Strange Islands

Imperialist love stories


in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach


According to author W. Scott Poole in his book, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror

cinematic horror began with the Great War,” and because of the war’s devastation — millions of dead, entire countries created from the carcasses of old ones, an upending of the Victorian order — a slew of filmmakers in Europe and United States latched onto the dead body as the chief symbol of the age. If Europe during the Black Plague found an appreciation for the danse macabre, then cinema after the Great War fell in love with “numerous iterations of rotting corpses.

The influence of the Great War on horror cinema first appeared in Europe, more specifically France and Germany. As Poole notes, one of the earliest horror films is Abel Gance’s 1919 French film J’accuseJ’accuse may have intended to be a call to French patriotism after the great bloodshed of the First World War, but its most compelling scene, wherein dead soldiers rise from their graves and march through France as part of a memory offensive, feels more at home in a zombie film than a melodramatic war picture. Beyond the devastated lands of Flanders and northeastern France, the German film industry produced some of the most compelling and frightful films of all time. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, combined Expressionism, an artistic form that sought to elicit strong reactions from audiences by displaying twisted landscapes and unnatural scenes, with psychological horror. The movie, which contains a dream within a dream about a mad doctor and a murdering somnambulist, certainly provoked a strong reaction from American audiences. According to The Monster Show author David J. Skal, when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari premiered in Los Angeles, war veterans rioted against what they saw as a German invasion of American culture.  

Two years later, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror premiered in Berlin. Although the film’s initial impact was limited because Florence Stoker, the widow of Dracula author Bram Stoker, successfully sued Prana Film for adapting her husband’s novel without permission and therefore got the film shelved for decades, Nosferatu became cultural monstrosity in Weimar Germany. Like The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariNosferatu was written, produced, and directed by Great War veterans. In this case, producer Albin Grau said that he came up with the film’s idea after hearing about real vampires while serving in the Balkans with the German army. Grau, like many others of his generation, came out of the war with a deep interest in occultism. In fact, Nosferatu is littered with occult symbols, including documents written in the Enochian language of angels. Besides Grau and his cohort, other Weimar era groups interested in the occult included the National Socialist Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, for short. The Nazis found a lot to love in Nosferatu. Eric Kurlander, author of Hitler’s Monsters, believes that the Nazis saw in Nosferatu a “rumination on the Jewish (East European) other.” Count Orlok, like Dr. Caligari and the master criminal Dr. Mabuse (brought to the screen by the brilliant Austrian director Fritz Lang), “possesses malevolent powers of hypnotism, suggestion, and seduction,” and he targets the “Nordic” citizens of a north German port city.  

Left-wing critics viewed Germany’s silent monster films in a different way, with most echoing the Marxist social critic and literary editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung, Siegfried Kracauer, in seeing the films as a dark mirror reflecting the German soul’s vulnerability to authoritarian “magic.” Caligari, Mabuse, and Orlok are all-powerful figures, who, despite being obvious villains, have a certain magnetism. Like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, their popularity with German audiences is indicative of the sinfulness of the audience members. When Caligari, whom Kracauer saw as a proto-Hitler, commands Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt) to awake and kill, he is in a sense recalling the image of Kaiser Wilhelm II demanding millions of German soldiers to shed their blood for the “Fatherland” and Kultur.  

German cinema would infect the world. Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, German directors, cinematographers, and producers relocated to Hollywood. Almost all of the great Hollywood horror films of the 1930s have direct connections with German cinema: Dracula was shot by the Austrian cinematographer Karl Freund, who not only worked on Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, but would also go on to direct The Mummy. German composer Franz Waxman scored Bride of Frankenstein, while Fritz Lang, whose films like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse have widely been credited with creating the look and ambiance of film noir, relocated to Hollywood and soon began turning out bleak crime films like 1936’s Fury.  

