Rivaled only by Tod Browning’s “Freaks” as the most perverse and extreme of the early 30s cycle of horror films, Erle C. Kenton’s 1932 “Island of Lost Souls” has been mysteriously absent from home video — at least, in a licensed version — since a Laserdisc release sometime in the last century. The new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection (also available as a standard DVD) suggests why — there are no decent elements on this title, the negative having disappeared generations ago, leaving Universal (the current rights-holder) with only an incomplete fine grain. Criterion’s technical wizards have filled out that source with another 35-millimeter print and filled in missing frames from 16-millimeter collectors’ copies, and gone over the whole with a digital vacuum cleaner to remove dust spots and scratches, and if the results still aren’t optimal, the film looks dramatically better than it has in generations.
Banned outright in Britain for its implications of rape, sadism and bestiality (it was finally allowed to be shown in the late 1950s with an adults-only certification), “Island of Lost Souls” anticipates the body horror developed in the 1970s by George Romero, David Cronenberg and Italian maestri like Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato — movies in which human beings are disturbingly portrayed as meat puppets, with all kinds of unpleasant things going on inside. But the film also functions as a brutal parody of the South Seas romances that had been beguiling audiences since the mid 1920s (Paramount released “Lost Souls” just a few months after Murnau’s “Tabu”), suggesting that the return to nature might have its dark side as well. My New York Times review is here.