The rules are written in the stone. Break the rules and you get no bones. All you get is ridicule, laughter, and a trip to the house of pain!
The Island of Dr. Moreau is a throwback film in a time when futurism was running rampant. The biggest sci-fi film (ever!) was still in theaters and here comes a period piece about moral and ethical responsibilities of scientists. It’s not your normal summer entertainment this week on Sci-Fi Saturdays.
The trailer starts at the start it appears. Michael York has escaped the futureworld of Logan’s Run and is shipwrecked on an island. It belongs to Burt Lancaster who introduces himself. It sets up a bizarre civilization of creatures living in the jungles of the island. These animal-men live in the caves and jungles on the island, and York is starting to turn into one of them. The “hum-animals” then appear to burn down the doctors lab, in between lots of running and jumping and fighting tigers!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Shipwrecked, Andrew Braddock (Michael York) washes up on the shore of a Pacific island, 1,000 miles from any other place, with one other survivor of his boat. They make it into the jungle, and while Braddock searches for water the other man is attacked by wild beasts. Braddock, disoriented from being adrift for 17 days falls into a tiger trap and awakens four days later in the compound of Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster).
Braddock is introduced to Montgomery (Nigel Davenport), a mercenary that works as Moreau’s right-hand man and muscle, M’ling (Nick Cravat, working with Lancaster for his final film), who is a deformed servant, and Maria (Barbara Carrera), a lovely woman that Moreau saved before coming to the island. Moreau then warns Braddock he must never leave the compound after dark due to wild animals in the area.
After dinner that evening, Braddock discovers Moreau’s library, trying to get a better idea of who his host actually is. Moreau, he discovers is from Boston where “his work was severely criticized by Academicians, as being highly speculative.” He is fascinated with the question of genetic destiny and why cells can never break free from their enslavement. The next day Braddock encounters a strange creature in the jungle as well as seeing Montgomery and Moreau restraining a humanoid beast. Investigating further he finds the doctor’s laboratory where Moreau explains about his experiments hybridizing animals with human tissue and serum.
That evening Maria comes to Braddock’s room and they have sex. The next day, anguished by Moreau’s apparently inhumane treatment of one of his creatures, Braddock sets off to find the source of the wild howls in the jungle. He discovers a cave made home to half a dozen mutated beasts. Attacked by the Lion-Man, Braddock is saved when Moreau and Montgomery come in. The Sayer of the Law (Richard Basehart) speaks for the hum-animals, reminding them all that they must not spill blood, and to break the law means a trip to the house of pain, which is Moreau’s lab.
Braddock observes the Bull-Man kill a tiger, and as such be sentenced to the house of pain. But he runs away, having sustained injuries. Braddock takes pity on the creature and kills it rather than see it forced to endure punishment. The other creatures are shocked that a peer of Moreau’s would kill. Moreau captures Braddock, injecting him with a serum before he can escape the island. Moreau intends to get a narrative of the changes taking place from him. Montgomery objects to this process so Moreau kills him.
The beasts, now sure that Moreau too has broken the law in killing Montgomery, attack the compound, burning it to the ground and killing Moreau in the process. The animals Moreau kept are let loose and they kill the hybrid creatures. Braddock manages to hang on to most of his humanity, and manages to escape in the repaired lifeboat with Maria. They kill the Bear-Man as he comes for the boat. After some time, Braddock has reverted to human form and Maria is seen briefly with animal eyes just as they are about to be rescued by a passing ship.
“How does a cell become enslaved to a form, to a destiny, it can never change? Can we change that destiny?” – Dr. Moreau
History in the Making
As The Island of Dr. Moreau started, I saw the AIP Logo at the beginning of the film, and remembered my quote from The Food of the Gods article: “just due to the fact that a sci-fi or horror film came from AIP didn’t necessarily mean it was a turkey–but there was a good chance that it was.” But, this is an adaptation of an HG Wells story, I thought. So was The Food of the Gods, I remembered. Burt Lancaster. Michael York. Barbara Carrera. This film has big stars of the time. Not unknowns and ‘has-beens.’ And that’s the fallacy of this film. It seems to have a lot going for it, but for some reason it comes off flat and shallow.
Maybe it’s the fact that following a look at Star Wars, any other film would pale by comparison. Being released only two months after the space-epic, Moreau would not have benefitted from any of Star Wars’s success, except perhaps marketing; in which people trying to see the space movie would be turned away due to sold-out crowds and decide to see this film. It did have the reputation of HG Wells, Burt Lancaster, and Michael York, who was coming off a successful sci-fi film from the previous summer called Logan’s Run.
This was the second of three filmed adaptations of Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” It was first brought to the screen 45-years earlier in 1932 as The Island of Lost Souls, starring Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau, and Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. That version is still much acclaimed. It was adapted a third time in 1996 to less than favorable reviews, even though it starred Marlon Brando in the titular role, and Val Kilmer as Montgomery. Seemingly adaptations of the source material have gotten worse and worse over the last 90 years. And no version has been tried since the ill-fated 1996 one.
The 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau clocks in at a little over 90 minutes. Being that it’s more horror film than it is sci-fi (more on that in a minute), that’s a little long. Classically horror films are best suited to an 80-90 minute runtime. This allows the setup, enough time for frights, the denouement, and credits. Additionally Wells’s novel is less than a 200 page book, which is pretty short for adapting as a feature-length film. The film fails as it overly pads the source material in order to meet a longer than normal running time, attempting to be something more than just a mad scientist horror film.