German Expressionism and its attendant themes of perversity and anxiety can be found in two films which took the corpse theme of the postwar period to new heights of depravity. 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, which was banned in the United Kingdom for decades and enjoyed an X rating as late as 1958, recasts H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau as an exceedingly morbid tale about miscegenation, mad science, and one man’s fatal God complex. Shot by cinematographer and award-winning photographer Karl Struss, Island of Lost Souls is stark and somewhat disgusting film directed by Erle C. Kenton, who would never again make something so profound.   

Another film from 1932, The Most Dangerous Game, adheres faithfully to Richard Connell’s 1924 short story (originally published under the title of “The Hounds of Zaroff”), although it does add more overt sexual overtones and amps up the exoticism of Zaroff’s gruesome hunting chateau. The Most Dangerous Game was shot on the same set as King Kong, arguably one of the greatest films ever made. Besides sharing the same directors, writers, producers, and actors, The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong also share similar themes and motifs. These are also shared with Island of Lost Souls. Those elements are: multi-faceted depravity, colonialism (and its literary offspring known as the colonial adventure story), and strange islands.  

The use of strange and isolated islands was not new to Hollywood. An island in the South Seas is used for laughs in Buster Keaton’s 1925 film, The Navigator, while American Samoa and the port of Pago Pago set the scene for Rain, a 1932 drama about the tribulations of prostitute Sadie Thompson (played by Joan Crawford). However, Skull Island, Ship-Trap Island, and Moreau’s Island are liminal spaces that act as portals to the perverse. It is here, in the unchartered waters of the South Seas, that Hell becomes real and humans lose their goodness. As such, they form the “strange islands” sub-genre of film, of which these three films are representative.  

These three films, The Most Dangerous GameIsland of Lost Souls, and King Kong, form the trinity of the “strange island” sub-genre of horror — a subgenre that incorporates themes of colonialism and Anglo-Saxon supremacism with images of human corruption. By doing so, I believe that these three films should be recognized as representative of a unique cinematic genre that has more or less disappeared since the end of the pre-Code era in 1933.  

The Most Dangerous Game  

The Most Dangerous Game is one of the most literate horror films ever made. Brought to life by executive producer David O. Selznick, associate producer Merian C. Cooper, and directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, the film adheres closely to Richard Connell’s original tale. Some of the dialogue even comes word-for-word from the earlier short story.  

And what a story it is. Connell’s award-winning adventure tale is one of the most anthologized yarns in the English language. It might also be the most . . . shall we say . . . dangerous stories of all time. Connell’s melodramatic tale and the cinematic adaptation inspired real-life predators like Robert Hansen, the Alaskan serial killer who dropped his victims off in remote locations so that he could hunt them like animals, and the Zodiac Killer of San Francisco, who mentioned the 1932 film in one of his first letters to the San Francisco Examiner. Even without this blood-drenched history, Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” seems to champion social Darwinism, or the philosophy of the “survival of the fittest” in all aspects of life.  

“The Most Dangerous Game” begins when Sanger Rainsford, a world-famous hunter from New York, accidentally falls overboard from an American yacht bound for Rio de Janeiro. Hearing pistol shots in the night, Rainsford swims to the nearest island. There he stumbles upon an Old World chateau. Inside are Ivan, a Cossack with a long, dark beard, and General Zaroff, a former cavalry officer in the Tsar’s army. It does not take Zaroff long to tell Rainsford all about the peculiar type of hunting he conducts on the strange island:  

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt, so I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ and the answer was, of course: ‘It must have courage, cunning, and above all, it must be able to reason.’”  

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford. 

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”  

Rainsford, like the audience, is aghast to realize that the mad Russian general hunts humans. Rainsford, who has hunted animals of all stripes on all continents, lambasts the general as a murderer. Zaroff defends himself by saying, “I hunt the scum of the earth — sailors from tramp ships — lascars, Blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels.” In one deft motion, General Zaroff shows Rainsford the ugly side of the American’s own personal philosophy, which he shared with his companion Whitney prior to falling into the Caribbean waters: “The world is made up of two classes — the hunters and the huntees.” In “The Most Dangerous Game,” Rainsford gets to experience the agony of being a hunted animal as the general and his hunting dogs chase after him for several nights throughout the island.  

