There's never been a better period for score collectors than right now. Each week seems to offer not only vibrant and exciting soundtracks to new films, but also - and more importantly - those lost gems or catalogue titles that have either not been properly catered for on disc until now, or those that never actually received an official score release before. La-La Land have been dishing treasures out left, right and centre lately, and this neglected classic is just such a delight - Laurence Rosenthal's vivid and enthralling score for The Island Of Dr. Moreau.
Although officially filmed three times - the incredible vintage chiller Island Of Lost Souls (a new, and restored release, please!) from 1932, starring Charles Laughton, this version from 1977 directed by Don (Escape From The Planet Of The Apes/The Final Countdown) Taylor and featuring Michael York and Burt Lancaster, and the woeful, messed-up and miserable failure that was John Frankenheimer's ill-fated 1996 remake starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando - it remains this one that best captures the mood of doom-laden arrogance and tragic-yet-exciting devolution that H. G. Wells first wrote about in his sci-fi adventure novel back in 1896.
I recall seeing this movie at the flicks several times when I was a kid, and always being amazed that such a frightening and surprisingly violent tale was only an “A” certificate (the equivalent of a PG today). The horrifying make-up designs for Humanimals from Apes-mask supremo, John Chambers, the enforced experiments by a cold and callous Burt Lancaster, as the ruthlessly forward-thinking Dr. Moreau, and the overall tone of the saga was one that delivered some quite memorable nightmares for me at the time. Don Taylor, ever workmanlike and swift, fashioned a gripping narrative and punctuated it with some quite alarming set-pieces. Ox-Man's fierce battle with the tiger (something that I'm sure must have given Lucio Fulci the impetus for his notorious zombie vs shark tussle in Zombie Flesheaters, made the year after Moreau's release), the eerie scenes set down in the Beast-mens' cave as Richard Basehart's Sayer Of The Law tentatively holds court over a snarling, snorting tribe of hairy snouters, and the last-minute shock-skirmish between York's washed-up sailor, Braddock, and the vicious Hyena-Man - all helped make this lusciously shot American International Pictures production something of a big name spectacle for genre-fans. It wasn't surprising that the horror/sci-fi productions were attracting such leading stars, what with The Exorcist and The Omen, Logan's Run and Star Wars thrusting notable luminaries as Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Gregory Peck, David Warner, Michael York (who was certainly this period's most dynamic action hero), Peter Ustinov and, of course, Peter Cushing and Sir Alec Guinness into bizarre and wonderful stories from across time and space and pitted them against evil, both theological and galactic. In fact, this period was, and still is, one of the most adventurous, experimental and ground-breaking in terms of plot and concept development. And Taylor's interpretation of Wells' bold warning (one of many such colourful statements the outspoken author made about science gone awry, including War Of The Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man) was quite prescient and clever in updating the writer's original vision from animal vivisection to gene-manipulation for its story of the megalomaniacal Moreau's tampering with nature. The fantastic setting of St. Croix and the US Virgin Islands also allows Taylor's cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, ample opportunity to show off vibrant jungles, desolate bays and coves and beautiful, sweeping panoramic vistas that go some way to helping the film achieve its mysterious and otherworldly atmosphere and promote its stark B-move notions to the sumptuous and classy mainstream.
And then, of course, comes the score from Laurence Rosenthal, which is the icing on the cake for this often neglected and overlooked period gem (and confirmed guilty pleasure of mine).Rosenthal was already a highly regarded and popular composer for movies. He had provided musical backbone to Westerns such as A Gunfight, Rooster Cogburn and Return Of A Man Called Horse, horrors like The House That Would Not Die and Satan's School For Girls, and would go on to bolster the disaster movie Meteor, the war-time thriller Brass Target and Ray Harryhausen's swan-song fantasy Clash Of The Titans, as well the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg TV series, The Adventures Of Young Indiana Jones. His style, which can encompass both Copeland-esque Americana and propulsive action - as evidenced by his magnificent score for Return Of A Man Called Horse - is also wide and lush when called for, and the story of York's shipwrecked sailor, Braddock, arriving on the tropical island of Moreau's mad boffin and coming face to hideous face with the hybridised experimental subjects living in pain and fear there, and sparking a vicious revolt in the process, demanded all of his dynamism and sensitivity. That he managed to make the film feel bigger and grander than the screenplay from John Herman Shaner and Al Ramus initially depicted - whilst all the elements are there, the script still feels truncated and rather piece-meal - and smoother than the choppy, somewhat wooden performances on offer, shows how much integrity and passion he felt for the project. Typically of the era, which in many respects still paid much debt to the musical scoring vogue of the forties and fifties, the score contains moments of such romantic whimsy and fanciful swooning that the cues sometimes feel as though they have been washed-up on the shore from the decade's weekly sugar-dose of The Love Boat, but this, in no way, detracts from the overall ambience of dark motivations, forbidden science and moral sacrifices that dominate the endeavour. And having Barbara Carrera on-hand as the sultry puma-girl, Maria, whom Braddock naturally falls in love with, obviously swayed Rosenthal into creating such saccharine-infused semi-ballads, as well.
