Fate hasn’t been kind to the various attempts Hollywood has made to realise H.G. Wells’ epic novel of science run amok and although cinema’s first english language punt at the story (1932’s Island Of Lost Souls) is actually pretty good, the infamous 1996 version was such an unmitigated disaster they actually made a fucking documentary about it. However, in 1977 a version was made that turned Planet Of The Apes’ make up legend John Chambers loose on a world of savage “Humanimals” where a man of science has chosen to play God and desided to causually doodle with the evolution of such creatures such as hyenas, bulls and wild boars the way a child screws around with play-dough.
With film distributor American International Pictures (AIP) betting big on Wells’ work at the time, Moreau was the second adaptation of a trilogy of releases based on the author’s work with Food Of The Gods coming in ’76 (worthy, if nothing else but for a truly jaw dropping giant chicken attack) and Empire Of The Ants landing third in ’77 (Joan Collins getting bugged by bugs) and judged by those standards alone, I guess it ain’t bad. However, in reality the film seemed to lack some of that winning animal magnetism…
Shipwreck victim Andrew Braddock washes ashore on a mysterious island (although to be fair, all islands are mysterious if you don’t know where you are) and is nursed back to health by the enigmatic Dr. Paul Moreau, a geneticist who has chosen to live in exile because of his scientific beliefs. Sharing his compound is his mercenary associate Montgomery, misshapen mute servant M’Ling and the impossibly slinky Maria whom Moreau hints cryptically that he keeps her around because she “pleases him”. Initially Moreau is overjoyed at having someone new on the island who shares his boundless curiosity but Braddock soon discovers exactly why he’s been warned not to wander about in the jungle when he finds out that his host has been dabbling with pissing on god’s creation by speeding up and altering the evolution in several of the island’s animals.
Worse yet, the humanimals who don’t live up to their creator’s vision of humanity are banished to the jungle and are forced to adhere to strict laws of civilised conduct otherwise they have to take a trip to Moreau’s house of pain (and by that I mean his lab for vivisection and not the hip hop band that sang “Jump Around”).
As Braddock was recently cast drift from a waterlogged vessel, he knows a sinking ship when he sees one, but before he can light out on his salvaged rowboat with a besotted Maria, the human/animal shit hits the fan with a full blown uprising erupting – will anyone escape when the animals run the zoo?
Far too melodramatic to be either truly scary or thought provoking, by the time The Island Of Dr Moreau rumbles to a climax that features guys in heavy animal prosthetics creating a ruckus, it feels less like a powerful statement about human nature and more like the chaotic climax of one of the later, cheaper and shitter Planet Of The Apes movies. This happens to not be a coincidence when you realise that director Don Taylor also directed Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (one of the better sequels) not to mention Damien: Omen II. To it’s credit this version isn’t awful, in fact it’s actually quite watchable, but the very nature of the performances from the likes of Burt Lancaster, Richard Basehart and Basil Exposition himself, Michael York give scenes a massively overblown quality that’s regularly spoofed by the various comedy characters showcased by Matt Berry (Holy shit, could you imagine a Dr. Moreau remake with the cast of Toast Of London? Get someone of the fucking phone, now!). This aspect is brought into sharp focus when York’s hero is injected with a serum that slowly regresses him into an animal state which apparently also has the side effect of making it’s recipient overact wildly while sprouting Lou Ferrigno’s latex forehead.
Working the same magic on Moreau’s half-human menagerie as he did with his ground breaking work on the original Planet Of The Apes, John Chambers’ mutants maybe aren’t as spectacular as something you could rustle up with state of the art CGI or even Stan Winston’s work on the catastrophic remake, but his work is nicely subtle – not something that’s particularly easy to do when your supporting cast look like feral, Top Of The Pops hosts from the 1970’s. With that being said, they still do the job well enough as the actors encased within lope around and yell a lot, although surely overlaying actual animal roars into their screams instead of having them bellow like a drunk Brian Blessed at a rugby match would have made them more intimidating and less like a group of hairy football hooligans.
While the film burns through it’s story fairly harmlessly, on thing the film does flatly drop the ball with is that it’s seemingly unaware what to do with Barbara Carrera’s naive Marina (a character not in the original story) who’s wholly predictable twist (she’s a cat, or something feline at least) not only can be seen from a mile away, but isn’t even presented that well.
However, one thing that does stand out on screen (and no doubt will rightfully horrifying animal lovers) is the absolutely bonkers finale which lurches from the ludicrous (in an attempt to distract the rioting animal-mutants, Braddock hoists Moreau’s ravaged body into the air with rope and loudly screams that he’s still alive when he’s blatantly deader than shit) to the genuinely alarming. In the fracas, all the wild animals Moreau hasn’t gotten round to are freed by the Humanimals only for them to immediately get mauled to pieces in a montage that could double up as an exhibit A in an involuntary manslaughter case. I don’t exactly know how much they paid their stuntmen to don shaggy suits and latex snouts and then fight actual wild animals like lions, tigers and bears (oh fuck!), but it couldn’t have been enough. On top of that the animals indulge in some ill-advised stuntwork themselves; one dude and a real adult lion goes smashing through a wall only for the stuntman to land heavily on the beast and another setup sees another stuntman and a decidedly angry-looking leopard both come crashing through a skylight and while it’s all dodgy as fuck, it’s legitimately stunning to watch and it’s a miracle that no one was casually ripped to pieces between scenes – also I will say that there’s no disclaimer in the credits saying that animals weren’t harmed which probably means those horses that flee through a burning compound with a large predatory feline hot on their hooves didn’t have a happy ending.
As malformed and imperfect as the results of it’s antagonist’s beastly experiments (pun intended), The Island Of Doctor Moreau is nevertheless a decent swing at H.G. Wells’ cautionary story that serves up a large wedge of melodrama with it’s hairy backed body horror.