Rainsford defeats Zaroff in the end by pretending to commit suicide only to later ambush the Russian in his own bedchamber. Rainsford proves that he is the superior species. 

According to the University of Colorado English and Film Studies professor Bruce Kawin, The Most Dangerous Game was filmed in just one month. Director Schoedsack maintained the quick pace on-set by directing with a stopwatch in hand. The film always played second fiddle to King Kong, which occupied the majority of Cooper’s time. The secondary nature of The Most Dangerous Game is made obvious when one realizes that its jungle scenes re-used the same backgrounds that Cooper and Schoedsack had already used for Skull Island. Despite its rushed production, The Most Dangerous Game is a “superbly paced, sexually charged, tightly constructed, no-holds-barred adventure film with moments of dark, Germanic horror.” In a little over one hour, The Most Dangerous Game delivers a visual masterpiece and a meditation on the true depths of human evil.  

There are changes between the film and the short story version; some of those changes make sense, while others are confusing. For instance, rather than the Caribbean, Zaroff’s island is placed in the South Pacific. The unusual name Sanger is replaced by the more pedestrian Bob, and Bob Rainsford (played by Joel McCrea) is still a big game hunter, but his edge is softer and he comes across as more of a playboy than a killer. After his traveling party’s yacht crashes against some rocks and eventually explodes, Rainsford finds his way to Zaroff’s castle. It is built of grey stone, and its front door is not only made of what looks like medieval wood, but its large knocker depicts an arrow-studded monster holding a female victim. 

The first person Rainsford meets is the bearded and hollow-eyed Cossack Ivan. Played by the African-American actor Noble Johnson, the character of Ivan (who never speaks) is one of the only known versions of “white face” in the history of Hollywood. The next man Rainsford meets is none other than Zaroff himself (played by British actor Leslie Banks). In the film version, Zaroff is described as a former count from Crimea, which more than likely shows the influence of the more infamous count from Transylvania who had been brought to the big screen by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi a year prior. Banks is brilliant as Zaroff—he is all creeping meance and elegant perversion. Director Schoedsack utilized Banks’s partially paralyzed face, which was the result of a wound suffered during the First World War, in order to heighten the horror. Whenever Zaroff speaks about killing, the camera features the frozen side of his face prominently.

Unlike Connell’s original, Zaroff’s mansion in the film version is packed. Besides Ivan, Zaroff has two other servants: an unnamed Tatar servant (played by Dutch Hendrian) and another unnamed Tatar servant (played by Steve Clemente) who nevertheless dresses in the stereotypical manner of the Qing Dynasty of China (another recently deceased empire). Zaroff’s choice of manservants is not only a nod to the older pulp convention of the yellow peril, where Asian characters are stereotyped as malevolent torturers, but it also highlights the supposedly Asiatic character of the dead Russian Empire. For red-blooded and Anglo-Saxon protagonists like Rainsford, the Tsar’s empire was far too Asian to be considered a civilized state. Zaroff’s home also contains two American shipwreck survivors. They are Eve (played by Fay Wray) and Martin Trowbridge (played by Robert Armstrong). Eve is there to play the damsel in distress; it is her flesh that Zaroff wants after he successfully kills Rainsford during their game of “outdoor chess.” “Kill! Then love. When you have known that, you will have known ecstasy!” Zaroff says to Rainsford in prepartaion for their hunt. But for Count Zaroff, the hunt ends in disaster. Rainsford proves to be a superior beast, and the movie ends with him and Eve fleeing the count’s estate in a two-seat speedboat. Zaroff aims his Tatar warbow one last time at the departing lovers, but instead his bullet-riddled body slumps down from a window and into the waiting jaws of his pack of hunting hounds.

