The early American studios acquired literary properties for prestige productions, regardless of what genre grew as a result. The style of classical horror, which emerged in the early 1930s at Universal Studios, appeared largely by accident. By adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the studio aimed to duplicate the success of two novels (and stage adaptations) of both literary and popular appeal. Like the studio’s productions of Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera (both starring Lon Chaney), Dracula and Frankenstein were established as prestige productions, less than the “shocker” tradition they inspired, that realized America’s desire for horror visualized in makeup, set design, and performance.
Paramount desired to match the success by adapting H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (as Island of Lost Souls), another literary property following the prestige approach, while quite conscious of the potential for dread. Director Erle Kenton employed an atmosphere and makeup style akin to Universal’s along with the title star of Dracula, Bela Lugosi, as the fur-faced Sayer of the Law, one of many bizarre creations of mad scientist Moreau (while Wells’ scientist splices human and animal, Kenton’s accelerates evolution, forcing beast into a confused pseudo-human consciousness). Released in 1932, the film precedes the articulated mind and language of Boris Karloff’s creature in Bride of Frankenstein (1935); the beasts’ killing of their mad creator in Souls‘ famous House of Pain sequence also anticipates the monster’s destruction of culpable mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), after the creation intones, “We belong dead!” Souls benefits from Charles Laughton’s realization of Moreau, as dapper as he is sinister and sadistic. Equal parts Dr. Frankenstein and zombie master (with his creations soon to revolt), this Moreau’s cold inspection of his creations and flat orders for them to rape (for further experimentation) and murder, make him one of the most memorable threats of early horror.
All that’s terrifying actually reflects what’s repressed in society, according to Robin Wood’s writing about the classical genre in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan: sexuality beyond procreation is realized as the passion of the Panther Woman (almost welcomed by the hero, until he sees her claws to be too bestial), the hoards of beings like an oppressed class (with a connection to Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones), and the villain, like Thesiger’s Pretorius, portrayed in queer overtones (as noted by historian David Skal in an interview on the recent Criterion release). Moreau and all his creations burn by the end, as the “outsiders” are subsumed by a conservative (traditional, family-based) framework.
Wells didn’t see the pleasure and intrigue in the loose adaption of his novel. According to John Landis in an interview included in the Criterion set, the author wrote an angry letter to Paramount about how the studio mishandled his work. With a sizable reputation, Wells soon launched another prestige production with Britain-based producer Alexander Korda. In the deal, Wells asserted his full creative control of every aspect of what would be titled Things to Come (also new from Criterion) to the point that he was undoubtedly the auteur. Korda hired William Cameron Menzies, a noted designer, to direct as the film needed a unique visualization (used to working under directors, he’d likely have less trouble answering to Wells).
Wells on film went from science-fiction/horror to epic science fiction, the latter touting “prestige” qualities (though invoking horror quite often). The fact that the title invokes not just the end/future of humanity and technology, but also of cinema, didn’t fly past the creators: a sign reading “Theater,” in front of one, falls during warfare in 1940 (the near future, which the film predicted quite accurately). A scene that Godard would describe as visionary was well earned in the film’s unique image composition and cutting. The threats of attack just prior clash with symbols of Christmas. The awkward juxtaposition, full of as much creative anxiety as insight, invokes the coming end of the year, in the dead of Winter, to signal the end of existence as they knew it. Angled shots and creative double-exposures made the film invigorating for its time. And yet the dialog of the first and third acts plays as moralistic melodrama, which dates Wells and notes that he contributed some of the weakest elements in the production.
One John Cabal (Raymond Massey) worries over the threat of war in the first segment, then later, as a combat pilot, witnesses a sacrifice by an enemy airman, who gives up his mask to a young girl as the poison gas spreads. Her area just attacked, Cabal becomes her protector, albeit temporarily. In a scene set up to show a girl saved, the moment plays like an inversion of a girl’s death in Frankenstein, placed to demonize the being to the town folk. Appearing in various segments of the film, Massey, as Cabal and later a descendant (and Wells’ voice in the film, as a New York Times review at the time of release noted), unifies humanity’s triumph in one character.
This 1936 film’s Second Great War needs such as savior, as the conflict carries on much longer than the real war would. Before he appears, the vague enemy uses a plague called the Wandering Sickness. This new biological weapon creates a slow demise with the look of George A. Romero’s zombies. It leaves victims roaming in emptiness, mindlessly infecting others. A title graphic reveals the war continuing from 1955-60, then all the way to 1966, bringing on a post-apocalyptic Dark Age. By 1970, the Wandering Sickness has been defeated, for Cabal to descend from the sky in an airplane. He reveals the existence of “Wings over the World,” a new globalized civilization that has outlawed independent nations and, seemingly, diversity. When Everytown – a community lacking technology and reliant on coal for fuel – resists, Wings attacks them with super-planes (for 1930s viewers, of course) that drop sleeping gas, another pacifist maneuver in Wells’ utopic/quasi-Fascist dream. Their headquarters, in Basra, Iraq, invokes the site of the earliest civilizations as the home of unity, while none of the members appear to be locals.
After the defeat, another energetic sequence shows humanity putting all its efforts into technological development. Pistons fire, sirens scream, as progress comes at the willing cost of everything. In an effort to save the environment, man builds cities below ground. While luxurious and spacious – hardly hovels – habitation appears hive-like, man packed away after an ultra-industrial revolution. In a glorious move that’s equally a sprint from the past, Wells suggests that civilization must abandon itself, that history is a moral tale to behold but never, ever repeat.
Which brings us to 2036, precisely 100 years from the film’s release, when a contented character notes there’s no more illness, bad food, and humor, apparently. Luddites resist the invention and impending launch of a space gun for space travel (no rocketry found here), a device that redirects weapons of war toward exploration. The voice of the resistance, sculptor Theotocopulous (Cedric Hardwicke), takes a gigantic screen to deliver a message that even 1930s cinema devotees find embarrassing. (That Wells disapproved of the original actor for the role, Bride‘s Thesiger, and had all his scenes re-shot, may have caused one of the great misses in casting history.) Wells’ travel is more clever than sensible – imagine the device falling into the hands of the same race that would invent and use the Wandering Sickness: the End of Days, even if the tale accounts for something like nuclear energy.
The grandson of John Cabal, Oswald (also played by Massey) allows his daughter to travel to the moon via the space gun, with a mob opposing them creating the final conflict. The revolt is a device to tout progress at all costs, clearing room for Oswald’s final speech. His assertion, that it’s “all the universe, or nothingness,” sounds a lot like Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which uses the mythical journeyer as a cypher for Victorian exploration and colonialism. For England, even by the 1930s, it reads like imperialism, even if Wells thought it more advanced; today, it sounds too much like George W. Bush’s – and Hillary Clinton’s – versions of “you’re either with us, or against us” in their hard-headed calls for the “war against terror.” They didn’t “do nuance,” and neither did Wells, here.
As troublesome as Wells’ philosophy may be, especially his faith in technocracy, the film is too important and innovative to ignore, thanks to the author’s concepts and Menzies’ visualization. Newcomers will view in awe when realizing these images were created just after the early talkie era of minimal sound design and stable cameras. Things certainly helped urge the medium into a new era, toward the formal control and clarity in the 1940s style of black and white cinema – another Nation’s Birth of artistry, and ignorance.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.