This, apparently, is the standard bearer for films based on H.G. Welles's The Island of Dr. Moreau, and that's a bit of a bummer. It's not a bad film at all -- I'd rank it slightly below White Zombie in terms of overall watchability and atmosphere -- but it's obviously great source material, and it's a shame no modern director has really come around and knocked the story out of the park. Perhaps I should save this complaint for the Val Kilmer/Marlon Brando version, which I'm planning on watching later on in Thon and which, by all reports, sucks manimal balls.
We're probably all familiar with the basics of the storyline: Dr. Moreau, a brilliant geneticist surgically modifies tropical beasts to create a race of humanoids. He trains his subjects to adhere to a strict code of non-violence, but loses control over them when they discover that humans themselves don't always play by the rules we set forth.
Again, great concept -- and the only real weakness inherent in this version is that it's old and we just do certain things better now. I rate it a 3.5 and not a 4 for this reason only. It's regarded highly enough to get the Criterion Collection treatment, but this is more due to its filmmaking quality relative to what was coming out at the time. Think of it this way - you've probably all seen both the original King Kong and the Peter Jackson version. The modern flick, despite being a little overstuffed, is simply a more enthralling movie experience than its grandfather. But that's not because the original misses out on anything it set out to accomplish. It endures because it was ambitious -- it expanded our view of what could be done on film.
And while Island of Lost Souls doesn't have any timeless shots like Kong atop the Empire State building, it set the bar higher in the area of makeup and character design. Additionally the cinematography is good throughout -- cinematographer Karl Strauss was nominated for four Oscars for best cinematography over the course of his career (winning once), and the shot selection here quietly indicates a keen eye for angles and shot composition.
My hunch is that we haven't seen the last Dr. Moreau movie, and that someone is going to eventually make an earnest effort at applying modern filmmaking to the story. Until that time, this is universally accepted to be the best version available. Sure, why not?