The Most Dangerous Game is a film rife with tensions, especially the sexual tension between the bloodthirsty Zaroff and the innocent blond Eve. In terms of the political, it pits the new, energetic, and individualistic American Republic (as embodied by Rainsford and Eve) against the shambling corpses of European feudalism (as embodied by Zaroff’s allegiance to outdated class distinctions, such as the wearing of formal evening clothes at night) and European imperialism (as embodied by both Zaroff’s multi-ethnic manservants and the former Portuguese castle that serves as his home). Just like in 1918, the Americans in The Most Dangerous Game stand triumphant against Zaroff’s empire.

One final note worth mentioning: The Most Dangerous Game serves as a subtle and problematic reminder to all white men what will happen to them if they spend too much time in the tropics. 1932 was still the heyday of American writers such as Madison Grant  and Lothrop Stoddard, who articulated the “Nordic” theory of history, which envisioned Northern Europeans as the superior race because of their intelligence, skills in warfare, and their ability to conquer distant nations. But Grant and Stoddard both warned that Nordics thrived best in temperate climates; too much exposure to the sub-Saharan sun or the steamy Asian jungles could turn weaker Nordics into “inferior” specimens of the race. Zaroff could be read as one such cautionary tale. On his bizarre, fog-choked island, the Russian noblemen descended fully into madness. It took an American outsider with blond hair and blue eyes to end his degeneration.

Island of Lost Souls

Directed by Hollywood journeyman Erle C. Kenton, Island of Lost Souls quickly became an infamous film because of its portrayal of sex. Specifically, in the film, Dr. Moreau (played with great camp by Charles Laughton) wants Lota (played by Kathleen Burke) to sleep with the shipwrecked American sailor Edward Parker (played by Richard Arlen). Such cuckoldry would be bad enough, except that Lota, who is Dr. Moreau’s prized creation, is actually a panther that has been scientifically engineered to look like a human female. In one of the film’s most iconic lines, Dr. Moreau blames the pair’s failure to copulate on Lota’s “stubborn beast flesh” that creeps back in the form of her long claws. Not long thereafter, the beast-men of Dr. Moreau’s island revolt and burn his private empire to the ground.

Bases loosely on H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor MoreauIsland of Lost Souls enjoyed not only a stellar cast but also an incredible crew. Laughton and Arlen are the stars of the film, and they are supported by Arthur Hohl, who plays Moreau’s assistant, the drunk and dispirited Montogomery; Japanese-American actor Tetsu Komai, who plays Dr. Moreau’s faithful protector, the half-dog M’Ling; and horror icon Bela Lugosi, who plays the Sayer of the Law. The law on Moreau’s island is a reminder for the beasts to act like humans. After the Sayer of the Law tells his fellow to walk upright and to not eat meat, the masses respond with “Are we not men? “When the law is broken, the whip-wielding Dr. Moreau reminds them of the House of Pain — the laboratory where he and Montgomery tortured them into becoming semi-human.  

The true genius behind the film was writer Philip Wylie, who was reponsible for adapting Wells’s novel into a screenplay (Waldermar Young was actually credited with writing the screenplay). Born in Beverly, Massachusetts, Wylie grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister. As a young man, Wylie took up the pen and began sending short stories to the pulp magazines of his day. In 1930 Wylie published the novel, Gladiator. The novel tells the story of Hugo Danner, an extraordinary human with bulletproof skin and a lust for adventure. Danner goes from being a star football player to a soldier in the French Foreign Legion during World War I. Before being struck dead by God, Danner braves the jungles of British Malaya in order to find the source of his powers. Although it has never been conclusively proven, many believe that Hugo Danner inspired Cleveland boys Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create Clark Kent, aka Superman. Both characters were themselves inspired by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s  Übermensch ideal from the 1883 book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Wylie would later lay bare his radical individualist politics with the 1942 book, Generation of Vipers, which is a full-throated critique of everything, especially women.

