House of Pain

Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls (1932) is quite completely Charles Laughton's movie. Laughton plays Dr. Moreau from the famed Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and, well, to be honest, everything else seems rather trivial.

Laughton is a funny actor. He's filled with the most fertile incongruity and downright dichotomy. He's plump and even porky, yet he seems eminently graceful. He has the looks of a butcher or a dustman, yet there's something delicate and slightly effeminate about him. He's by no means handsome in any sense of the word, yet his features are positively distinguished and sometimes almost beautiful. He's evidently working class, yet he's the consumate aristocrat. He looks fundamentally weak, yet he can muster up the most choleric and sadistic force one may imagine. In the movie he's got tiny porcine eyes and an elegant version of Hitler's moustache (it being only '32 this may be a serendipitous coincidence). What he really looks like is an overgrown child, a cunning and rather naughty schoolboy who's been up to no good behind the master's back. One never knows where one is with him. Which of course is very good, it keeps his performances fresh and surprising.

The beginning of the movie follows the novel fairly faithfully with our castaway hero getting rescued on the high seas and then abandoned on Moreau's island. The deviation from the original begins with the introduction of the romantic element, of course, it being a movie. This is, however, not done entirely without interest. The creatures Moreau has created or transmogrified are all male. All, that is, except one - a superbly beautiful and exotic creature who was once a leopard. Now Moreau wishes to see just how much of a woman she is, just precisely how human. This he intends to find out by trying to concoct a romance between her and our hero.

Oh the glib look on his face when he comes up with the idea, the glee, the absolutely naughty delight he takes from the idea, like it was a boyish prank instead of scientific exploration. Maybe his entire career in science stems from the self-same motive. He's been told he can't do something, so obviously that is precisely what he does want to do.

Another remarkable performance is Bela Lugosi's amazingly hirsute Sayer of the Law, one of Moreau's unhappy creatures and creations, possibly a monkey of some kind in his previous life. It is his function to recite or chant echoingly The Law unto his brethren as Moreau wields his lethal whip. "What is the Law?" "Not to eat meat, that is The Law. Are we not men?" "What is the Law?" "Not to spill Blood, that is The Law. Are we not Men?" And the emotional climax comes when he, with such an animal howl as would break even the coldest of hearts, utters the crushing phrase: "This is the House of Pain." If anyone thought that Lugosi is rubbish as an actor, this single line disproves any such belief with a vengeance. The amount of emotion, pain, grief, anguish and sheer terror he manages to cram into a single line is simply beyond belief. And, I may add, without sounding the slightest bit silly or phony or theatrical - which sometimes is something of a problem with him. Well, ah, fairly often actually.

The House of Pain is Moreau's laboratory or surgical theatre where he performs his scientific wonders, puts his animals under the knife and elevates beast into man, sort of. Moreau's creatures shun his whip, but what they are mortally afraid of is The House of Pain - the memory of which lingers with them constantly as the ultimate nightmare come true. The island is Moreau's own private little Heaven where he can do anything he pleases. For his creatures it is nothing but a purgatory. Maybe even a living Hell. But it's all fun and games for Laughton's Moreau. The smugness of the man is amazing, the insolence quite breathtaking. He even has the gall to call his laboratory an experimental place for Bio-Anthropological research.

Of course it all goes belly-up. Our hero's fianceé turns up on the island and the creatures go a bit funny in the head. It drives a few of them almost over the edge. Moreau suddenly realises that he could use this new girl in his experiments and tells one of his creatures to kill the captain of the ship she arrived on, thus taking care that she can't escape the island and her gruesome fate in the hands of the Doctor (I say - why are all the nastiest movie villains Doctors? - just a thought).

But when Moreau sets one of his creatures on the captain he breaks his own Law. "Law no more," the creature announces as he throws down the captain's lifeless corpse in the village of Moreau's hapless victims. And the look in Laughton's eyes when he hears the rumble from the village - unadulturated joy and the downright ecstasy. His little plan worked, isn't he the clever one? "They're quite out of hand tonight," says Moreau lightly. Little does he know.

But, the creatures surmise, if they can kill one man, the captain, why can't they kill another man - Moreau? Why indeed? The Law no longer applies.

With his whip Moreau goes out to sort it out. But the creatures won't settle down. "You made us things. Part men, part beasts," Sayer of the Law says. Upon which the creatures fall upon Moreau. He escapes but not far. In the end the creatures get him in The House of Pain. Revenge is sweet. Well, not for Moreau it isn't. Our hero and his girl escape.

Fairly simple and straightforward. Wouldn't be much to write home about if it weren't for Laughton and Lugosi. They make the movie.


Anonymous said...

ois kiva tietää mitkä niinku on definetly sun kesäbiisei?

PS said...

Kesäbiisit, Summer 2010:

1) Beethoven: 7. sinfonia
2) Mahler: 7. sinfonia
3) Bruckner: 7. sinfonia
4) Sibelius: 7. sinfonia
5) Paris Hilton: 7. sinfonia
6) Haydn: 77. sinfonia