a loyal dog rather than a bear; and Edward is rescued by the SS Covena travelling to Apia in Samoa rather than the SS Ipecacuancha travelling to Arica in Chile. Other differences are more substantial. There are many large animals on board the ship rather than just a puma1, and no rabbits are taken to the island.

Some of the characters have backgrounds that are different from those in the novel, and some new characters are introduced. Moreau reveals that he began his career experimenting on flowers, rather than, more sinisterly, the dogs of the novel. In the film Montgomery faces imprisonment for a medical indiscretion if he returns to civilisation, which is broadly in line with the mysterious background we know for him, but not explained in the novel. In the film Montgomery is redeemed; he is cured of his alcoholism and chooses to face imprisonment in order to help Parker and his fiancée escape harm. In the film he survives, rather than dying of an alcoholic binge as in the novel.

Edward Prendick is renamed Parker and has a fiancée, Ruth. This introduces a love-triangle, as he is also attracted to another new character, Lota the panther-woman, who has a much greater role than the female puma that Moreau begins experimenting on in the novel. The schooner, the only way off the island, is deliberately destroyed by Moreau very early on in the film, in order to keep Parker on the island with Lota. Moreau's plan to breed Lota with Parker is never even considered in the novel.

Parker is an undefined character, an Everyman, rather than the wealthy science student of the novel. He only appears to be on the island for a fortnight instead of the months or almost a year the novel implies, and there are no apparent lasting consequences of his stay. The film's last line, 'Don't look back', implies that Parker will be able to put his adventure behind him and move on to enjoy a happy life with Ruth.

Wells himself disowned the film, feeling that it missed the subtle satire of his work and instead concentrated on horror.

The Natives are Restless: Reaction to Island of Lost Souls

The natives, they have a curious ceremony... They are restless tonight.
...They are unusually restless tonight.

- Doctor Moreau, Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls was banned by jurisdictions around the world including Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Hungary, India, Italy, Latvia, New Zealand, Singapore, Tasmania and South Africa. In Australia the film was categorised as NEN - Not to be Exhibited to Natives – meaning the film was banned for aboriginal audiences, for fear of the subversive theme of a successful revolt against the white masters. In America, the film was so shocking that several people reportedly vomited in their seats.

In Britain not only was the film banned on release in 1933, and not considered suitable for the H (Horror) category, it was again banned in 1957 and only released in 1958 after several cuts were made, including the lines in which Moreau says, 'Do you know what it means to feel like God' and Parker stating, 'They're vivisecting a human being. They're cutting a man to pieces!'. Other scenes of violence and the scene of the unsuccessful Beastmen creations enslaved to work a treadmill in order to generate electricity were also removed. Following these cuts, it was issued with an X certificate2. When Island of Lost Souls was released on video in Britain in 1996 it was classified as a 12, and for its DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK in 2011 was classed as a PG3.

Island of Lost Souls is famous for popularising the phrase 'The Natives are restless', often used to imply a potential threat to the ruling white overlords by those considered primitive, but more numerous. Ironically, none of Moreau's manimals are native to the island; it is implied that they had all been brought to the island captive in cages and created in the lab, emphasising their slave nature. Yet his description of them as 'natives' satisfies the curiosity of Ruth and Captain Donahue. The animal we see most frequently in the film is an African lion, bringing to mind the slave trade from Africa to the Americas.


Colonialism and Slavery

It is impossible to watch the film without sensing the underlying theme of the inherent evil of colonialism and slavery. The intelligent, educated western men, Moreau, Montgomery, Parker, the American Consul and Captain Donahue, dress in bright white. Captain Davies, the drunk, disgraced captain, wears off-white to reflect that he has succumbed and been corrupted by his animal instincts. Ruth also wears virginal white throughout. Yet the Beastmen, a subservient class kept in check by the threat of whips and 'The House of Pain', are portrayed as dark-skinned and dark-haired. Some Beastmen are kept as slaves, turning a wheel in order to generate electricity for the house.

Even Lota, the beautiful near-perfect created woman, has a dark origin, both literally and metaphorically. In the novel, the nearest equivalent to her character is a puma, a cat with golden-brown fur, while in the film, she has been created from a panther, a black cat, which explains her dark, black hair. Why the change, if not to emphasise her dark, and therefore 'impure' background?

