TCM Underground: The Twilight People (1972) and Island of Lost Souls (1932)

The Twilight People (1972)

The Twilight People represents something of a missed opportunity.  I mean, a Philippines-shot exploitation version of  The Island of Doctor Moreau directed by Eddie Romero of Black Mama White Mama and Pam Grier in the cast as the Panther Woman?  Sounds like my kind of movie!  And, for what it was, it was a decent amount of fun–putting and emphasis on action instead of horror–but it’s not the classic it could have, or should have, been.

The problem, I think, is that we don’t really have much of a bad guy in the picture.  We have a pretty good supporting bad guy with Jan Merlin as Steinman, a henchman for the wicked doctor who wishes to create a super race by combining humans and animals, but the doctor himself, named Dr. Gordon here (played by Charles Macaulay) is rather dull.  He explains his evil plan, which is decried as evil pretty much right away, disappears for the vast majority of the film’s running time, and then shows up again to get a poetic justice death scene.

The film’s hero, named Matt Farrell and played by John Ashley of all those “beach party” movies throughout the 60s, is equally dull.  He’s an uncomplicated man who is on the island against his will, as is the general formula in these Doctor Moreau movies, having been kidnapped while diving instead of the usual shipwreck scenario.  And that’s pretty much all there is to him.

The movie actually kicks into gear a little bit when Matt helps the doctor’s creations escape from their cavernous, underground layer and the emerge to the surface of the island.  Some interesting ideas are played with:  These people are now animals and have bestial instincts.  Even though they’re the good guys, really, they’re monsters and do monstrous things.  They attack each other, they have blood lost, they attempt to commit rape.  It’s actually really fascinating and, unfortunately, belongs in another much better movie.  The danger that the doctor’s creations represent both to themselves and to the film’s hero is a wonderful duality, trying to do the right thing in the face of such extreme danger.

The technical aspects of the movie are all technically well-done.  The special effects and make-up are pretty decent, the acting is fine, the cinematography is good.  It’s not a bad movie at all, it’s just sort of there, which is a shame because it had the potential to be very, very good.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Now, I know it’s not fair to compare Twilight People to the next feature, Island of Lost Souls, one of the greatest horror films ever made, but here I go, comparing them anyway.

Both features this week are sort of loose adaptations of the same story, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells, but Island of Lost Souls is a movie with a pretty clear objective and sticks to the landing.  Almost straight away, it’s unnerving.  It piles the suspense, one trick and one scene after the other, and never lets up until the very, very end.  With a 71-minute run time, it doesn’t have time to fuck around with this or that, it just tells a taught, grim little story.

Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is shipwrecked when he’s picked up by a mysterious vessel carrying animals, en route to a mysterious, uncharted island owned by the equally mysterious Dr. Moreau.  The exact nature of Dr. Moreau’s experiments and needs for the animals are not be explained to the man, all he needs to know, or even cares about for that matter, is that after the shipment is dropped off to the Doctor, he is to be taken to Apia to be reunited with his fiance.  After an argument with the captain, Parker is kicked off the ship and forced to stay on Dr. Moreau’s island, where he learns the truth of the experiments:  That the Doctor is operating on animals and forcing a kind of evolution on them, to create bipedal, so-called “men” out of these animals.

Lota, the Panther Woman (played by Kathleen Burke) is the Doctor’s closest creation to a human yet.  She is the kind of bikini-clad, sexual character that could only exist in the pre-Code days of Hollywood, before all sexuality had to be hinted at in the most subtle of ways.

Charles Laughton, as the doctor, is clearly enjoying chewing the scenery.  He has all the fun and personality so desperately lacking in The Twilight People.  He’s the classic bad guy, the bad guy who doesn’t know that he’s bad.  He forbids his creations from being violent, so therefore, he believes, he is not a violent man, himself–until he suspends his laws.

Bela Lugosi, as the Sayer of the Law, proves that, damn, once upon a time he was a gifted actor.  Underneath all that hair and makeup, he conveys a hell of a lot of emotions and the anguish with which he cries out that there are no laws is incredible stuff.

Island of Lost Souls is a creepy, awesome, atmospheric movie that should be seen by anyone who has even a casual interest in horror.  Apparently, H.G. Wells wasn’t a big fan of the film’s emphasis on horror as opposed to its deeper, philosophical themes, but had he watched this billed with the 1996 Marlon Brando trainwreck, he might just have to like this movie by default.

Next Week: Join me next week for a rollerskating double feature with Xanadu and The Unholy Rollers!