Editor’s Note: The Island of Dr. Moreau was released on DVD from Olive Films on August 29, 2017.
H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the late-1800s science fiction classic that posits animals can be transformed into humans, seems now to be a quaint, if horrifying, exploration of humanity. Its publication, however, came during a time when surgeons’ use of vivisection — the broad term for experimental surgery without anesthesia — was a major cultural concern. Many doctors and scientists insisted that vivisection of animals was required if any progress was to be made in the field of medicine, while others decried the cruelty of these experiments and warned that soon humans would replace animals on the operating tables of sadistic doctors.
The fictional Dr. Moreau was one of those doctors, chased out of all reputable medical establishments and forced to live on a deserted island where he could carry out his experiments in peace. It seems impossible to fully divorce the history and politics of vivisection from the story, but the 1977 American International Pictures film The Island of Dr. Moreau tries its hardest.
Moreau, now a well-meaning research scientist played by the lovably gruff Burt Lancaster, has settled in what appears to be an abandoned plantation, accompanied by his Australian assistant Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and the impossibly beautiful Maria (Barbara Carrera). When the shipwrecked Andrew Braddock (Michael York) washes ashore, he’s tended to and treated well, but immediately alarmed by the presence of odd-looking servants and the screams of unidentified animals in the night.
Why they scream is a bit of a mystery, not just to Braddock but us in the audience. Someone involved in production decided to change Moreau’s experiments from vivisection to a vague injection that made changes on a cellular, and assumedly genetic, level. This allows the questions of humanity, cruelty and medical necessity to be the focus without the sociopolitical baggage that comes along with both vivisection and eugenics, the latter only meriting a brief mention in an early scene. This change cuts the melodrama and the horror of the original story by half, though that’s not entirely a bad thing.
In AIP terms, The Island of Dr. Moreau was a pretty classy flick. Part of the studio’s mid-1970s H.G. Wells series, this adaptation featured several well-regarded names in the biz, and took its subject matter seriously. The problem — though this reviewer would submit that it’s not as much of a problem as often claimed — is that a mad doctor trying to turn animals into humans by making mere physiological changes isn’t really a serious topic. Turning that subject into a film, especially one that requires humans to wear lots of Fun Fur and plastic face bits, adds even more camp to an already campy plot.
Throughout most of its runtime, Moreau sidesteps the psychological changes that would be expected of any creature going through such a traumatic transformation. By the finale, however, both the film and the doctor embraces this idea, and the result is a series of scenes between Moreau and Braddock which are affecting, even moving. Seems the good Dr. Moreau, once concerned with saving humanity, very easily turns into the kind of man willing to destroy it.
Critic Vincent Canby seemed charmed by the movie’s “mostly clever foolishness,” deeming The Island of Dr. Moreau the perfect Saturday night movie “that needn’t be ashamed to come out the rest of the week.” When it comes to a movie like Moreau, you’re not looking for a lecture or life-changing experience. You’re looking for fun, and despite a bit of laggy second act, Moreau is plenty of fun. Lancaster, Carrera and York take their roles seriously, but it’s Richard Basehart as the Sayer of the Law — the Bela Lugosi role in the 1932 version of the film — whose earnest portrayal is the most impressive. Nigel Davenport is also tremendous and woefully underused, bringing much-needed emotion to a film that has a curious lack of it.
The makeup by John Chambers of Planet of the Apes fame is frequently done well, but there are times when the lack of budget betrays his talent. More impressive is the set, built in the rain forest of St. Croix which, in the capable hands of cinematographer Gerry Fisher, is lovely and eerie and wholly convincing. Less lovely is the treatment of Moreau’s menagerie, many of which much surely have been hurt (or worse) during the completely psychotic finale. If it’s any consolation, Lancaster doesn’t look to have gotten out of that finale unscathed, either.
The Island of Dr. Moreau has been released by Olive Films on DVD that comes with audio commentary by Jeff Belanger and Dr. Dreck, plus an essay by Gorman Beauchamp.