The album kicks off with a gorgeously tremulous and mournful English horn that signifies a sense of ocean-tossed isolation as York's lifeboat skims the waves, and of an emotional bleakness that will come, once we meet Dr. Moreau and his fragile, demented eco-system. Somewhat similar in its cold and singular lamenting phrase to James Horner's haunting cadence from Wolfen, this horn-call is both amoral and militaristic, a sort of dark salute to Moreau's cruel dictatorship. When deep brass chords and sharp violins appear, the cue grows into a wonderful clarion-call statement of the film's themes, becoming the major motif for Moreau, himself. Fabulously, you can hear slight refrains that may remind of Goldsmith's Outland (which would actually come later than this) and even Morricone's pensive, quieting string-lattice from The Thing (which would come even later again). The track also contains some tribal sounds - glittering chimes, xylophone, Native Indian whistle and pipe-effects - that lend the new-found island that essential layer of mysterious beauty. Rosenthal incorporates some menacing tones from a synthesiser, augmented with a warbling flute as he carries the track expertly from cue to cue.
Track 2 is where the love theme for Maria comes in. At first, this is also buoyed with a lingering residue of unease and distrust as Braddock finds himself a guest in Moreau's colonial-style mansion. Violins play softly and gently and open the music out into a vaguely Barry-esque sonority that seems to hover majestically over an elegantly-plucked harp. After the half-way point, tensions and trepidation are brought back in with wonderfully subtle bass that loiters just out of reach, signifying that, despite a nice meal and convivial company, all is not well on the island. Track 3, however, is playful and romantic in clever twists and turns, yet is marvellously counter-balanced by creeping renditions of Moreau's dark theme that slyly coil around it. Tribal drums are lightly patted, a flute captures a lilting birdsong and the finite strings of the harp are teased to help create an eerie, glistening and slightly mischievous subtext to the growing relationship between Braddock and Maria.
The romance is swiftly jettisoned in Track 4, when the score becomes agitated, propulsive and driven. Threatening violins scratch over the top of percussion and horn and the wonderful warm, organ-caressing swells of the bassoon lend their atmospheric weight to the stabbing energy of the piece. The English horn pokes through a midway fugue of slow, edgy suspense and then ominous piano notes tickle just beneath the prevailing current of a tense, shimmering anxiety. After the violence of the opening, the track then becomes glacial, keening with violins and harp that entwine to perform an ethereal ballet of shadow and deceit. This haunting refrain is something that typifies most of the dangerous lulls in the story and the score - coming across as beautiful and deadly at the same time. It seems to suggest that the dangers may not be around at the moment, but they certainly aren't far away ... so, don't get too comfortable. Wonderful stuff.
