The Island of Dr. Moreau Blu-ray Review
Is The Island of Dr. Moreau any good?
Burt Lancaster’s Dr. Moreau is having a whale of a time in his tropical idyll.He is playing God by turning animals into men, and vice versa, under some lofty delusion of eradicating genetic disorder. Well, there isn’t much else to do there. But when Michael York’s shipwrecked sailor arrives on the island, events take a turn for the disastrous … and all hell breaks loose. The second filmed adaptation of the classic H G Wells cautionary tale, this 1977 production from Don Taylor is appreciably dark, squalid and decidedly unethical.It lacks the shock-value and sexual undercurrent of the awesome 1932 version, which had Charles Laughton messing with nature, but delivers plenty of eeriness as Beast-men stalk the jungle and Darwinism gets a right royal kick in the morals. Jettisoning the intense conscience-wrangling of the original masterpiece, York’s hapless guest valiantly endeavours to hang on to his humanity when Moreau ups the ante.
Great creature makeup from the man who designed the masks for The Planet of the Apes and some bravura sequences of bestial combat provide the startling imagery for this surprisingly visceral account of scientific folly. Taylor clearly wanted more outrage than was ultimately permitted, but he is still able to squeeze out a terrific sense of trapped isolation and danger from such a bleak scenario. Sadly, the producers baulked at the original gut-punch ending, going as far as to destroy all footage of it… but, even so, the film leaves a queasy aftertaste.
The Island of Dr. Moreau Picture QualityThis has always been a grubby little film, narratively speaking, and, of course, in visual terms. The setting may be a jungle island, but this location is as far from what is cinematically exotic as you can get. The genuine jungle canopy of St Croix and the US Virgin Islands submerges everything in murk and the environ looks and feels clammy, squalid and sweaty. This, however, is exactly as it should be. No scrubbed-up, scintillating POTC backdrop here, folks. Every version of this film that I have seen, TV, VHS, DVD and theatrical – and I was able to watch this at the flicks every night for a week when it was released (yep… I virtually lived in The Phoenix Cinema, Wallasey) - has been damp, gloomy and nicotine-stained. This UK Blu from 101 is no different.
The 1.85:1 image has been encoded via AVC. It looks, on first inspection, to be very accurate in terms of framing and colour-timing. Skin-tones are swarthy and the palette is muddy. When highpoints are on offer – blood, blue eyes, flames and tiger-stripes - they are nicely depicted and vivid. But nobody is ever going to come away from this transfer, or this film, thinking that they have been treated to a ravishing spectacle. The prevailing aesthetic is earthy, with browns, yellows and greens so permeating and engorged that the image even smells pungent.
The grain texture does not look altogether authentic to me. Definition may still be fine, with lots of detail afforded the close-ups, but the grain does tend to resemble video noise rather than actual film-grain. Still, the picture looks appropriately gritty. Sadly, I noticed some digital smearing going on during one or two movements of characters across the screen. This was very similar to an unwanted authoring issue that I encountered with the German BD of Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf. As with that, I double-checked the disc on another screen and with a different player – and the ugly digital ghosting was still there.
To be fair, though, it was a lot less noticeable on this transfer. There is also a curious little anomaly that suddenly manifests itself as a series of dark vertical lines on Michael York’s distressingly skinny bare chest during an early confrontation with Lancaster’s Moreau on the veranda outside his room. Shadows, perhaps? Well, I replayed the moment several times, but I can’t work out why they appear in such a way. Is it really a problem to the bigger picture? Well, probably not in the grand scheme of things. But if I noticed them right away and frowned over them, then you might, too.
Incidentally, York has the bizarre ability to look totally DNR’d in one scene, and just fine the next.
As you would expect, there are some age-related issues here. There are a couple of instances, at least, when the film frame skips ahead with a rather obvious jump. Speckles and pops occur, though these are actually quite minimal. The black levels suffer from a well-worn print too. Whilst the shadows can often be very deep and darkly satisfying, there are also times when the image cannot sustain them. For example, when we are down in the cave of the Beast-men, the right hand side of the frame, which should be bathed in blackness, is diluted with milky grey. Contrast, too, is not the best, though certainly adequate. But, again, this is very probably all down to the source elements … and the night-time sequence when the Beast-men carry the body of one their own down to the beach for a Viking-style send-off is smartly punctuated by the procession of bright flaming torches. So there are moments of visual poignancy that truly shine.
Before you go thinking that I’ve got some kind of downer on this transfer, I should state that I actually quite like the overall presentation. I was never under the illusion that it would be stellar. I doubt that even a full-on restoration of the OCN would yield greater results with regards to colour and detail than we have here. In fact, the definition bestowed the animal masks, fur and claws is very welcome indeed. Some of the masks, that belonging to Richard Basehart’s Sayer of the Law (taking over from Bela Lugosi) in particular, do suffer from the more revealing resolution, it is true, but most of the makeup is endearingly old school and all the more nightmarish given the enhanced detail. Material seen in interior backgrounds, such as jars, pictures, books and scientific equipment, fail to maintain clarity, and the exteriors don’t fare much better, but I believe this is all still accurately rendered. This said, the lighthouse on a distant promontory is now easier to discern.
