Edward Parker is rescued at sea by the Covena, but soon falls victim to a coven of bestiality. This is one of the great Pre-Code horror films and possibly the most visually and psychologically disturbing. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau steals the fire of scientific enlightenment and brings it to humanity and forgets he is merely playing god, not becoming one. Director Erle C. Kenton learned much from writing for Mack Sennett’s early comedies because this film is paced and edited extremely well, as one scene careens into the next. It’s also photographed by the great DP Karl Struss, whose disturbing compositions are fuel for nightmares. The set designs and makeup are also top-notch, as are the actors especially Charles Laughton.
Our protagonist Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is catapulted into the surreal, quite literally too, as he’s sucker punched and thrown overboard upon Moreau’s boat. Once isolated in the Dr’s island abode, he’s quickly manipulated into a sexual relationship with the exotic “Polynesian” Lota (Kathleen Burke). Moreau’s plan is to mate his creation Lota, a panther given human physique, with Parker and birth his own homo superior. But Parker’s beau Ruth (Leila Hyams) answers the summons and comes to his rescue with a Captain and crew in tow! But soon, Ruth is attacked by a beast-man at Moreau's request, so if Lota doesn’t birth his progeny, then a human shall! That’s the plot’s skeleton upon which the bestial flesh and fur is attached, and the film is primal in its depiction of vivisection, torture, and moral corruption. One great scene in the First Act foreshadows this, as Parker is being rehabbed aboard the Covena, he asks his English benefactor if he is a doctor. The man responds, “I was, once” and opens the cabin door. A cacophony of guttural animal roars floods the room which is unsettling and out of place on a ship!
Charles Laughton imbues Moreau with a diabolical childish glee, like he’s just killed a kitten and gotten away with it. His charm and effeminate demeanor are a mask that hides his debased intentions, the master of the House of Pain and the creatures he himself has produced. He’s cruel but doesn’t consider himself cruel, which is a dangerous moral conundrum. To him, his cruelty is a kindness, and he must teach his children, whom he has made into caricatures of homo sapiens, to not only look human but to think and act human. He shall burn away the beast in them! The queer subtext between Moreau and his cohort Montgomery, an exile from London who flees a “professional indiscretion” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), is typical of its time, equating homosexuality with swinishness. However, Montgomery sacrifices his life to save our protagonists in the final act, thus redeeming himself (by the film’s standards). But Moreau makes a fatal mistake when he allows one beast-man to break the Law, specifically to spill the blood of the interlopers. Are we not men? The beasts revolt, his whip-smart intelligence and leather whip no match for their brutish strength, and he is carried into the House of Pain...and cut to fucking pieces with scalpels! Holy Shit.
DP Karl Struss has lensed one of the most disturbing horror films in the Pre-Code era. He foregrounds characters and uses low-key lighting to great effect and allows a danse macabre in the background of inhuman shadows and leering eyes with pinpoint reflections. Instead of deep focus, he often has the creatures move quickly towards the camera, so their monstrous visage only comes into perspective at the last moment. It’s quite unsettling! His camera often pans and moves over the cabal and never quite stops for a lengthy close-up. The makeup must have been extraordinary, but we don’t get a chance to examine it. This creates frisson, the anxiety that the characters feel as they violently interact with these brutes.
Fire does indeed burn away the beast, Dr. Moreau, as his screams while being cut apart are consumed by flames. The poor animals, victims who didn’t ask to become men (or woman), at least perish with a very human emotion: vengeance.
Final Grade: (A)