Thursday, March 10, 2022

It’s Not Nice to Fool (With) Mother Nature: “Island of Lost Souls”

Those with long memories may recall a TV commercial for a brand of margarine, featuring a daintily costumed celestial figure who discovers to her surprise that she’s not eating real butter, then snarls, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” (Cue the lightning strike.) This of course is the subliminal message of the scores of science-fiction and horror films in which a scientist, overloaded with brains and hubris, seeks to move outside the natural order to create something brand-new . . . and inevitably horrible.

 Where would Hollywood be without this basic plotline? Certainly I came across it time and time again when working for Roger Corman. One example is 1993’s Carnosaur, which we at Concorde-New Horizons made—fast and cheap—for one very specific reason: to beat Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park into theatres. Jurassic Park and its sequels are, as all film fans know, modern classics in the upend-the-natural-order genre, setting up a world in which a crazed visionary has installed cloned dinosaurs in a modern-day theme park.  (Naturally they escape and run amok.) Our Carnosaur, inventively devised by writer/director Adam Simon, changes things up by introducing a FEMALE mad scientist (Diane Ladd), one who bioengineers a Tyrannosaurus Rex while working on genetically modified chickens. (Or something like that.)

 The film in which Roger Corman made his return to directing after nearly twenty years, Frankenstein Unbound (1990) of course draws from one of the world’s most famous mad-scientist stories. Mary Shelley, the very young wife of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, created the character of Frankenstein as part of an around-the-hearth competition of literary types vying to come up with the best ghost story. Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was published in 1818, when she was 20 years old. Its title character is not the monster, but rather the bright young doctor who assembles a creature out of scavenged body parts, then finds a way to bring it to life. Needless to say, the consequences are horrific—and the movies based on them, starting with James Whale’s (and Boris Karloff’s) Frankenstein  in 1931, continue to titillate us today.

 Like the Frankenstein films, Island of Lost Souls is based on a nineteenth-century English novel. Its source material is The Island of Dr. Moreau, written by pioneering science-fiction author H.G. Wells, who clearly saw the dangers as well as the promise of scientific research into the origins of man. This story about a crazed vivisectionist, living on a distant Pacific island, who labors to turn wild beasts into humans, has spawned a dozen film versions, starting back in the silent era. In a 1996 movie, Marlon Brando played the mad doctor. But Island of Lost Souls, a pre-code flick from 1932, has the always-mesmerizing Charles Laughton in the role. Naturally, the film is stiff and creaky. But I was particularly fond of the young actress, Kathleen Burke, who is named in the film’s opening credits solely as The Panther Woman. Despite her supposed genetic inheritance from the animal kingdom, she’s a sweet, lovely creature desperate to find human love. Bela Lugosi is also around in a small role, giving the story an additional frisson.

 I’ve learned that the subject matter of Island of Lost Souls did not go unchallenged Many national film boards opposed the lines containing Moreau’s boast that he was playing God. Cruelty to animals was a big issue for some, and eventually there were bans in places like Sweden and the UK. If you were a white Australian, you could see the movie unchallenged, but Aboriginals were barred. Today, of course, anything goes.




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