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The Criterion Collection: Island of Lost Souls Blu-ray Disc Review

Island of Lost Souls (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] (1932)

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932, Blu-ray released October 25, 2011 – MSRP $39.95)

MOVIE: ★★★★☆ 
VIDEO: ★★★★☆ 
AUDIO: ★★★★☆ 
EXTRAS: ★★★★½ 
BLU-RAY: ★★★★☆ 

As one of the great early monster movies yet to receive a modern home video release, Island of Lost Souls is among the more important Blu-ray releases of the year. Criterion have assembled the best transfer possible from several print sources and combined that with a host of truly great special features. If you love classic horror you owe it to yourself to get this one!

    A twisted treasure from Hollywood’s pre-Code horror heyday, Island of Lost Souls is a cautionary tale of science run amok, adapted from H. G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. In one of his first major movie roles, Charles Laughton is a mad doctor conducting ghastly genetic experiments on a remote island in the South Seas, much to the fear and disgust of the shipwrecked sailor (Richard Arlen) who finds himself trapped there. This touchstone of movie terror, directed by Erle C. Kenton, features expressionistic photography by Karl Struss, groundbreaking makeup effects that have inspired generations of monster-movie artists, and the legendary Bela Lugosi in one of his most gruesome roles.

I admit that I’m an unadulterated Bela Lugosi fan. I’ll watch just about anything the man is in. Even the worst of his films. And those ones are pretty bad, believe me. So, I completely understand if you find my high praise of Island of Lost Souls to be without quite as much merit as others. But this is a great little film. And, believe it or not, my perception of its greatness has little to do with Bela. I know, it’s hard to get your head around but I love this movie without or without my main man.

Island of Lost Souls is all about Charles Laughton, if you ask me. His Dr. Moreau channels Oscar Wilde, by way of a twisted, mad scientist. Every time he’s on screen, the film springs to life, transcending its origins and genre, becoming something timeless and endlessly fascinating. Bela’s performance as the hairy wolfman-like Sayer of the Law – a role he accepted to prove he would be willing to perform in makeup after turning down Frankenstein and losing a ton of work in the fallout – has much the same effect here but, sadly, he’s barely got any screen time of which to speak. That aside, this is some of his best, most electric work. The makeup, across the board, on all of the beast men (and Panther Woman!) is astounding and adds to the heightened sense of fantasy. It might not be as realistic as modern interpretations of H.G. Wells’ novel but the more imaginative, humanoid take on the creatures lends the film a genuine creepiness that has yet to be outdone.

Criterion have done a bang up job bringing Island of Lost Souls to Blu-ray, despite the many obstacles they clearly had to overcome to do so. I don’t think this 1932 film will ever look better on home video. In fact, in hasn’t had a home video release since the 1997 VHS tape from Universal (it’s hasn’t even been issued on DVD until now!) It’s far from perfect and can’t obviously compare to modern films but relative to its previous release and other home video versions of films from that era, this presentation looks great. Detail and contrast can at times be slightly uneven in this otherwise impressive and surprisingly balanced transfer but there’s a damn good reason for it. This excerpt from the included booklet explains:

    Because the original negative no longer survives, this new digital transfer was created from a number of sources, including 35mm fine-grain master positive with some inherent damage; the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 35mm nitrate positive, which also had defects but contained lines of dialogue not heard since they were censored upon the film’s theatrical release; and a private collector’s 16mm screening print, used to help repair scenes with missing frames and scratches. These elements were scanned in 2K and HD resolution on a Spirit Datacine and a SCANNITY film scanner, and then combined to create the most complete version of the film ever to appear on home video. Finally, thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

The lossless monaural audio track is typical of films of this age. Some hiss is still present but for the most part, Criterion have exacted an impressive clean up here. Audio is stable and presents clean and clear dialogue throughout.

    The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the collector’s 16mm print and section of the 35mm nitrate print, the best sources available. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

Even if you’re not sold on the film itself, the special features on the Island of Lost Souls Blu-ray disc are not to be missed. Most will find the conversation between filmmaker John Landis, makeup master RIck Baker and nerd extraordinaire Bob Burns to be the most easily accessible and fun supplement but the real meat of the extras is found in the interview with Hollywood horror expert David J. Skal (a personal hero of mine and author of one of my favourite books, ‘Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen‘) and the information-packed commentary track by film historian Gregory Mank. It’s not the most lively or off-the-cuff commentary you’ll ever hear but man, does he pack a lot of knowledge into that 70-minute run-time! I don’t know if it speaks more to the quality of the track or my nerd-dom but as soon as it wrapped up I was ready for another go at it. The Richard Stanley and Devo interviews are more directly relevant to their own work but it’s great to hear how a passion for this film has inspired other cultural touchstones.

Highest possible recommendation!

Special Features:

  • New high-definition digital restoration of the uncut theatrical version with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank, author of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors
  • New video conversation among filmmaker John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Videodrome), and genre expert Bob Burns
  • New interviews with horror film historian David J. Skal (The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror); filmmaker Richard Stanley (Hardware, original director of the ill-fated 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau)
  • New interviews with Devo founding members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, whose manifesto is rooted in themes from Island of Lost Souls
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Christine Smallwood

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