The actress' name is not, in fact, "The Panther Woman"
For Hollywood, the early nineteen-thirties were a golden age of horror. 1931 saw the release of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, movies based on classic and respectable works of science-fiction and horror that proved to be far more popular and profitable than anyone in Hollywood truly expected. In 1932, several studios--mostly Universal and Paramount--tried to push the envelope as far as they could, chasing the success of the previous years' landmark productions. One of those films was Paramount's Island of Lost Souls, another horror film based on a classic work of science-fiction literature, and the studio decided very early in pre-production that this would be the horror film to end all horror films, the one to push the envelope as far as it could be pushed.
Adapted from H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls is a brutal little film that takes Wells' central idea and transforms it into something far more salacious and terrifying. Famously, Wells himself hated the film, arguing that all of his thematic ideas were lost in the rush to create something grotesque, terrifying, and repugnant. He was happy that the film received a total ban in Great Britain (as well as about a dozen other countries and several states in America), and hoped that Hollywood would learn its lesson and tone down what he considered to be reprehensible spectacle in favor of more intellectually-driven drama.
Hollywood did indeed tone things down shortly thereafter, with the more strict adherence to a production code that would become known as the Hays Code, a decision that film historians are torn on. On one hand, the Hays Code allowed films to reach broad audiences and reassure the public that the films they went to would all meet an acceptable standard of relative wholesomeness. On the other hand, it stifled creativity and ensured that it would be many decades before films like Island of Lost Souls could be made again.
"Are we not men?"
It may not have the cultural recognition of Frankenstein or Dracula, but Island of Lost Souls is one of the early thirties' greatest horror films, no matter what H.G. Wells thought of it. It found its audience and, in the over eighty-five years since its initial release, it has become something of a cult classic, inspiring hundreds of imitators and influencing other aspects of pop culture, most famously the neo-punk synth band Devo. It also might just be, much to the annoyance of Wells' spirit, the best adaptation of his macabre novel.
However, Wells did have a point: Island of Lost Souls is, unquestionably, a bastardized form of his novel that discards a lot of the philosophical overtones in favor of gross--almost smutty--sensationalism and horror. It takes the general premise of Wells' novel to places Wells never dreamed, resulting in a film that focuses heavily on subjects Wells either sidestepped or avoided entirely, like the potential for bestiality.
This guy is straight-up evil
Dr. Moreau, as played by Charles Laughton, is a deviant sadist and sociopath, a far cry from the relatively more morally ambiguous tragic figure Wells wrote about. Laughton's Moreau keeps the protagonist, Richard Arlen's Edward Parker, on the island, not out of necessity but out of an intent to carry out Moreau's reprehensible experiment to see if a human male can mate with his newly created Panther Woman, Lota. When that fails and Parker's fiancée comes to the island to rescue him, Moreau adapts his plan and explicitly instructs one of his beastly creations to rape the young woman in the night.
It's no surprise, given this subject matter, that Island of Lost Souls would receive as much censorship as it did (there's also one controversial line where Moreau compares himself to God that was cut out of many versions of the film), but by today's standards, the film isn't that shocking. There is some disturbing imagery involving Moreau's actual vivisectioning, but it's neither bloody nor gory, choosing to be upsetting through implication rather than exploitation. Also, spoiler alert, the threatened bestiality and rape never actually occur, despite Moreau's best efforts. Still, as a film from the studio system days of Hollywood, it is surprisingly effective at provoking its audience, a darker and more distressing experience than even the most daring film noir of the fourties.
A taboo affair thwarted by stubborn beast flesh
Underneath all this boundary-pushing horror, the film does manage to highlight some of Wells' ideas as well as create a few interesting ones of its own. Moreau's methods are no longer limited to vivisection, but the critique of unethical science remains as the film's central theme. One other aspect of the novel which I failed to address in my previous article is Wells' attempt to satirize Victorian class culture, an aspect that is kept in the film by the clear juxtaposition of how the beast-men are treated with the way a drunken captain is treated by his own superior. While Wells' thoughts on religion and evolution are dropped much further into the background, this film introduces a meditation on the nature of unhinged power and hubris, something you won't find in The Island of Dr. Moreau.
There's plenty more to discuss on the subject of Island of Lost Souls. I haven't even touched on Bela Legosi's performance as the Sayer of the Law, the insanely good make-up done in an age before foam rubber was a thing, the way Montgomery (played by Arthur Hohl) is made a far more interesting character, the wonderful performance by newcomer Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman, and Moreau's incredible death scene, which is reminiscent of 1932's other notorious envelope-pushing horror film, Freaks. Alas, I don't have the space in this article, so I'll have to save it for the inevitable video I will produce on my YouTube channel, if you're so interested. (If you are, leave a comment!)