Rosenthal brings back some sweeping, rise-and-fall romance for Track 5 as the film's secretive, furtive and forbidden love scene makes its inevitable presence felt. Soft, gentle and sensuous, this also contains some delicious hints of darkness and depravity, with creeping low chords that nudge their way in now and then. This sort of composition is a thoroughly old school one, a sort of Max Steiner/Miklos Rosza style interlude, replete with harp and see-sawing strings. But danger is not far behind, and Track 6, which is actually five short cues in sequence, depicts some crucial development in the story. Braddock's revulsion and pity at a freshly transformed Bear-Man ultimately sees him making off into the jungle and encountering more such ghastly creatures in their communal cave. The wayward Ox-Man confronts a tiger and, in his fury, breaks one of the sacred Laws that Moreau has instilled in them via whip, needle and torture - not to shed blood. Punishment and retribution, pathos and guilt and seething rage become the order of the day and the film's main ingredients all find musical flavour and presence in this stand-out track. Action motifs swirl - the first stabbing rhythm is brilliantly evocative of light and shadow flitting through the jungle canopy and is also somewhat reminiscent of Goldsmith's primal chase music for the first Apes movie. A section that follows has ethnic percussion clacking in the background as the pace slows down to one of melancholy and oppression, the true horrors of Moreau's new race brought into vivid clarity and our hatred for him, as well our instinctive fear of the Beast-Men, themselves, magnified. The solo horn makes another appearance, lacing the mournful plucking of the harp. Then we hear primitive shakers and xylophone fighting over a shivering wall of violins, Ox-Man battling the tiger as Rosenthal's music reaches a crescendo of violence. The solo horn and its haunting cadence, along with a sombre reflection from the oboe present us with the grisly aftermath of Ox-Man's anger. We have reached a crucial juncture in both the film and the score, and this is the midway point in a sequence that tells its own wonderful and evocative story even away from the visuals.
Track 7, To The House Of Pain/Funeral Pyre, also hurtles along at breakneck pace as Ox-Man is pursued from his hiding place by his evil master and by his fellow Humanimals. Energised strings, a blurting array of brass and the jabbed keys of a piano take flight with him, Rosenthal's orchestration brilliantly keeping pace with the pell-mell pursuit. There are times when the composer's angular use of brass and untoward instrumental lancing evoke the weird and often disquieting themes of Leonard Rosenman (think of The Car, Prophecy or Beneath The Planet Of The Apes), but, if anything , Rosenthal provides more clean-cut rhythm and a less hostile tempo, his momentum less discordant and malevolent. His action cues, therefore, are perhaps more accessible and, well, hummable, as a result. The track then flows into a grim statement for strings over muted timpani as Braddock ends Ox-Man's suffering and his mutated brethren conduct a moving and unsettling Viking-style funeral for their fallen comrade.
Track 8, Involution, is a wonderful, piano-led slice of mysterioso that perfectly captures the turning point in the tale. Slow and purposeful, organic strings and drums mark time as tensions begin to boil, their sudden harshness sidling-off into bitter resentment and cunning, a synth-embellished harp glistening with shadowy scheming as the jungle around Moreau's compound shivers with grief and anger. High violins and gently caressed harp signify yet more evil intent with a surprisingly soothing spectral quality. The dastardly and black-hearted Moreau injects Braddock with his Darwin-flaunting serum, intending for the sailor to revert back into his primitive animal state, the track signing-off with a tribal flute and frigid strings, placing a delicate terror over our hero's plight.
Ethnic percussion opens the gates to more sombre, gently orchestrated tension at the start of Track 9. Strings echo, cutting right across the roof of the soundscape and a meandering rhythm of dissent gradually builds up from beneath, submerged drums heralding glistening tribal intent. The horn calls the Beast-Men to tooth and claw fury, a wonderful, doom-filled rising back-beat helps provide a physical side to the emotional ultimatum that has been reached, as Moreau gradually realises that his primal offspring have returned and will no longer listen to his harsh doctrine. Violins swell and recede, leaving the horn to echo the gleaming human eye of vengeance that the Beast-men all cast his way.
After a hissing cymbal, a blistering fusillade of clawing, strident brass roars over the top of rapidly-thumped bass during the furious opening of Track 10. Comprised of three sequential cues, the track then rattles through a frantic series of brass clashes, insistent strings, warbling tribal flutes, ethnic percussion and far-off metallic clanging, all of which come together to form a first half that is a brutal and muscular action set-piece to fire the imagination and the adrenaline. Afterwards, things settle uneasily, as a lilting woodwind melody signifies the end of Moreau's ill-conceived ambitions, bringing to a close a track that has been filled with invention, excitement and balls-to-the-wall dynamism and capping it off with an apocalyptic sustained piano.