White is seen to equal emotional detachment – the darker the character, the more likely they are to succumb to emotion and bestial desires. Moreau is the most educated, the most emotionless character, yet he is far from being a hero. Moreau at first glance is like a missionary, imposing his own personal beliefs on the community of Beastmen, yet as we see more of him his true character is revealed. His lack of emotions and base desires have resulted in his being uncaring and arrogant, ruling over his creations through fear. He delights in manipulating Lota into feeling attracted to Parker, and when she later breaks down in tears after Parker has learnt the truth about her he is elated with her distress, as it proves she is human. While Lota reacts like a woman, Moreau becomes subhuman by being ecstatic at her pain, and rather than comfort her he plans to cause her more distress by burning out all the animal in her. He even hopes for and plots the rape of innocent Ruth, for if Ruth were to be impregnated by one of his creations, Moreau would have proved that he could create true human life. As Moreau treats everyone around him as something to experiment on, there is a justice that his fate is to be experimented on in return when his creations rebel against him.

Moreau represents the colonialist who believes he has an absolute, god-like right to rule. His ruling is not benevolent but brought about through fear and the imposition of law. He rules with an iron hand that clenches his ever-cracking whip, a Victorian colonist who lives by a view summarised by Belloc's poem about the First Matabele War (1893-94, only two years before Wells wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau), when 50 soldiers armed with four guns defeated 5,000 Ndebele warriors:

Whatever happens, we have got
the Maxim gun, and they have not.

Moreau has a whip and the House of Pain. Being technologically more advanced, he arrogantly assumes automatic superiority.

Law and Order

As long as Moreau follows his own laws the island maintains its delicate sense of order. The law is learned and recited, but never actually respected. It is not only the Beastmen who work under an interpretation of law, rather than the spirit. Drunken Captain Davies follows the law of the sea in that he has a duty to rescue anyone stranded at sea and deliver them safely to his first port of call, but also interprets it to mean that he is legally allowed to dump Parker overboard and maroon him on Moreau's island without telling anyone, only to be later rebuked by the Consul. Like the Beastmen, he is taught 'What is the Law' and pays lip service to the words, but without considering the law's meaning, spirit or intent.

The Role of Women

The PANTHER WOMAN lured men on – only to destroy them body and soul!
- Advertising poster for Island of Lost Souls

In Island of Lost Souls, two new principal characters not present in Wells' original novel have been introduced. These are Lota, the Panther Woman, and Parker's fiancée Ruth Thomas. These two women fall into the classic love triangle roles of, respectively, the femme fatale and the virgin victim in white. Appropriately for a beauty and the beast story, Ruth's name means 'vision of beauty'. Not just a pretty face, Ruth proves to be resourceful; she is the one who manages to persuade the American consul that Edward Parker is alive and that Davies knows where he may be found. That said, she is otherwise a bit dull; a typical damsel in distress, a princess or beauty in a high tower (well, Moreau's first floor bedroom) who needs to be rescued from the beast.

There is no doubt that Lota as the Panther Woman is a more interesting character, something which Paramount's publicity department strongly emphasised. The poster campaign may have promised that the panther woman was some kind of man-eating siren, but in the film that is not quite what happens. She does knock an instruction manual (for building a radio) into a pool of water when she fears that the book threatens to take Parker away from her. She also gives Parker a hug and inadvertently scratches his back, which isn't quite destroying him body and soul. After this embrace she bursts into tears, ashamed of her appearance.

However, as a piece of 1930s cinema the hero has to get together with the heroine. Moral dignity must be upheld, and so in common with many film noir femmes fatale, Lota is killed off. She bravely sacrifices herself to protect Montgomery, Parker and Ruth from Ouran, the Beastman stalking them all.

Who are the 'Lost Souls' of the title?

The film is renamed from Wells' original title The Island of Doctor Moreau to Island of Lost Souls. Why was the name changed to 'souls', especially considering only one shipwrecked survivor, one soul, made it to the island? Does the title refer to more than the one person who has lost their way and actually mean people who have lost their souls?'

