Dangerous Adventures Make the 1977 Island of Dr. Moreau by Kristin Battestella
AIP’s 1977 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau directed by Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) pairs down the half man half animal mad science to its core themes with claustrophobic symbolism and strong performances anchoring the beastly adventures as shipwrecked Andrew Braddock (Michael York) is taken in by the isolated scientist Dr. Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster). Also on the beautiful but dangerous island are Moreau’s enchanting adopted daughter Maria (Barbara Carrera) and his crusty assistant Montgomery (Nigel Davenport). Braddock, however, discovers there are more monstrous inhabitants – victims of Dr. Moreau’s twisted experiments – leading to a struggle of wills, abominations, and control.
The silent vast and empty blue ocean open The Island of Dr. Moreau with a tiny boat and one small, desperate survivor bearded and thirsty. Epic music mirrors the hope of this green, lush island oasis, but hanging vines, uneven terrain, and booby traps belie this paradise said to be one thousand miles from nowhere. Fenced in buildings with food, bedding, mosquito netting, books, and fresh clothing appear civilized, however dangerous animals are said to roam the island and one should never leave the compound after dark. Idyllic pets and pleasant races in the woods lead to strange sounds in the night and “muffled roaring.” Viewers think we see something amid the rustling leaves but we don’t know what. Hunched creatures, creepy servants drinking from puddles like animals, and more “special” types of people on this island are in need of Dr. Moreau’s care – and his laboratory is complete with a menagerie of wild cats, cages, and shackles. Rearing horses, chases, fear of the unknown, and unanswered questions are difficult for men who like to know and control all when exploring the natural or unnatural boundaries they should not. The once lovely island locales become increasingly congested environs as the external out of control science closes in on the body sacred thanks to serums, syringes, and surgery. Why would a doctor create such suffering animals now made partially people? Are the hairy inbetweens and experimentation in the name of science worth the loss of one’s morality? The civilized man must defend himself in caves where unwelcome, monstrous, man made creatures have their own laws – not to walk on all fours, not to eat flesh, no taking of life. Gunshots scare away fierce offenders, for these animals given speech and rules remain controlled through fear. Will these hybrids remember what humans told them to say and do if they regress to their innate ways? After all, to study nature, one has to be as remorseless as nature, which has its own sense of justice, selection, and violence to match our undeniable ability to destroy. Dangerous tiger attacks, mercy killings, and angry mobs with torches lead to blood and pain in well paced action as power devolves into anarchy. Although The Island of Dr. Moreau’s symbolism is apparent, the sentiment doesn’t hit the audience over the head thanks to a multi-layered cycle of man made monsters and men made gods.
Dr. Paul Moreau showed signs of brilliance in his youth and loves to converse about emerging technology, but Burt Lancaster’s (From Here to Eternity) extensive academic has been here in his own paradise for eleven years. His colleagues opposed his work, criticizing his theories on the nature of good and evil, to which even Moreau agrees he doesn’t have all the answers. Fortunately, he admires Braddock’s intelligence, explaining to him the need to help his fellow human beings by controlling all stages of life whilst also keeping him at the compound and withholding the details of his trial and error experiments to save mankind. Moreau thinks what he is doing is just – making his work all the more frightening when the results aren’t as he hoped. The doctor gets angry with his whip when his creations remain animalistic. He speaks to his subjects about the law from his rocky pulpit, lording over those punished in his house of pain with his white suit and halo-like hat almost as if Elmer Gantry turned to dastardly mad science. Moreau thinks he can tell an animal he is human and it will understand. He wants his flock to obey Braddock – Moreau needs a successor to continue his delivery of science from cruel butchery and dissection. However, Braddock is a man who doesn’t do what he’s told, and Moreau is determined to use his tough love science to prove Braddock’s true nature. Unfortunately, Moreau is threatened by his own cause, unaware his do as I say not as I do superiority does not give him reign over his creations. Formerly of The Lady Vain, the situation goes