The Island of Dr. Moreau

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There are certain stories that filmmakers seem to return to over and over again. One such story is HG Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. There have been a number of film adaptations of the 1896 novel, most notably the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls and the notorious 1996 version starring Marlon Brando. However, twenty-one years before the troubled production that made Brando’s version of Moreau the stuff of movie legend, there was another production. This time Burt Lancaster takes a shot at the classic role in 1977’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.

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After being adrift in a lifeboat for seventeen days, a ship’s engineer named Andrew Braddock (Michael York) washes ashore on a mysterious island. There he finds the compound of a scientist named Dr. Moreau (Lancaster). Braddock also meets Moreau’s associate Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and a gorgeous young woman named Maria (Barbara Carrera), who, of course, starts to get a bit cozy with the island’s newest arrival. As Braddock begins to discover some of the other inhabitants of the island, who have animal-like features, he soon learns that Moreau is engaged is creating animal/human hybrids.

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Some of the beasts live in a sort of community watched over one creature known as the Sayer of the Law (Richard Basehart). They live under a strict set of rules, the “law,” laid out by Moreau. If they break it, they are taken back to the House of Pain. All of this starts to trouble Braddock who plots to escape the island with Maria in tow. However, he soon finds himself a part of Moreau’s experiments as the beasts begin to rise up to overthrow their creator.

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Of the three versions of this story that I’ve seen, this one is probably the flattest. It’s very by-the-book compared to the brilliant Island of the Lost Souls and the train-wreck that is the ‘96 version. It kind of feels like the filmmakers were just marking off a checklist when it comes to the key aspects of the story, but never really taking time to put any real power behind what they were doing. It’s a shame since the Moreau story can be quite visceral.

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A number of the story elements the might add some raw energy to the proceedings are underutilized or left out. The House of Pain, for example, is one of the aspects of the story that is the most important when it comes to sympathizing with the plight of Moreau’s creations. It is what makes for some of the most disturbing moments of Island of Lost Souls. In this film, however, it is mentioned repeatedly, yet never seen. That miscalculation alone is enough to derail the proceedings. The Maria character is also handled poorly. In other versions of the story she is one of the human/animal hybirds…Moreau’s greatest creation. Here she’s just the local hot chick, raised on the Island by Moreau all these years. This version does, however, do something that I don’t recall from the incarnations…Moreau injecting Braddock with a serum to turn him into one of the man beasts.

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The film certainly has a capable cast, and they get the job done, however, the performances don’t move much beyond that. Michael York is really the only one who seems to be putting a bit more effort into things, especially in the sequence toward the end of the film where he tries to maintain his humanity as he gradually becomes more animal-like. Burt Lancaster is a fine choice to play Moreau, but he pretty much just delivers his lines and that’s that. He’s certainly not as colorful or sinister as Charles Laughton is in the ‘32 film, and he comes nowhere near the bat guano that Brando gives us in the ‘96 film. Barbara Carrera is certainly alluring and beautiful, but lacks the (pun intended) animal magnetism that panther woman Kathleen Burke gave us forty-five years earlier. Sayer of the Law Richard Basehart is also a pale shadow of Bela Lugosi’s brief but haunting performance in Island of Lost Souls. In general it just feels like the cast isn’t putting in a whole lot of effort here.

As for the makeup effects, there are some interesting things here. However, though we are nine years after the fact, the makeup doesn’t seem to have advanced much past what we got in Planet of the Apes. That’s not to say it’s bad, but when you consider that this is coming the same year as the Star Wars cantina scene, it feels a wee bit behind the curve.

Though I’ve been pretty down on the film, this Island of Lost Souls was still relatively entertaining.  What we are given is fine, but nothing really seems make much of an effort to excel.  I guess you could say, though, that this film has the misfortune of landing squarely in the middle of two other versions of the same story that just stand out more. One that is a chilling example of 1930’s horror and the other the poster child for 90’s movies run amok.

Note: Island of Lost Souls was recently released on DVD and BluRay by Olive Films.  Big thanks to them for giving us a chance to look at the film.

2 thoughts on “The Island of Dr. Moreau

  1. I have only seen the oldest version, I haven’t seen this one or the Brando version. Be interesting to watch them and compare them, but I feel like I would think the same way you did with this one: missed opportunity.

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