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H. G. Wells' 1896 novel The island of Dr. Moreau is easily the most controversial of his classic series of science fiction stories, dealing as it does with Darwinian themes and vivisection. With drugs and surgery, Moreau transforms large mammals into monsters much closer to human beings. Religious fundamentalists object to this definition of human identity, especially in relation to animals. Paramount produced a superb pre-Code version starring Charles Laughton in 1932, which retains most of the storyline and adds a salacious subplot in which Moreau attempts to mate a man with the panther woman he has created.
The theme has only been touched on by a few other filmmakers, notably 1959's Terror is a Man, produced in the Philippines. Then in 1977 an expensive remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau was put into the works at Fox. It fell into turnaround before production could begin, and was picked up by Samuel Arkoff's American-International Pictures, a company then trying to go up-market. The show retained its stellar cast and was filmed on location in the Virgin Islands. It follows the original book in some ways but not in others, with an emphasis on action scenes.
Ship's engineer Andrew Braddock (Michael York) and two fellow crewmen drift on a lifeboat, which eventually reaches an uncharted Pacific island. By the time Braddock is rescued, he's glimpsed some mysterious animals and his colleagues are dead. Braddock meets his host Montgomery (Nigel Davenport), a cynical ex- soldier of fortune who 'runs the island' for Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster), a scientist. Braddock learns that the two have been there for eleven years, and that Moreau is doing very advanced research. Braddock also meets Maria (Barbara Carrera), a beautiful, uneducated woman that Moreau says he rescued as a child from a house of prostitution. Given few clues by either man, the rather obtuse Braddock slowly learns that the strange animals he saw are experiments in evolution. Moreau uses a 'genetic serum' to make them transform into humans, or almost humans. 1 Without his injections they revert to their previous forms. A community of monsters lives in a cave not far from Moreau's compound; at their head is a 'Sayer of the Law' (Richard Basehart) who leads his fellow creatures to worship Moreau and obey his rules to behave like men, not animals. His efforts to escape thwarted, Braddock observes as the creatures run afoul of the law not to kill. He himself kills a beast-man who begs to die rather than be sent back to Moreau's operating theater, his 'House of Pain.' The confusion over the law soon leads to a beast-man revolt.
There's plenty in Wells' original story to upset blue-noses, especially the obvious metaphor with Moreau setting himself up as God over an unholy mob of faux- human beings. But whereas the 1932 version emphasized the horror of the vivisection theater, and contemplated a literally bestial sex relationship between a man and a panther woman, this 1977 color adaptation goes in a much less exciting direction. Moreau's island is a tiny tropical paradise. His twisted experiments go no further than giving animals injections from a syringe, so there's no vivisection involved. This undermines the 'House of Pain' business. We do see a couple of animals in different stages of transformation. The beautiful Maria of course reminds us of Lota, the panther woman from the first film. Since Moreau's servants are all transformed animals, Braddock comes off as an idiot for not even suspecting that Maria could be a successful experimental case.
For ideas and characterizations this version is unrewarding. Burt Lancaster's Moreau is a calm obsessive; we see no fire behind his 'mad science.' He just seems dull and determined. Davenport's functional assistant acts as if everything is no big deal. This is too bad, as we'd like to know more about the character. The production is no big deal either. The authentic island location steers the film in the direction of an adventure, not horror or sci-fi; everything is pretty.
The many beast-man makeups are acceptable, but not 'special.' None of the designs are anything more than fur and mask combinations. The creatures always look like stunt men in makeup, seen clearly and often in bright color. Editor Steve Nielson summed it up well: the beast-men are based on ideas that came from cartoons, from fanciful drawings. There's no hint of anything radical about them, nothing in the least surprising. You'd think that Moreau's 'genetic serum' would result in screwy 'natures' mistakes.' Nope, the neat and tidy monsters here could be auditioning for Where the Wild Things Are. Frankly, Berry Kroeger's little wizard's workshop in the mostly silly Atlantis, the Lost Continent is more interesting. All he had to do is poke a victim's skin, and a oxhorn sprouted forth. Why didn't Moreau think of that?
Richard Basehart's Sayer of the Law (image just above) is a neat furry fuzzball with strange eyes; Basehart could just as well have dubbed the voice of another actor playing the role. 2 The poster for the movie, used as the disc cover art, suggests that we will see a beast transformation take place, with a normal face pushing out to form the muzzle of a big cat. I wonder if the makers of 1980's The Howling were inspired by that graphic -- the transformations in that film were incredible.