Fans will appreciate the crispness of the closer shots though … and there is no denying that Barbara Carrera clocks up a good percentage of those benefiting from the hi-def process.
The film has always appeared quite flat to me, so it is great to find some depth in evidence here. Nothing too spectacular, but there is a lot more spatiality around Moreau’s compound and the numerous treks and chases through the jungle. A nice pan looking down from the veranda as the camera searches out Moreau and his guest in the garden provides lots of visual depth and fluidity. Likewise, a view up towards Moreau riding along a ridge against the blue sky. Lancaster’s sternly pointy finger also gains authority from a nice new level of three-dimensionality. Sadly, scenes down in the Beast-cave have no more visual dynamism than a polystyrene set from the original Star Trek TV show.
We have some digital issues to contend with and an old and overcast, but authentic print. But the transfer still looks robust and, at times, quite vivid. All in all, I doubt we could realistically expect much more than this transfer offers.
The Island of Dr. Moreau Sound Quality101 provide Moreau with a LPCM 2.0 track.
Dialogue is fine and presents no concerns. Three great voices inhabit this film. York has an evocative English lilt. Lancaster’s barnacled brogue is always amazingly eloquent, although he fails to project much enthusiasm for this particular script. But it is Nigel Davenport’s incredibly self-assured voice as Moreau’s mercenary, Montgomery, that I savour the most here. There are no noticeable pops or crackles, and no hiss or distortion. This said, the audio mix is unremarkable in almost every way. Other than the terrific score from Laurence Rosenthal, which I have reviewed extensively already, with its haunting solo English horn lament and boisterous action cues, the original sound design is highly undistinguished and lacks ambition.
There are no noticeable pops or crackles, and no hiss or distortion
There are gunshots that make agreeable reports, mostly used to suddenly disrupt argy-bargy from the Beast-men, and there are frequent growls and snarls and yips and barks. These latter effects can often be heard wafting ominously from the depths of the jungle, although there is little in the way of tangible placement. Shattering glass and wooden walls erupting as furry bodies come hurtling through them, as well as numerous other impacts and crashes are dotted about, but they all sound very timid and quite restricted. The clobbering of Hyena-Man with an oar lacks the raw aggression that Rosenthal strives to inject with his propulsive and primal music. Movement across what purports to be a stereo image isn’t worth talking about and I didn’t perceive much in the way of depth.
None of this is a problem, however. This is precisely how I expected the film to sound. Thankfully, there has been no attempt to create a bogus surround mix.
The Island of Dr. Moreau ExtrasZilch on offer here, folks. A real shame. I would have given them a commentary… if they’d asked.
The Island of Dr. Moreau Blu-ray VerdictWhile it doesn’t hold a candle to the original Erle C Kenton version, Don Taylor’s adaptation of Wells’ stark accusation is certainly better thought out, more considered and faithful, and simply more entertaining than the train-wreck that John Frankenheimer wrestled from the slaughtered good intentions Richard Stanley had for the third attempt, that fearful blunder with Brando and Kilmer.
There is a terrific sense of claustrophobia borne out of an almost stage-bound power-play between the limited cast. Michael York was the man-of-the-moment back then, with his hugely enjoyable take on D’ Artagnon in Richard Lester’s Musketeers series, as well as the titular revolutionary in Logan’s Run, and he tries his best to bring wonder, dread, rage and pathos to his shipwrecked protagonist. Burt Lancaster does well as Moreau, but you keep waiting for his BIG moment to come, and it never really does.
In short, this is down to the screenplay, which is serviceable but lacks the appropriate bite. Morality, and the conflict between scientific ethics and playing God are hardly broached in anything more than lip service. It is also important to note that a massive revelation has been cut loose from this final cut… and this inevitably, I feel, damages the natural momentum of the movie. As such, the final image does not fit the music as scored for what should have been the original and considerably more downbeat climax.
Please be reassured that absolutely no animals (or manimals) were hurt during the production
Creature lovers will sure get a kick out of the masks from John (the Apes franchise) Chambers and a young Tom Burman but animal lovers may shudder at the treatment apparently bestowed some of the real-life jungle fauna during the chaotic action scenes of rebellion and revolt. Please be reassured, however, that absolutely no animals (or manimals) were hurt during the production. Although hardly a scary film, it remains creepy, dark-hearted and grimly odd. There is imagery here that definitely lingers – such as a hanged body slowly twisting before a raging inferno, like newsreel footage of a third world atrocity, and the bestial conflict between an enraged Ox Man and a genuine tiger.
The film’s arrival on UK Blu is hardly going to cause a stampede. The transfer is passable and nothing more, with perhaps a couple of niggles that could irritate, and the complete absence of extras is truly disappointing. The film may not have set the box office alight, but it has garnered a well-deserved cult status nonetheless, and has certainly earned deeper respect.
It remains good old fashioned fun with a Saturday Matinee ambience that goes strangely hand-in-paw with the more disturbing notions that dominate the premise.
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