Ed. note- As with all entries in Opening the Vaults, I reviewed this for my last gig. When I reread that piece recently, I noticed it wasn’t so much a review as a dissertation on many ideas in both the movie and Wells’ novel. And it gave away a lot of the plot. I wrote this new review from scratch, and it’s much better for it.- P.F.
When I was a kid, Don Taylor’s THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is one of the films that cemented me as a horror fan. In the early 80s, it would show up on late night television practically every weekend (or so it seems), and long after midnight I’d watch Michael York try to survive an entire island of manimals, and an insane Dr. Moreau. The jungle island was a terrifying world of wonder, home to wild experiments, wilder man-beasts, and the Law. I’d be lying if I told you it was particularly scary when I watched it recently. But I’d also be lying if I told you it doesn’t still have its merits.
The movie begins with a raft lost at sea. Parched and exhausted, Englishman Andrew Braddock washes ashore a jungle island. After a tense trip through the foliage, he finds himself in the presence of Dr. Moreau, an exiled scientist whose experiments in vivisection landed him on this island. Along with the doctor are rough-edged Montgomery, and the beautiful Maria. Moreau tells Braddock not to go off the compound at night, as there are dangers out there in the shadows. Braddock eventually wanders off and finds a society of man-beasts, creations of Moreau’s that follow The Law, or return to the “House of Pain,” Moreau’s laboratory, a place they greatly fear.
Taylor’s film does a solid job with H.G. Wells’ source material. The novel’s broader stroke involves Moreau as God by way of surgeon, an intellectual examination of the mad scientist. Moreau is tinkering not just with creation of life, but the sociopolitical ramifications that come from it. The manimals, led by the Sayer of the Law, are his avowed worshippers, childlike creatures who quake at the idea of returning to Moreau’s lab. Dropped into the middle of all this, Braddock wants to flee back to the sanctity of Great Britain, where cooler, potentially saner heads prevail. Taylor and his screenwriters get all this right. Scenes in the manimals’ cave focus on what a warped version of the concept of “society” that Moreau runs. Taylor uses plenty of POV shots through the jungle, keeping the viewer off guard; it’s especially effective earlier in the film, before he reveals Moreau’s creatures, when as a kid I had no idea what was out there. His camera makes full use of how beautiful the island is, which all the more contrasts exactly how horrifying and warped Moreau’s creations and philosophies are.
Taylor also gets some mileage out of decent actors. York plays Braddock as confused, a man without all the information and more disturbed as he collects more pieces to the puzzle. A restrained Burt Lancaster plays Moreau with an authority in his eye, and a whip in his hand, but peels back the lunacy perhaps a bit too much. Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando went way too far in the other direction, but Lancaster is a bit too staid. He plays Moreau as a man who teeters just on the edge of insanity, instead of being way over it. He may have been better suited playing the role as he did the lead in ELMER GANTRY.
X Marks the Oscar: John Chambers, who designed the manimals, won an honorary Oscar for his ape designs on 1968’s PLANET OF THE APES. Burt Lancaster won Best Actor for playing Elmer Gantry, and was nominated 3 other times. Pretty impressive credentials for a B-movie creature feature.
Cast between the two is Barbara Carrera’s Maria, a character wholly absent from the novel (and a holdover from the Laughton film, which carries over to the Brando version. Interesting that all three films decided the plot wouldn’t sell without a love interests). Carrera was a gorgeous woman, so much so that she did a Playboy spread naked with guys dressed up as manimals. She’s very sexy in this flick, and given that Braddock is stuck on an island with dudes and man-beasts, it’s only natural they develop a romance. As for her acting, like the rest she’s game and doesn’t embarrass herself. As the Sayer of the Law, vet character actor Richard Basehart brings a little more enlightenment and authority that separates him from the other manimals, as if he’s the brightest of the dumb dogs among the pack.
The manimals are the one thing that weigh down the flick. They were state-of-the-art and even more importantly, scary when I was 11, especially when it came on Channel 7 at 2 a.m. But given how far makeup effects have come, they look silly now. Taylor does a lot of quick cuts and uses misdirection well, especially in the last few minutes, but once the camera settles in on them… they’re kind of cuddly looking. If THE OMEN is exemplary of a film that still scares me every time I watch, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU works quite the opposite. Watching now, I have to put myself actively back in the frame of mind of Little Phillie for the flick to work. I can do the trick, but for a newcomer, this flick wouldn’t be scary at all. If I showed it to my 11-year-old nephew, I guarantee he wouldn’t be hiding behind a pillow. Even if it were 2 a.m.
If I’m not scared by it, at the least I’m still entertained by THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. It’s a solid B-movie creature feature that brings me back to a time when staying up to watch a horror movie at 2 a.m. was new to me. It also introduced me to H.G. Wells, and although his novel is flawed, it’s still my favorite of his works. Most importantly, it’s one of those flicks that turned me into a horror fan. For that, and the fact that I walk on two legs, I am eternally grateful.