Some of Wylie’s cynicism and bluntness found its way into Kenton’s film. Island of Lost Souls garnered controversy upon release because of its frank depictions of medical malpractice and Dr. Moreau’s sheer joy in “feeling like God.” Unlike Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Moreau’s God-mania is not depicted with hysterical shouts or physical contortions. Rather, Laughton’s mad scientist is a lisping, pompous autocrat dressed in his best tropical white suit and pith helmet. Indeed, Dr. Moreau, a former London surgeon, is a morbid caricature of the corpulent British colonial official with whip and revolver in hand.

Scholars have long noted the anti-colonialist themes in Island of Lost Souls. Moreau’s island, which is depicted as somewhere between the Dutch East Indies and American Samoa (two colonies themselves), is the absolute worst of European colonialism in minature. While British, French, and German imperialists spoke of their “civilizing mission” as a benevolent system of education designed to teach Africans and Asians how to become Western Christians, Dr. Moreau takes things much further by literally dissecting the island’s animals in order to make them human. Rather than the law of the jungle, Dr. Moreau teaches his half-beasts his own laws. The creatures follow Moreau’s laws until he breaks them himself when he conspires with the beast-man Ouran (played by German professional wrestler Hans Steinke) to abduct and rape Ruth Thomas (played by Leila Hyams), Parker’s fiance who has traveled from Apia to the island. When Ruth’s screams stop this rape attempt, Captain Donahue (played by Paul Hurst) attempts to prepare his ship in order to leave the island with Ruth and Parker in toe. Ouran strangles the captain on orders from Moreau. This action breaks the law against the shedding of human blood. The Sayer of the Law recognizes this, and like so many insurgents before and after him, he invokes the master’s hypocrisy in order to organize a revolt against his rule. At first, Moreau is clueless, and disparages the riotous beast-men by saying, “They [the natives] are restless tonight.” Moreau, so confident in his power and his mastership of technology, dies in the House of Pain, tortured by his own poor creations.

As in The Most Dangerous Game, Parker is depicted as an Anglo-Saxon hero, and it is his repulsion at Dr. Moreau’s machinations that begins the process of the rebellion of the beast-men. Again, like Rainsford, Parker is the masculine liberator who helps to remove an unjust and perverted tyrant from power. But unlike Rainsford, Parker has a slightly disturbing conscience because, for a brief moment, he fell in love with Lota, the panther girl. This love was a betrayal of both Ruth and humankind. Also, using the language of the time, Parker came close to betraying his race by committing an act of extreme miscegenation. The only reason that he comes close to doing so is because of Lota’s beauty (described as pure Polynesian by Dr. Moreau) and because of the enchantment of the island itself. Moreau’s island is even more fantastic than Zaroff’s because Moreau’s island is crawling with creatures rather than the ghosts of slain sailors.

Island of Lost Souls is the most gruesome of what I term the “strange islands” films. It is a sordid tale of mad science, bestiality, and godless tyranny. As cold and cruel as Zaroff is, Dr. Moreau is more devious and his motivations are fouler. Whereas Zaroff kills out of boredom, Moreau creates out of lust, and his chief desire is to see his prized beast-woman mate with a human male. As illogical as it sounds, Moreau, who claims to create life, is worse than Zaroff, who openly admits to the pleasures of taking life.

King Kong

King Kong is a staple of any list tasked with counting down the greatest films of all time. There is a good reason for this: King Kong is an absolute masterpiece. Directed by Cooper and Schoedsack, and with a screenplay hashed out among Cooper (who came up with the story in a dream), James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Leon Gordon, and the British crime author Edgar Wallace, King Kong is a timeless adventure tale about one daring director’s desire to make the ultimate documentary feature. Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) is a stand-in for Cooper: he’s brash, action-oriented, and absolutely obsessed with not only finding Skull Island but also getting to the heart of its mystery. Along for the ride are the crew of the S.S. Venture, a tramp steamer experienced in navigating the strange waters of the South Pacific.

