The Island of Dr. Moreau Review
Good old fashioned fun with Saturday Matinee ambience
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. 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.
While 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, more 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.
Creature lovers will sure get a kick out of the masks from John Chambers and a young Tom Burman but animal lovers may shudder at the treatment apparently bestowed on 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.
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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