Crossbreed 'em and Weep
H.G. Wells' brusquely brief novel The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of the kinkiest of all classic horror tales. The likably flawed narrator/hero, Edward Prendick, finds himself stranded on the title island, where he is the guest of Moreau, a researcher, and his tippling associate Montgomery, a disgraced medical student. This jolly pair presides over misshapen, bestial-looking islanders who bow before Moreau as before a god, reciting a catechism in which they eschew animal behavior: "Not to eat flesh, nor fish; that is the law. Are we not men? Not to claw bark of trees; that is the law. Are we not men?"
A good question, Edward soon realizes. The islanders indeed are not men made bestial by Moreau's experiments; rather, more horribly, they are animals made quasi-human through the Doc's expertise at vivisection. The kinkiness rises from Moreau's awful lack of motive. Of all the mad scientists in fiction, he's surely the most dissolute--he's not driven by a vision of Utopia, not even by a comfortingly coherent obsession like power, but merely by idle curiosity.
Nothing is that simple in John Frankenheimer's current film version of the story, and nothing is that effective, either. Frankenheimer had a great star, a good cast, and his own formidable talent--everything he needed, except luck and good sense, to make a compelling picture. But he tried to deepen and broaden the meanings of this blunt melodrama to make it complex. He succeeded, after a fashion--it's a complexly bad movie, a movie that misfires so thoroughly that it's almost fascinating.
Frankenheimer's version of The Island of Dr. Moreau is not the first filming of the material, nor the second. In Paramount's 1933 precode wonder Island of Lost Souls, Charles Laughton played Moreau as a whip-cracking sadist, and probably a voyeur as well--rolling his eyes, pursing his lips, giggling naughtily at his own sick jokes. As in Wells' other works, there is, to a filmmaker, a troublesome lack of sex in Dr. Moreau; The '33 film solved this problem neatly with the addition of a sexy Panther Woman in whose sexual development Laughton's Moreau takes a leering interest.
Laughton's performance, with that of Bela Lugosi--in a small but unforgettable role as the Priest of the beast/men--and the sultry exoticism of Kathleen Burke's Panther Woman, combined with Erle C. Kenton's brilliant use of Catalina Island locations to give the film one of the most sheerly perverse atmospheres ever. It's shocking and piteous, but it has little of the romantic fairy-tale poignancy of Frankenstein, Dracula or The Wolf Man--it carries the formaldehyde reek of pitiless science. In its initial release, the film was banned in the U.K. and in the American Midwest, and while its power is undisputed, it may be the least fondly remembered of the great horror movies.
Laughton's performance is indelible, yet in Marlon Brando the new film had a star who might have come up with something so unexpected that he'd prove a worthy successor (Laughton's range was narrower, but in some respects the two men's styles are not so dissimilar). The most disappointing aspect of Frankenheimer's version--and it has no shortage of disappointing aspects--is Brando's uninspired performance as Moreau. The actor has shown several times over the last decade or so that even swamped by obesity he's a magnificent artist, and even a bad film can become an event when he's the star.
Not this time. He makes a suitably bizarre entrance--borne in on a litter, draped in mosquito netting, swathed in white cloth, his face covered with pale sunscreen, he looks like a mix of his Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and Shelley Winters as an avant-garde Pope. He beams and makes beatific gestures at his monstrous subjects, and we're primed for his dazzling weirdness. None is forthcoming. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Brando isn't interested. He has none of Laughton's lewd gusto, or even the earnest intensity that Burt Lancaster gave the part in the respectable 1977 Dr. Moreau. I certainly didn't expect to hear myself proclaiming Marlon Brando outdone by Burt Lancaster.
Brando's flaccid performance probably stems from the way his role has been conceived by screenwriters Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson. Their script is a fairly literate piece of work, more faithful to Wells' plot than either of the earlier films, even though it's updated. But it guts Moreau of his ghastly nonchalance toward the pain of his victims. He's given the dullest of mad-scientist motives, the wish to improve the species. As Torquemada in 1992's Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, Brando wasn't permitted any inquisitional monkeyshines; here his sadism is likewise muted.
Stanley and Hutchinson seem, regrettably, to have approached the story as an allegory indicting the image of a patriarchal God who despises the animal side of man--hence the irony of Moreau as an old-style God the Father, tut-tutting and benignly preaching civility to his baffled beast/men, while at the same time he tortures them into submission with electrical shocks.
But using a genetic bully as God the Father skews the allegory in directions that Stanley and Hutchinson and Frankenheimer may not have intended. Life on Moreau's island is pretty horrible while he and the law hold sway, but after he's out of the picture--after the shock implants have been pulled out--it gets even worse. The film starts out making us feel for the torments which Moreau's creatures have been put through, then ends by suggesting that without his authoritarian influence, chaos really would reign. Given the folly of creating them in the first place, he shocked them for their own good. Pat Buchanan might approve of the message, but it seems unlikely that it was what the filmmakers were after.
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.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.