HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977) -- DVD Review by Porfle

I like it when a movie I was totally unimpressed with on first viewing turns out to be much better upon later reappraisal.  If that second viewing comes forty years later, all the better.

I saw THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (Olive Films) when it was released in 1977 and found it rather pedestrian and even sub-par.  Now it seems almost classic in stature somehow--the adaptation seems good although I've not read the original H.G. Wells novel in several decades, the performances, production values, and makeup are fine, and the direction by Don Taylor, a prolific TV director whose screen credits include RIDE THE WILD SURF, EVERYTHING'S DUCKY, and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, is nowhere near as artless as I first believed.  (The lighting in the interiors is exquisite.)

In fact, Taylor establishes a strong mood from the first moments shipwrecked sailor Braddock (Michael York) finds himself on the secluded island of Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster).  Moreau's compound, including a plantation house that seemed to have been dropped right in the middle of the jungle, is like an oasis of strained civility surrounded by a beast-filled jungle that could be a manifestation of his own dark id.

Braddock becomes enchanted by the beautiful Maria (Barbara Carrera), an exotic woman Moreau's gruff foreman Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) describes as belonging to the doctor although she shows a marked interest in young Braddock.  But it's the doctor's strange experiments that Braddock soon comes to dread--a twisted perversion of scientific endeavor involving the artificial evolution of wild animals into horrific animal/human hybrids, or "humanimals."

These creatures are what place the film into classic "monster movie" territory, a menagerie of fascinating beasts courtesy of 70s makeup masters John Chambers and Tom Burman.  They include the great Richard Basehart as "The Lawgiver", who keeps Moreau's strict commandments against killing or eating flesh but becomes confused when he sees Moreau himself break them, which leads to the film's fiery animal vs. humans revolt.

Lancaster plays Moreau with quiet authority, sans the usual villainy, resulting in an interestingly conflicted character. York gets to emote to his heart's content and is especially good when Moreau makes him the unwilling subject in an experiment on human-to-animal regression.  Nigel Davenport is fine as the gruff foreman who may be on Braddock's side, as is Barbara Carrera in a role seemingly tailor-made for her.  

The DVD from Olive Films is in 1.85:1 widescreen with mono sound and optional English subtitles.  Extras include a commentary by paranormal author Jeff Belanger and horror host Dr. Dreck, a trailer, and an essay by Gorman Beauchamp entitled "The Island of Dr. Moreau as Theological Grotesque."  (This can also be found in the disc's illustrated booklet.)

I can't compare this with the Charles Laughton original since I haven't seen it for many years, but on its own, 1977's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is a terrific monster flick that mixes interesting philosophical ideas with some perversely delightful elements of the grotesque.

Buy it at Olive Films



Mark Onspaugh said...

As a fan of makeup efx, I loved the humanimals in this film - later, I actually took classes with Tom Burman, who was friendly, knowledgeable and had great stories. One of my favorite scenes is where Braddock is turning into a sort of Neanderthal, and Moreau is trying to get him to let go - to go completely bestial... Braddock recalls sledding with his little brother - his delight and tears ("I thought I had forgotten that") was, to me, a wonderful symbol of the resilience of the human spirit. I remember reading that, originally, instead of just showing her starting to revert, Maria was supposed to have given birth to Braddock's child - a kitten. I guess test audiences didn't buy that. Incidentally, of the three versions of Wells' story, this is my favorite. (I know that is blasphemy, that the Laughton/Lugosi version is "king," but this one was/is more meaningful to me.

Porfle Popnecker said...

Great comment, thanks!