Crossbreed 'em and Weep

Dr. Moreau dies on the slab

I'm not saying that the patriarchal, authoritarian image of the Almighty--God as cosmic high school principal--isn't worthy of indictment. I'm only saying that there could be few swifter ways to muck up Dr. Moreau, a story which already has all the latent symbolic potential one could ask for, than by using that focus. The film turns the story from a fable into a parable, and this upping of the ante may be what deflated the star's acting.

Brando's failure is strongly redolent of indifference; the failure of director Frankenheimer is more ambitious and far more interesting. Frankenheimer has never really come close to topping his nutty 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, but he's rarely been dull in the effort.

He has already made a monster picture with a cautionary theme, the 1979 Prophecy. While it's an appallingly bad film, it's also a morbidly fascinating one because of Frankenheimer's open experimentation with shocker techniques. He tried to jolt us by using our own instincts as movie viewers. He built up suspense way past where it could be sustained, let it droop and then made the monster (a laughable mutant bear) rear up at the least dramatic moment. It didn't work, exactly, but it illustrated how ingrained the typical rhythms of movie suspense are.

With Dr. Moreau, Frankenheimer is tinkering along the same lines, but, applied to less silly material, the effect is more damaging. There's no doubt that Frankenheimer still can frame a shot, move his camera beautifully and time a jolt. But he isn't able to keep the narrative properly clear and tense, which is essential in this sort of story, especially if one is taking a risk on religious allegory.

This Dr. Moreau actually begins pretty well, with lots of good cryptic dialogue between Val Kilmer, as Montgomery, and David Thewlis as Edward Douglas (the name "Prendick" never has sounded right for a movie hero). Frankenheimer builds up quite a head of creepy steam, but he releases it all at once, when Edward intrudes in the laboratory and sees the whole truth revealed--Frankenheimer shows his hand way too early, and thereafter, the film never works up another chill, despite much violence. The mystery of Stan Winston's monster makeup is squandered, even on the faces of good actors like Temuera Morrison and Ron Perlman and Marco Hofschneider.

The plot grows more and more muddled, and it begins to feel as if the scenes we're seeing could be shuffled around freely without making much difference. Later, we begin to feel that some connective scenes may be missing, but that we'd just as soon not bother with them.

The analogy is almost too obvious, yet it fits too well to pass up: What Frankenheimer tries to do to the horror genre is an aesthetic version of the hurry-up evolution that Moreau forces on his subjects--the attempt to twist a primitive, but perfectly viable, form into one more sophisticated, with painful and unpleasant results.

Two of the actors transcend the mess. One is Thewlis, who reportedly replaced Rob Morrow in the role. Morrow isn't likely to regret his absence from this film, but Thewlis is probably better than Morrow would have been--more roughhewn, less like an ingenue, more like a real guy.

The other gem in the cast is Fairuza Balk as, you guessed it, the Panther Woman--predictably, she's the element that this Dr. Moreau borrows from the earlier film versions. Balk, who's become a really interesting young actress, somehow manages to avoid campiness and generate sympathy. Her relationship with Thewlis might have shaken the picture to life, if it weren't presented in such a shapeless, truncated manner.

As for Kilmer, he's adequate, perhaps a little better when he deadpans lines like "There's a lot of unstable phenomena out there, Eddie." But he has only one truly memorable moment. Near the end, while everything (including Frankenheimer's control of the material) is going to pot around him, Montgomery dons Moreau drag, and Kilmer is allowed to parody Brando for a few lines. He's hilariously acute, but it's more than that--Brando seems more fully present in Kilmer's impersonation than he is in all of his own performance.

This, better than anything, sums up what's wrong with Frankenheimer's Dr. Moreau. Potentially the most exciting element, Brando's presence, turns out to be entirely irrelevant. It isn't Moreau's island; he just lives there. On Laughton's Island of Lost Souls, there's no doubt who's in charge, no doubt of the source of evil. That film, by the way, is available on MCA/Universal home video, and is highly recommended.

The Island of Dr. Moreau:
Directed by John Frankenheimer; with Marlon Brando, David Thewlis, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Ron Perlman and Temuera Morrison.


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