As with other classic adaptations of late 19th Century/early 20th Century science-fiction work, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Center of the Earth, it’s harder to justify them to a modern sensibility as science-fiction. They have a lot of fantasy and adventure elements, but the sci-fi aspect is almost no longer “fiction.” As with Wells’s The Invisible Man, the story is more about mad science and horror than themes that audiences currently associate with science-fiction. It’s possible that the film would have benefitted from a modern setting, rather than the early 1900s. But then again, the Brando version tried that and failed.
The biggest advent for genre film that Moreau accomplished is the makeup effects by a young Tom Burman. Burman, who was an apprentice to John Chambers on the original Planet of the Apes would go on to create some of the most iconic characters in the 1980s including Teen Wolf, and Sloth from The Goonies. He specialized in special character and horror makeup, but his work on the man-beasts of Dr. Moreau is particularly noteworthy. The makeup effects are extremely reminiscent of the Orangutan, Gorilla, and Chimpanzee appliances from a decade previous, but include all the modern advances in sculpting and mold making that comes with time. Director Don Taylor chose to focus on many of these characters in close-ups, which held up surprisingly well.
According to Wikipedia, the original novel was written at a time (1896) when anti-vivisection groups were protesting about the cruelty of such procedures. Wells took those real-world ideas, as many science-fiction authors do, and extrapolated them into something darker and scarier. The film chooses to remain truthful to this timeframe, and showcases an exiled doctor that has decided to dally in the weird medical realms that no one else dare. He wants to unlock cells from their destiny and prevent them from being enslaved. If he could unlock that mystery of life, then the world is at his mercy.
Moreau never goes that deep into the megalomania that audiences see in other mad-scientist films, but his goal is clear. He is playing God, creating human/animal hybrids to control. Moreau institutes a series of rules for the beasts to follow, the paramount one being “no spill blood.” That is the law, and the Sayer of The Law repeats it often throughout the film. To the hybrids mind, there is no level of grey regarding these laws. They are absolute, and are all they know of the human world. In order to become more than they are, they must follow the rules. When they see Braddock, and later Moreau, break the law they cannot reconcile the disparity and revert to something worse than the creatures they were initially.
What makes someone human, and what separates man from animal? These are the central questions the film tries to answer. Morality and ethics are the main arguments, along with reason, but there’s more. Moreau understands right from wrong, judging by the laws he has set forth to the beasts. Not to walk on all fours. Not to eat flesh. Not to shed blood. Morally he has set up a society that exceeds his own “weaknesses of the flesh.” Yet, ethically he causes suffering and pain with these creatures. Braddock pities the Bull-Man and quickly puts him out of his misery, as an easing of the pain it’s feeling. He doesn’t think about the fact that he is killing, but instead he is providing a mercy. The beasts cannot separate these complex justifications. Their lives have existed on the basic tenets of instinct forever. If they hunger, they eat. If thirsty, they drink. The complexities of humanity escape their grasp, though they continue to strive to be human. So say we all.
The Science in The Fiction
In terms of sci-fi themes, The Island of Dr. Moreau shows the opposite side of the story often filmed. Usually humanity is on the side of the beasts, with an alien intelligence coming and trying to elevate us to a better place. Humanity is the luddite, and the supreme beings will enlighten us. It’s happened in The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it will happen later in 1977 with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Instead, Moreau is the supreme intelligence attempting to lift the animals up to a greater purpose. There’s a reason that Star Trek had the Prime Directive, against interfering with any pre-Warp civilization. Because for all the good intentions, there’s no telling what may go wrong.
Since the original story was written scientists have made discoveries that certain interspecies hybrids or breeding would be incompatible with humans. So having a human get the healing powers of a lizard, or the eyesight of a hawk are still only within the realms of science-fiction. The film also makes a point to show that without constant treatments of the serum, the hybrids will begin to revert back to their natural state. Sci-fi stories of the late 70s and 80s would shift to hybridizing humans with machines. Cyborgs, androids, and the like become the new horror elements born solely out of sci-fi.
The Final Frontier
The Island of Dr. Moreau has been an influential story during it’s 125 years. Besides the three films adaptations discussed here, different bands have utilized homages to the story of inhumanity. Southern California rock-band Oingo Boingo, led by Danny Elfman, had a song called “No Spill Blood” from their 1983 album Good For Your Soul. It spoke of the rules, such as “no spill blood,” and “to walk on four legs breaks the law.” It reminds the listener that it’s off to “the house of pain” if they break the rules. New Wave band Devo named their first album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! after the phrase the Sayer of the Law used. And hip-hop band House of Pain’s name was another direct homage to the story.
The story was also a popular one in comic books. Marvel Comics created a one-issue adaptation of the film/book by Doug Moench and Larry Hama in late 1977 including some behind the scenes photos and tales from the film’s location in St. Croix. A 2002 DC Elseworld’s comic called JLA: The Island of Dr. Moreau told a similar story with the cast of the Justice League, created by Roy Thomas and Steve Pugh. And most recently a two-issue adaptation of the book was created for IDW Publishing by Ted Adams and Gabriel Rodriguez, that gender-swapped Andrew Braddock as Ellie Prendick, making interesting social commentary with a woman in the lead role.
Overall, the film completes a cycle of modern retellings of HG Wells’s most famous stories including The War of The Worlds, and The Time Machine. It would be more than a decade until another adaptation of The Invisible Man would be told, and almost 30 years until The Time Machine was reimagined. All the actors provide adequate performances including Richard Basehart who was in his mid-60s layered under many prosthetics, but they can’t overcome the repetitive and thinly-layered story that is The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.