from bad to worse for Michael York’s (The Three Musketeers) rugged seaman Braddock. He’s curious about the island, reads, questions where everyone came from and if there are nearby places. He walks the coast and repairs his damaged boat – the audience is on his side as the handsome hero uncovers the askew science. Alas, Braddock is too inquisitive for his own good, in over his head and meddling where he shouldn’t. He must learn to abide by this island’s rules or he will be punished for his interference. Braddock becomes desperate to remember who he is and where he comes from in all this upside down, and The Island of Dr. Moreau is a fine two-hander between its leading men – father and son figures where the elder won’t get his way thanks to the new, stronger man. Though often sweaty and shirtless when proving his macho, Braddock becomes embarrassed by his animal instincts. Ultimately, he buttons up his clothes when these dire circumstances force him to show he can behave like a civilized man. Barbara Carrera’s (Never Say Never Again) stunning image of beauty Maria, however, answers only to Dr. Moreau’s commands. He raised her, and initially, she keeps her distance despite Braddock’s romantic interest. Although the tender, sensuous explorations are well done, viewers know we shouldn’t trust the frolicking strolls along the beach as she gives in to her passion. Carrera doesn’t really have a lot to do, but Maria’s an innocent young woman, a blank slate being shaped by her in the wrong father figure and a lover who would take her away from the island when she’s afraid to go. Nigel Davenport (A Man for All Seasons) as Dr. Moreau’s gruff assistant Montgomery also has less to do than in the novel, but his cryptic attitude adds to the sinister isle orchestrations. He tells Braddock to get over the shock of it all, for he sleeps better on this island than anywhere else. Ironically, this man who chooses to be subservient because he lacks humanity becomes a problem once he does show sympathy.
Safari hats, white linen suits, and lacy women’s frocks match The Island of Dr. Moreau’s turn of the century talk of fantastic flying machines and underwater vessels. Candlelight, lanterns, gramophones, longhand journals, leather volumes, and pistols add vintage to the emerging gear, telescopes, globes, and specimens in jars. Laboratory equipment, medical beds, and giant needles create disturbing science alongside creepy teeth, gross smiles, and distorted faces making the audience recoil. Granted, some of the animal make up is weak compared to contemporary designs – the noses, wild hair, and horns could be laughable but they are not thanks to the serious abomination implications. One red scarf becomes a symbolic bright spot in the otherwise earthy palette while foreboding shadows around the buildings instill fear thanks to the natural and unnatural sounds beyond the halos of seemingly civilized light at the compound. Pans over the mountains capture the divine Caribbean locales, but the point of view more often looks out the windows or in past the verandas as if the cameras themselves won’t leave this little oasis. Overhead spins parallel the disorienting jungle alongside well done chases and unseen monstrosities amid dangerous but beautiful bears and big cats in cages. Animal claws and growling effects set off disturbing mobs and vicious attacks before a fiery finale with blood on all hands accenting both the messianic savior visuals and Judas retribution hangings. While the classic horrifics and big performances make Charles Laughton’s 1932 adaptation Island of Lost Souls, the 1996 Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer version is a little too messy despite being more faithful to the novel than the excised bookends here. With its horses, weapons, upside down tone, ravishing brunette, intelligent spark, revealing pace, and primitive design; this Island of Dr. Moreau at times feels more like the original Planet of the Apes. Perhaps we are due for another fully realized Wells interpretation, however, I fear that today’s over reliance on CGI talking animals, motion capture special effects, and spectacle transformations would miss the point of the piece.
Even if such shock value isn’t as important as the scientific harbingers, the bitter parable with man meets beast violence here can still be uncomfortable for some audiences. This well known story of half animal, half human would also seem to get old eventually – audiences aren’t meant to be surprised anymore by the monstrous warnings of combining man and beast for one’s own gain. Nonetheless, The Island of Dr. Moreau remains a relevant conversation starter in today’s era of cloning, stem cells, and healthcare debates, and this well done adventure with fine performances is worth a fresh look.