The Film: 3/5
“Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
Just as they in the 1960's with the works of Edgar Allen Poe, American-International Pictures got a lot of mileage out of H.G. Wells' classic science fiction novels in the late 70's. They also did the same for some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' best-known adventure yarns, but that's another story. In 1977, the exploitation-friendly studio that helped to make Roger Corman a legend mounted a lavish, star-studded adaptation of one of Wells' best and most accessible tales, The Island of Dr. Moreau, which the author himself once referred to as "an exercise in youthful blasphemy". The last time the book was brought to the screen, the result was Erle C. Kenton's mesmerizing 1932 horror masterpiece Island of Lost Souls, featuring Charles Laughton in one of his best performances as Wells' brilliant but deranged scientist Dr. Paul Moreau.
The A.I.P. version of Island, helmed by the capable pro Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, The Final Countdown), remains mostly true to the spirit of the original novel as it takes great liberties with the narrative in order to mold into a satisfying adventure flick for kids and adults alike that won't inspire the former to start asking the latter those dreaded big questions about life, the universe, and everything. The legendary Burt Lancaster took the title role of the not-so-good doctor, and though he does fine in the role he's not so much Lancaster playing Moreau as he is Lancaster playing Lancaster playing Moreau. It's impossible for the man to have ever given a bad performance, but he never manages to convey the madness and pretention to play God that possessed the character as Wells envisioned. Screenwriters John Herman Shaner and Al Ramrus (Goin' South) changed Edward Prendick, the scientific-minded Englishman and reluctant hero of the novel, into handsome Andrew Braddock (Michael York), a proactive British sailor and engineer who ends up shipwrecked on Moreau's island after the vessel he was serving on sank during a spectacular storm.
Upon reaching the island, Braddock is welcomed with open arms by the charming doctor and his cynical assistant Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and is invited to stay in their main compound until a supply ship arrives provided he obey Moreau's rules. At the top of the list....never leave the grounds and venture into the surrounding jungle after night falls. Braddock's curiosity about the nature of Moreau's work is briefly forgotten when he falls in love with Maria (Barbara Carrera), the doctor's adopted daughter. Soon he discovers that the strange sounds he has been hearing and the animals that hunt him whenever he wanders into the jungle are part of an obsession of Moreau's to evolve men from beasts. Several of his successful test subjects have formed their own little community in a nearby cave where their animalistic tendencies are kept in check by "the Law", and those who dare to break the Law are punished with a trip to Moreau's laboratory, the House of Pain.
So far, so faithful to the source material. Where Taylor's begins to deviate from the Wells novel is the third act, which is set up when Braddock becomes the doctor's latest subject. The gruesome vivisections that Moreau used in his experiments as they happened in the book undergo a PG-safe transformation into a simple serum that the scientist has to administer to his subjects in order to further their evolution. Braddock, for fear of turning into another of the doctor's Beast-Men (and I'm not talking about the family of Skeletor's top dog henchman), struggles to retain his humanity and plots to escape the island with Maria. This naturally leads to dissent, violence, and ruin, but at least we don't have to watch Val Kilmer break out the lousiest Brando impression in the history of the universe.
Richard Stanley could have made the definitely screen adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau had he been left alone to make the film as he envisioned it, but until he is allowed to realize that vision the 1932 film remains the best version of H.G. Wells' novel to hit the screen. Nestled between the Erle C. Kenton feature and the disastrous 1996 turkey that shoveled the last pile of dirt on Marlon Brando's acting career, the A.I.P treatment of Moreau isn't great filmmaking, but it's pretty good fun all the same. What Taylor's film chooses not to retain from the novel is its chilling and (even to this day) relevant subtext about how there isn't much that separates human beings from animals, and having Braddock risk becoming another of Moreau's upright-walking creations was created merely to add some tension to the finale. But this is a movie meant to entertain, not enlighten, and though Taylor and cinematographer Gerry Fisher (Highlander) keep the action of the third act paced and photographed beautifully, Wells' ending still packs the greater emotional and intellectual punch.
Michael York, never missing an opportunity to act without his shirt on, makes for a fine romantic hero, but lacks the human qualities that made Prendick a memorable protagonist. York is granted ++a single wonderful acting moment following his transformation that might lead you to wonder how much more haunting and dramatic Taylor's adaptation would have been if there had been more like it. Nigel Davenport (Phase IV) is in typical top form as the world-weary Montgomery, whose addiction to strong alcohol has failed to dull his empathy for the human race and leads to a powerful moment of conflict between him and Lancaster. Lovely as ever, Barbara Carrera plays her role of Maria quite well even though she is only really here to serve as eye candy for the impressionable kids in the audience and to provide Braddock with a willing love interest. Richard Basehart (La Strada, Being There) brings great authority and wisdom to the role of Wells' Sayer of the Law, the meatiest character of the Beast-Men.
Though the special make-up effects used to bring the human-animal hybrid creatures to life have not aged well, they must have been pretty great for their time thanks to the tireless efforts of the crew lead by John Chambers (best known as the genius who created the groundbreaking make-up for the Planet of the Apes movies, not to mention working on the original Star Trek television series) and including Tom Burman (The Beast Within). Viewed in close-up, the creature effects can often be unnerving. The orchestral score composed by Laurence Rosenthal (Who'll Stop the Rain) can be blaring and bombastic during the action sequences, but it can also be pleasantly melodic during the quieter scenes and is often reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack for the original Planet of the Apes. Production designer Philip M. Jefferies (An Officer and a Gentleman)'s crowning achievement is the sparse compound occupied by Moreau and the other human characters, but he also makes fine use of the tropical St. Croix locations which ooze natural beauty.
Since MGM owns the rights to the A.I.P. Island of Dr. Moreau, the high-definition transfer was likely sourced from a restored print the studio prepared for their HD cable channel. It's in pretty solid shape and framed in the original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, boasting a fine coating of natural grain and little permanent damage to the elements. The color palette favors warm browns and lush, striking greens perfectly befitting the film's location. The only audio option is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, but it's a strong track as it replicates the original mono sound mix from the theatrical exhibition with balanced volume levels and a lack of distortion. Every element of the soundtrack, from the quasi-literate dialogue to the Rosenthal score, blends together into a cohesive whole that suits the movie perfectly. English subtitles have also been included.
Kino had to dig deep in the MGM archives for any supplemental material, and all they could come up with is the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), an extended trailer in pretty rough shape that was probably screened before exhibitors back in the day (6 minutes), and a single still photo from the alternate broadcast television version finale.
The 1977 film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau does a fine job of distilling the classic H.G. Wells into a suitable entertainment for most age demographics and comfortably occupies a middle ground between hallowed classic and outright disaster. It's definitely the best of American-International Pictures' trilogy of Wells adaptations (not a difficult title to earn when your competition is Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants), and Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release does right by this fast-paced flick that makes for a rousing watch on a slow weekend afternoon.