Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Law no more!" - Kindergarten Consciousness in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933)

Thanks to Criterion's fancy restoration, the ships and shipping in the pre-code horror Island of Lost Souls (1932)-- a film too long absent from DVD--have extra foggy resonance. Finally. My dream request that Criterion release this title at last has been answered. I feel like the dream king of a remote Skull-shaped island, who can see deep into the shadows of the studio jungle and make out the grim black beast faces that before were just vague VHS-streaks.

It makes all the difference. This time Criterion's burned all the streakiness out of her!

Director Earle C. Kenton eschewed mere stock footage rear screen projections, Paramount spared no expense, and the enormity of the ships and their lines and cables strung in the fog really hits you on Blu-ray. You can practically smell the salt-sprayed animals and you feel bad for them and anyone who has to smell it, like zoo in the rain. There are lovely shots of bright spot light and pitch deep black now coming through chiaroscuro latticework, pond reflections reflecting potential lovers dissolving back into DNA sequences ripe for halving; the subtle changes of distressed expression on Leila Hyam's face as the windows facing her at dinner teem with lewd, grinning, probably jacking-off donkey men; the character of Oran ("Him.. tell me... spill blood!") now standing out more from the foliage as every feature of his black on black Caliban face is restored with the Criterion glow and every obscene pustule on Moreau's hopelessly phallic Sebastian's garden-variety prehistoric plants glistens in the moonlight.

One would feel better about it all if the old man had some opiates or Ketamine on hand to knock out his animals before all the painful glandular surgery, but that would undo the grisly satisfaction of the ending. Still, there's a lot of pain in this movie. Due to Laughton's portly sadistic toad-like elan, his Moreau becomes something like the younger brother of his other two main early 30s sadists: Cap'n Bligh in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935) and 'bullyin' Barrett in THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934). Those mythic British connections are perhaps intended, as a satire of such types, the English sadist using (in this case science's) strict codes of conduct as tools for abuse (apparently England's brutal school system will teach you that). We learn from my old Scarlet Street editor David J. Skal in the extras that HG Welles meant the original version to be a kind of Swiftian meta-satire on the Victorian fad for social evolution and science and disregard for the suffering of lab animals, but my reading of the film this time, before seeing his extra, harkened back farther, as far back as ye can Goethe - to the Annunaki in the old tablets of the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia. Look at the picture below and tell me it doesn't look like this ancient god is feeding the animals at a zoo (mmm, strawberries, or pine cone pineal glands!)

Him tell me... spill blood!
If you don't know your ancient alien theory: Lord Enki and other advanced race visitants came here and made humans from a mixture of their own  Annunaki genes and resident ape /animal DNA so that they could be taught to mine for gold which was then shipped off-world. Enki got soft on his critters and gave them some tips on the use of fire and language against strict orders. He even taught them to eat.. meat.

Maybe the end of most mad scientist movies-- when the monsters run amok and kill their maker-- are really a kind of very long-belated revenge against lord Enki for fucking us up - making us part god, part beast -a  hideous still-beating THING! We've been simmering all these eons in our ancestral memory, resentful of ever being dragged from our Edenic animal sleep and thrown into the cold logical light of reason, pain, spelling, kindergarten; being forced to walk on two legs instead of comfortable crawling, and all that other serpentine-mammalian hybrid consciousness duality - both herd animal and solo predator --all just to satisfy the morbid curiosity of a well-heeled reptilian alien madman who's angry at the world 'cuz he's too deep in the closet to have a sex life of his own.

Moreau could also be in that sense an early accidental ringer for J. Edgar Hoover (more on that to come)!

The big highlight in ISLAND is the climactic showdown between the two biggest hams of horror at that time: Bela Lugosi as the keeper of the law going against the whip-snapping Charles Laughton. Lugosi's ranting--after being beaten down, forced to endure untold hours of daily make-up application, brought to heel by bad deals from Universal and morphine addiction--brings several lifetimes worth of rage to bear; Laughton's hamming--no need for studio beat-downs when his homosexuality is beaten into the closet by the intolerant age itself--matches Lugoisi's floridity with a gradually eroding bed of fearlessness. 

It's a great moment in classic horror, worthy of any Karloff-Lugosi pairing. And perfectly cast. I can't see Karloff playing either Moreau or the teller of the law; he was never much of an ego-mad tantrum-raving screamer-- more like the creepy mellifluousness of his Satanist in THE BLACK CAT (1934)--and in the end this showdown is all about tantrums --the bratty older child reigning terror on the younger ones until they band together and wreak their vengeance. When we see the 'faithful dog' die to save his master, we're suddenly ashamed we've been dressing our pets up in little butler outfits all these years.

Another cool aspect of SOULS is its ahead-of-it's time approach to liberal empathy. Perhaps the fall from Eden wasn't the serpent's DNA-diddling after all but the sneering condemnation of a moral crusader like Richard Arlen. The outrage of his Mr. Parker towards the vivisection of these creatures makes him a kind of early representative for PETA. On learning Lota was once a panther, note Parker's choice of language: "These others I can maybe overlook, Moreau," he says, "but to make a woman, with a woman's suffering! That I can't forgive."

In other words, his empathetic response is manageable with the grunting, tough manly beasts, but a woman is, as Carol Clover noted, man's sensitive springboard, his mental frame for absorbing a more acute form of projected punishment via the masochistic gaze.

In other words, the gaze is a holy thing that must be guarded from trauma. It is itself feminine. Hence you can serve a bunch of pork, steak, and chicken at the craft services table during a film shoot, but if you kill a pig, chicken or cow onscreen you are 'cruel' and in violation of "the law" - What is the law? To protect the stomach of squeamish animal and woman lovers --are we not men? There's no way you can possibly kill a creature 'more' cruelly than at a freakin' stockyard or under a scientist's scalpel, so it's not the animal's suffering the laws protect but our own squeamish gaze. We want to be assured no suffering we see onscreen is ever real. If only Moreau had given vocal chords to the meat on the craft services table! Their ghostly yowls might haunt the entire world into veganism!  And what argument could Mr. Parker have then, that wouldn't make him sound like a hypocrite as he reaches for another plate of veal?

Of course while on his island--Moreau insists on it in his laws--everyone is a vegetarian, just like Hitler!

Final note: I generally don't groove on DVD menus, but the Criterion one sets a new awesome standard, expanding on the cover art, with overlaid medical drawings spliced together and music from the film playing over, cool and menacing.  Dig. I love it. DVD of the year.

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