Who are the monsters in Island of Lost Souls (1932), Earle C. Kenton’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau? Its central villain would appear to be Dr. Moreau himself, played here with devilish brio by the great Charles Laughton, though the humanoid beasts that prowl outside his jungle compound are its chief source of horror: they lurch at the camera, startle the confused Parker (Richard Arlen), and leer at his girlfriend (Leila Hyams). Perhaps more tellingly, the leader of the beast-men is played by an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi, who only one year earlier had turned in his performance as one of the most iconic of movie monsters, Count Dracula. But, as grotesque and frightening as the beast-men may appear, it soon becomes clear that they are the film’s victims, not its villains, and Island of Lost Souls ends happily enough with a scene of uprising in which Moreau is tortured to death by his own test subjects.
Like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), Island of Lost Souls sides with the interests of a group of oppressed “monsters” against a cruel human character who believes himself to be their physical and mental superior. Yet both films are complicated by their inability to resist making spectacles out of their “monstrous” bodies. In other words, Island of Lost Souls sympathizes with the plight of the beast-men whose bodily monstrosity it simultaneously turns into an object of horrific pleasure. Freaks, which remains to this day one of the most complex and provocative of all horror films, is far more careful to avoid exploiting its actors’ disabilities; nevertheless, the exhibition of those disabilities continues to act as one of the film’s selling points. This suggests that as audience members we take a curious pleasure in looking at, and even recoiling from, the bodies of the “monsters” for whom we might be rooting.
Rhona Berenstein has pointed out that the classic horror films of the 1930s allow for unexpected forms of identification, and it’s worth pointing out that in many of the 1930s horror films (Frankenstein, King Kong, Freaks, Island of Lost Souls) the most monstrous characters are often the ones with whom our sympathies lie (King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster, the sideshow performers of Freaks and Moreau’s beast-men are all driven to violence by reasonably understandable motives). What’s interesting to me is that we are encouraged to physically recoil from the figure of the monster at the same time that we feel protective toward him. Identification and objectification in these films may be more complicated than we’ve yet realized. You may pity the monster, they seem to say, but do not forget that he still has the power to scare you.