The beast-men aren't horrible enough for The Island of Dr. Moreau to work as a horror film, and the sci-fi angle goes no further than an all-purpose 'super serum.' We can see actor Michael York being attracted to the role by the script's one original angle: Moreau injects Braddock with his serum, which will make him revert to bestiality (evolution-wise, not the other kind). Moreau has the notion that Braddock will then be able to tell Moreau what it's like to transform... an idea that makes Moreau sound like a babbling idiot, not a mad doctor. What does Moreau do to reverse the serum's effect, hold the syringe in the opposite hand?
With no horror element and nothing exciting in the idea department, the movie settles for action scenes. Braddock tries to hold them beast-men off, but the final riot sees them destroy the compound, kill most everybody and make the place go up in flames. They also set loose Moreau's collection of normal beasts, which immediately attack and kill every beast-man in sight. Some of the stunts here are impressive, if probably not kosher with the ASPCA.
What The island of Dr. Moreau really needs is a directorial point of view. Director Don Taylor was perhaps chosen for his familiarity with rubber-faced actors in his Planet of the Apes sequel. The impressive location prevents the film from looking like TV work, but Taylor brings nothing special to the film, which is visually generic and moves at a pace that guarantees that we grow impatient with Braddock's failure to grasp anything that's going on around him. In the past Burt Lancaster had a bad habit of taking over films, pushing the director around and taking control. In this case we wish that he believed in this project enough to get personally involved. Lancaster apparently took the show as a job of work, a paycheck. AIP got its money's worth.
As long as we're dreaming, one wonders what David Cronenberg might have done with this show. In 1976 the young director might not have been ready experience-wise, but he surely would have come up with a brilliant way to reconfigure the story to fit with his own notions about 'the politics of the flesh.' Moreau has a potentially similar outlook, mumbling about "the stubborn beast flesh." Ten years later, he of course did a brilliant re-think on Langelaan's The Fly, reinventing it from the molecules on up. That movie still hasn't dated one bit. I wish Cronenberg were still obsessed with icky-sticky horror ideas, as I'm sure he could push H.G. Wells' 'dangerous ideas' into the 21st century.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The island of Dr. Moreau looks really good, presenting the film's sharp and well-lit cinematography at its best. TV copies and older discs were bland and grainy, but this copy pops. If this show is a favorite, the Kino disc will definitely be a desirable item. Laurence Rosenthal's busy music score gets a workout, as it strives to heighten the tension in all the exterior action scenes on that verdant location. Some of Rosenthal's staccato horn arrangements sound like old compositions by Bernard Herrmann.
Kino includes an original trailer and a longer (six-minute) promotional version of the trailer that tells more of the story. A special extra is just a still, of an alternate image from the last scene. It's a potential spoiler, so I'll discuss it in a footnote. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The term often given to the animal-men in the 1932 movie, probably assigned by Forrest J. Ackerman, is 'manimals.' They aren't given a name in the 1977 version either, but the publicity calls them 'humanimals.'
2. As Basehart had already played some interesting mad scientists (especially in 1965's The Satan Bug) he might have been a better choice for Moreau. Lancaster was not exactly a big draw in 1977 but he had a much bigger name for the marquee. And fans would have looked at Basehart's Moreau and wondered when Captain Nelson and the Sea View were due to arrive.
It's also interesting that Basehart recites the Law with a different inflection than in the first film version. Bela Lugosi's scary Sayer chanted, "Are we not MEN?" Basehart's curried and combed Sayer instead recites, "Are WE not men?" The difference reminds us of the joke in Taxi Driver, contrasting "We ARE the people" with the very different, "WE are the people."
3. Spoiler: Every viewer with a brain suspects that Maria, like most everyone else on Moreau's little island of fun, is really a humanimal too. The ( Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler ) escape of Braddock and Maria at the end sets us up for the obvious pessimistic finale. Just as Braddock is realizing that he's once again fully human, we notice that director Taylor isn't giving us a full-on view of Maria's face --- which can only mean that when the turns, we'll see that she's becoming the beast she always was. But when she turns she only looks drawn and haggard, not quite the drop-dead gorgeous Maria we've been watching for the last hour. The music goes rather grim and stays there, which is pretty odd considering that the pair is going to be rescued. Maria doesn't look too happy. But if she were supposed to be reverting to a beast, there's no visual indication.
The disc extra shows a close-up still of Maria in the boat, sporting fangs and beast-eyes provided by red contact lenses -- it's an alternate ending that a caption says was shown on television. Some people online claim that Maria originally turned all the way into a panther, right there in the boat (?). And I'm told that a Marvel Comics adaptation of the movie also had Carrera reverting to a beast-woman state. Surely the full story is out there.
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T'was Ever Thus.