  • Are the Beastmen, by being half-human, animals or people without a soul? Or are they lost having been taken away from their home and changed beyond all recognition?
  • Has Moreau, through trying to play God, become tempted by evil and sacrificed his soul?
  • Parker is a lost soul through his ship, the Lady Vain, sinking with the loss of all souls aboard?. But has shipwrecked and abandoned Edward Parker, through desiring unnatural Lota, an animal, lost his soul?
  • Had Montgomery lost his soul by working with Moreau for many years but, by helping Parker and Ruth escape, managed to redeem himself?
  • Is Lota a lost soul by being rejected by the man she loves, her soulmate?


Island of Lost Souls is a very atmospheric, chilling film that asks us what it is to be human. What qualities actually make mankind different to animals – is it pure intelligence and curiosity, as represented by Moreau, or something more? Something we do not witness in the film itself, such as compassion?

The basic plot is intriguing, if unscientific. Moreau states that all animals are attempting to evolve into man – as mankind is, obviously, the pinnacle, aim and end point of evolution, and he merely acts to accelerate the process. Yet Mother Nature is not a force to be underestimated, with the environmental balance always being restored. Lota's 'stubborn beast flesh' comes creeping back, changing her fingers back into a cat's claws. Moreau's solution is to wage war against nature, declaring 'This time I'll burn out all the animal in her!'

This leads to Charles Laughton's performance as Doctor Moreau, the vegetarian vivisectionist. Laughton is by far the dominant force of the film, playing Moreau with a suave charm and undefined threat. As the film's heroes never measure up to the way Laughton dominates every scene he is in, viewers almost want Moreau to succeed. The way that the revolt of the Beastmen begins after Moreau orders the breaking of the law is also symbolic, proving that Moreau feels that such petty concerns as laws, even ones he has created, do not apply to him. It is revealed how flimsy his illusion of stability has been. Wishing to make animals in mankind's image he instead succeeds in creating animals in his own image; unfeeling, cold, calculating and capable of murder, rape and torture. His dramatic demise is therefore self-inflicted.

In contrast, Parker is comparatively weak and behaves rather appallingly. He seems to enjoy discussing cannibalism ('long pig', a nickname for human flesh) in front of his fiancée over dinner, which is hardly the behaviour of a well-mannered man. He is also extremely easily seduced by Lota, despite his engagement, blaming Moreau for his own desires and temptation, rather than taking responsibility for his own actions.

There are some weak areas to the film. The cast cannot decide whether to pronounce Moreau's name as 'Morrow' or 'More-O'. It also seems odd that only Captain Donahue and Ruth disembark and go to the strange island. Presumably Donahue questioned Davies about what he knew of the uncharted island in the South Pacific, and that Davies' cargo had been lions, tigers, bears etc. Yet then deciding that the best way to rescue Parker would be with just himself and a defenceless woman, not even bringing a man to guard his rowing boat, seems a bit bizarre, matched only by his plan to wander off through the jungle later on in the film for no apparent reason.


Sadly, and perhaps unjustly, the film has since been overshadowed by another film released the following year, featuring an ape-like monster, King Kong, but Island of Lost Souls has not been forgotten and is held dear by some big Hollywood names.

In an interview with Guillermo Del Toro, for instance, John Landis stated that 'Island of Lost Souls is one of my favourite horror movies', to which Del Toro replied 'I love it! I have a homage in Blade II – 'The House of Pain''.

One other lasting legacy of the film is the 1981 Blondie song of the same name. In the music video, Debbie Harry can be seen marooned on a tropical island, surrounded by musicians who all have animal heads and chase her through the island's jungle. Many of the lyrics can be interpreted as Lota's reaction to Parker running away from her after they had embraced, and Parker discovered her true animal nature, with a cheeky mention of Moreau's speciality at the end:

Where did he go?
I'm tired of waiting here for him
Where can he be?
He's not with me
Where did he go?
What will I do alone?

Why did he run, run away from me?

The sky is blue the sea is warm and clear
And golden sands are calling out to you inviting
Make a new man outa you

The Island of Doctor Moreau
'Island of Lost Souls' | The 1977 Film | The 1996 Film
1Perhaps to add some visual interest for the cinema audience.2For over-18s only.3Suitable for all ages, but certain scenes may be unsuitable for young children.

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