Paramount doesn't have quite the reputation that Universal enjoys in regards to horror. They didn't do as many scare flicks as Universal, true, but that doesn't mean they didn't give it the old college try. There weren't many Universal films that could boast of being banned in England for twenty-five years, so this take on the H.G. Well's classic is another first.
Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is the sole survivor of the Lady Vain. Drifting on the open sea, he might have died if he hadn't been spotted by a ship. He might have been better off in the lifeboat, as the ship is captained by Captain Davis (Stanley Fields), a short tempered drunk. Davis is hauling a load of exotic animals to an uncharted island. The ship's only other passengers are Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and the misshaped M'Ling (Tetsu Komai). The latter is a favorite target for Davis's abuse, but he quickly switches to Parker when the man stops him from beating the cowering manservant.
Davis gets his revenge though. As he's transporting the animals to another ship, Parker finds himself thrown overboard and onto the other boat. The boat's owner, the sinister Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), is most put off by this, but he refuses to alter his course. Parker will simply half to be his guest. This doesn't please Parker.
The island is a strange one. The natives are almost feral in appearance. Moreau uses a bullwhip to keep them away from the fortified compound he and Montgomery live in. The only other inhabitant is a peculiar girl named Lota (Kathleen Burke), who seems to live in terror at Moreau's presence. This seems to be a wise plan, as Moreau informs Lota that she is to talk to Parker. She may discuss anything she likes, except for the doctor, the Law of island, and something he calls the House of Pain.
Parker finds out about the last one though, and it is aptly named. Inside he sees Moreau and Montgomery apparently torturing a man...or maybe an animal? Both actually; the figure on the table started out as an ape. The natives, all of them, started out as animals. Lota too, began life as a panther. The natives are kept in line by the Speaker of the Law (Bela Lugosi) who tells them "Are We Not Men?"
Of course, laws can be broken and with the natives slowly reverting, can even Moreau control his creations?
The performances save the whole film. Lugosi doesn't do a whole lot, but even under goat hair he can wring emotion out of saying the law. Laughton too, is pitch perfect as Moreau. The man simply doesn't care who gets hurt or how. The added drama with Parker's fiancé Ruth (Lelia Hyams) slows the film down a bit, but it would be years before cinematic mad science would reach these heights again.