Al Ramrus, alternate ending, Barbara Carrera, based on a book, Bob Ozman, Burt Lancaster, cinema, director's cut, Don Taylor, Dr. Moreau, fighting animals, film reviews, films, Fumio Demura, genetic engineering, Gerry Fisher, H.G. Wells, horror, horror films, House of Pain, human experiments, Island of Dr. Moreau, island paradises, John Herman Shaner, Laurence Rosenthal, literary adaptation, mad scientist, mad scientists, man vs. nature, manimals, Marion Rothman, metamorphosis, Michael York, Movies, multiple writers, Nick Cravat, Nigel Davenport, playing god, primal instincts, Richard Alan Simmons, Richard Basehart, romance, science-fiction, shipwrecked, The Island of Dr. Moreau, tropical island
Exceptionally handsome and austere, if rather too reserved to ever really catch fire, Don Taylor’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic mad scientist tale, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), occupies a middle position in the storied property’s history in more ways than chronologically. Neither as sweaty and nightmarish as the original 1932 version nor as silly and fundamentally strange as the 1996 version (featuring an outrageously over-the-top Marlon Brando in one of his final performances), Taylor’s film features lots of good performances from an established cast of old pros, beautiful tropical locations and just enough tension to prevent the whole thing from feeling unduly inert. There may not be many surprises here (aside from the laughably abrupt ending in the “director’s cut” version) but c’mon: where else are you going to see Elmer Gantry and that perpetually on-the-run Logan finally square off?
While it might seem that shipwrecked sailor Andrew Braddock (Michael York) has stumbled into a bit of luck when he finds himself on a beautiful, tropical island, the type of said luck might be up for debate. After all, Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster), the ruler of the little Pacific paradise, seems like a nice enough guy, if a little odd and driven: ditto for his second-in-command, the gruff Mr. Montgomery (Nigel Davenport), who seems to be more than capable with his ever-present rifle. Moreau’s servants, including the strange-looking M’Ling (Nick Cravat), are nice enough and his beautiful, young ward, Maria (Barbara Carrera) is certainly easy on the eyes. A beached sailor could do a lot worse, no?
As it turns out, however, all is not quite as rosy as it seems on first blush. Montgomery becomes very cagey when Braddock tries to get more information about the assorted flora and fauna on the island, only replying that there are “all kinds (of animals)” on the island and cautioning the sailor to avoid leaving Moreau’s compound after dark. He also hears strange moans, groans and almost animalistic noises coming from various rooms after dark, all of which point towards the “good” doctor being involved in some rather shady doings.
In no time, Braddock has stumbled upon the truth of Moreau’s little island paradise: the doctor has been experimenting with a serum that gives human qualities to animals, turning the affected creatures into things that could best be described as “manimals” or, perhaps, “humaninmals.” When Braddock meets the beast-men, he’s also introduced to their complex society and system of “Laws”: “Never walk on all fours;” “Never eat meat;” “Never hunt man;” and, perhaps most importantly, “Never shed blood.” As Braddock learns, any beast-man who violates the “Laws” receives a one-way ticket to the infamous “House of Pain,” which isn’t so much an Irish-American hip-hop crew as a make-shift torture chamber.
The problem with playing God, of course, is that it has a tendency to turn one into a megalomaniac. Such, unfortunately, is the case with the brilliant Dr. Moreau, a ground-breaking genetic researcher whose isolation from the rest of the world and role as ‘creator” have combined to make him a little bit loopy. As Braddock finds himself falling in love with the exotic, beguiling Maria, he also begins to get the notion that good ol’ Moreau isn’t quite done with his experiments: if the hapless sailor isn’t careful, he might just find himself part of the mad scientist’s “family” on a more permanent, terrifying basis!
As director of big-budget “event pictures” like Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Final Countdown (1980), Don Taylor is an old-hand with this sort of thing, as is evident by his assured, non-flashy grasp on the material. The generally slow pace works to the film’s favor, allowing Taylor to craft the kind of oppressive, almost Gothic atmosphere that’s so important to the original book’s almost Poe-like sense of dread. Despite the leisurely pace, the film does maintain plenty of tension, particularly once all hell (literally) breaks loose in the film’s final act.
The Island of Dr. Moreau looks great thanks to cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s eye for the natural beauty of the Virgin Islands locales. Fisher was behind the camera for such films as Ned Kelly (1970), Aces High (1976), The Ninth Configuration, Wolfen (1981) and Highlander (1986) and he turns in some genuinely beautiful, almost burnished images here. Throw in a nicely evocative score by journeyman composer Laurence Rosenthal and Taylor’s film easily holds its own, craft-wise, with something like the Philip Kaufman version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), another high-point in ’70s film adaptations.
While some critics have taken Lancaster’s portrayal of the titular scientist to task, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it: it’s certainly a stronger, more nuanced take than Brando’s ludicrous representation. If Lancaster’s Moreau falls short of the massive deviance of Charles Laughton’s original performance, however, it’s certainly not without its benefits. For one thing, Lancaster’s Moreau ends up being the most sympathetic of the three film versions, thanks to a typically understated performance by the master thespian. I also liked the complex relationship between Moreau and his “creations” here, a complexity born of Lancaster’s ability to play the scientist as both “insane genius” and “over-protective father.”
For his part, York does a great job as the shipwrecked hero: coming just a year after his iconic portrayal of Logan in Logan’s Run (1976), York has the “qualified hero” thing down pat and is able to turn Braddock into a massively likable presence. He also has great chemistry with Carrera, which gives their characters’ burgeoning romance the kind of resonance it needs to really carry weight. While Carrera doesn’t, technically, have a whole lot to do as Maria, her character gets some nice emotional beats in the final third, even if the “director’s cut” of the film robs her of her big “payoff” scene. As far as Nigel Davenport is concerned, it’s always nice to see the veteran British character actor in anything and his take on Montgomery is solid as a rock, studded with some truly biting quips and rejoinders.
If anything really lets Taylor’s version of the story down, aside from the less feverish pace and some rather pedestrian makeup effects (none of the manimals really look like specific animals: they all just have a sort-of generic “hairy/horned/animal” look that’s technically proficient but thoroughly uninspired), it has to be that ending. The readily available version of the film (listed as the “director’s cut,” at least on the version I saw), does away with the original “twist” ending, replacing it with a suitably choppy, “happy” ending that not only makes little sense but also calls attention to itself by virtue of the sloppy editing. While the “original” ending was certainly no brilliant shocker (if you can’t call it fairly early on, I’m guessing that you’re not really paying attention), it fit the film nicely and would have ended things on a suitably bummer finale. The “new and improved” version, as it were, will probably only send audiences out with a smile on their faces if they’re one of the aforementioned viewers who aren’t really paying attention in the first place.
Despite some minor issues and some very wonky science (if you think too hard about the logistics at work here, none of the film makes any sense whatsoever), The Island of Dr. Moreau is a consistently well-done, evocative and thoroughly entertaining film. While I still prefer the 1932 version (you just can’t beat Laughton in batshit crazy mode), the 1977 version is still a perfectly acceptable way to spend a rainy afternoon. If you’ve never had a chance to visit this particular tropical paradise before, grab your sunscreen, a floppy hat, a daiquiri and prepare to chill out with a collection of the grooviest manimals under the sun. If you can’t get down with that, buddy, well…maybe you really do belong in the House of Pain, after all.