Rosenthal goes even further with the next track, Man and Beast, this time going all-out with riotous action and throwing everything into the pot. As the Humanimals open the cages and free all of Moreau's other experimental subjects, a ferocious melee ensues and fur flies everywhere. Angry brass kicks and punches in all directions. Shrieking strings rip and gouge. Tom-toms are struck, the tribal motif struggling to be heard amidst the all-round symphonic carnage. This track is actually reminiscent of old school John Williams - lushly put together and orchestrated, yet hyper-kinetic and brimming with unusual vignettes and instrumentation that clamour for attention.
Track 12, The Holocaust - a fitting title considering Moreau's SS-style experimentation - is a short cue that covers a final kill and the escape from the island by Braddock and Maria, the sailor literally leaving the film as he began it - adrift in his lifeboat. Cymbals clash, brass flurries in shrieking lament. The sense is most certainly not one of victory, more of a continuation of shock, the survivors both indescribably scarred by what they have been through. Track 13, The Real Maria/End Credits is unusual in that it was written for Taylor's original and far better ending - in which Maria turns to face Braddock (who has now reverted back to his human form after Moreau's serum has worn off) and, in true Count Yorga-style, is revealed to be growing fangs, the poor girl doing some reverting of her own ... back to her former status as a puma. With skittish studio execs demanding a happy ending, the scene was edited but, with no more time to re-record a different and potentially more upbeat music track, Rosenthal's original, darker-themed cue plays over the top of their rescue and, supposed, triumph. The End Credits cue that finishes the track carries the main themes that have been running throughout the score, from a sweetened and more reassuring rendition of the love motif to a final, eerie horn-call of Moreau's signature cue as it gradually makes a plaintiff retreat into the distance.
In a boon for La-La Land's terrific release, we are then treated to two bonus tracks, offering slightly altered takes on Jungle Pursuit (the second cue from Track 1) and To The House Of Pain (the first half of Track 7), the latter being just as exciting as the final version, but given an added impetus and more energy. And more tambourines.
Overall, this is an awesome release delivering sound quality that is a distinct improvement over the promo CD. There is depth and vigour to the score and the attention to instrumentation is certainly clearer and more detailed than I had expected. La-La Land provide a great little booklet of extensive track notes, images and background information from Randall D. Larson regarding Rosenthal's score and Taylor's film, as well.
Limited-edition release of 1200 copies worldwide.
Full Track Listing as follows -
1. The Island Of Dr. Moreau - Main Title / The Jungle (5:24)
2. Maria And Friend / After Dinner / Doctor's Study (4:18)
3. On The Beach / More Questions (5:40)
4. Forest Murmurs / Dr. Moreau's Zoo / Moreau Explains (5:28)
5. Maria And Andrew (3:05)
6. Bear Man / To The Cave / In The Garden /Tiger Fight / Dead Tiger (7:32)
7. To The House Of Pain / Funeral Pyre (4:33)
8. Involution (3:44)
9. Braddock's Cage / The Humanimals (3:57)
10. Moreau's Death (2:41)
11. Man And Beast (2:18)
12. The Holocaust (1:30)
13. The Real Maria / The Island Of Dr. Moreau - End Credits (2:41).
14. Jungle Pursuit (1:34)
15. To The House Of Pain - Alt (2:44).
Total Time: 57:33
Rosenthal's score for The Island Of Dr. Moreau is, by turns, dynamic, mysterious, romantic and ferociously primal. His orchestration and design is impeccable, fashioning a sound that is indelibly of the seventies, but lush and exciting at the same time. The influence of Jerry Goldsmith - particularly his music for Planet Of The Apes, Logan's Run and The Cassandra Crossing - is hard to ignore, but Rosenthal still creates something that feels organic, dense and textured in a way that many modern horror scores do not. It is also possible that his haunting English horn lament inspired James Horner's signature-motif for Wolfen. Taylor's movie wasn't much cared for at the time by the public or by the critics but, in comparison to the disaster that followed in 1996, it is now ripe for reappraisal, especially as its tone and setting contain a “Lost”-style ambience.
However, this score is definitely worth seeking out. Horribly limited to only 1200 copies, it is now hard to pick up, especially as the main suppliers seemed to sell out very, very quickly - but hunting this one down is something that I recommend wholeheartedly.
An excellent and half-forgotten score that finally claws its way back with beauty, vigour, dignity and intensity.
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