It is obvious early on that Denham expects to encounter something dangerous on Skull Island. During a scene wherein Denham chews the fat with the sailor John Driscoll (played by Bruce Cabot) and Captain Englehorn (played by Frank Reicher), Englehorn pulls out a series of novel gas bombs that Denham has brought along. Besides these gas bombs, the ship also contains repeating and bolt-action rifles, as well as shotguns and revolvers. Rather than a film shoot, the Venture is equipped for war.

After finding a down-on-her-luck working girl named Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) as she tries to steal an apple from a New York City pushcart, Denham hires her to be the beauty for the beast of Skull Island. The theme of  “beauty and the beast” comes up again and again in King Kong. Both the film and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 18th-century fairy tale ponder the ability of feminine beauty to act as a calming agent on wild, untamed beasthood. Ultimately, that is what Ann does; for after being sacrificed early on in the film to the giant ape Kong, it is Anne’s beauty that drives the Eighth Wonder of the World to kidnap her again and abscond with her to the top of the Empire State Building. Here Kong is killed by US Army biplanes, one of which is actually piloted by Cooper himself. American technology slays the primoridal beast.

As noted by German scholars Oliver Lubrich and Katja Liebal, King Kong is a “tale of colonial fantasies and exotic adventure.” Furthermore, it is about “a venture into unexplored wilderness and a love plot between a black beast and a white woman.” It is this theme of interracial romance that has become the popular reading of King Kong. The theory was even invoked by director Qunetin Tarantino during a scene in his film, Inglorious Bastards. The colonial aspects of King Kong are undeniable: the Venture is a merchant ship outfitted for war, just like the 15th- and 16th-century Portuguese caracks that conquered India, Macau, and the Moluccas; Skull Island, whose inhabitants are depicted as misplaced Africans living in the South Seas, is pacified by Denham’s small, but well-armed team; and after being captured by the crew, Kong is taken to the imperial metropole (in this case New York City) and put on display for well-heeled audiences to enjoy.

There is also the fact that, for as groundbreaking as the film is, King Kong follows closely to the conventions of the imperial adventure story. As outlined by author C.C. Eldridge in The Imperial Experience, the “imperial adventure story continued to flourish [after its creation in the Victorian period] and have an impact outside the confines” of English literature. It was the imperial adventure story that “played an important role in popularising [sic] and glamourising [sic] the empire.” While Eldridge’s focus is on the British Empire, the imperial adventure tale existed in French literature, German literature, and, beginning in the 1890s, American literature. In many ways ,King Kong is a slightly altered version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World, which also deals with an expedition that uncovers a section of the Amazon that is home to prehistoric animals.

Finally, King Kong is the apogee of the “strange island” film. Not only does it dovetail nicely with The Most Dangerous Game because the two films share the same directors, most of the same cast, and we shot at the same location, but it also shares with The Most Dangerous Game and Island of Lost Souls a similar milieu. All three films take place on desolate and mostly unknown islands in the Far East. On these islands, bizarre things happen, which, according to the laws of morality and rationality, should not occur at all. These are also films about American men of Anglo-Saxon blood who venture into the uncharted tropics and find perversion. Rainsford, Parker, and Driscoll battle against the forces of sexual depravity and antediluvian wildlife in order to save the women they love, all of whom happen to be blond.

Taken together, “strange island” film sub-genre, which had its heyday between 1932 and 1933, was Hollywood’s take on the imperial adventure story during the time when European imperialism was beginning its steep decline. As Europe declined, American power stepped into the void. All three of these films have as their heroes strong, square-jawed American men, two of whom best decadent Europeans who are caricatures of imperialists. The Most Dangerous Game, Island of Lost Souls, King Kong all triumph the American spirit of rugged individualism and two-fisted diplomacy. However, although they invoke America’s rise over a decaying Europe, these three films also solidify ideas that first came to prominence during the heyday of European imperialism. Namely, these three films show the non-white world to be inherently dangerous, especially to whites of poor character. Such danger, whether it emanates from hostile tribes or the natural world, can only be conquered by Anglo-Saxon men. If these men fail, then the beast or beasts get the blonde. •