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The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
I go through this transformation some nights, usually when my kid refuses to sleep

"If one is to study nature, one must become as remorseless as nature."

Often overshadowed by the more notorious Island of Lost Souls and 1996's more madhouse trainwreck of an adaptation, 1977's The Island of Dr. Moreau doesn't get the recognition it deserves. Filmed on location in the U.S. Virgin Islands on a relatively average budget, the 1977 adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic didn't do particularly well critically, panned for its substandard special effects and the exploitation roots of its production company, American International Pictures (A.I.P.). While I won't argue it belongs in the same league as Island of Lost Souls, 1977's The Island of Dr. Moreau is nevertheless an interesting adaptation that isn't as flawed as the critics make it out to be.

What this version does better than the other adaptations is its sense of gritty realism. This is the version that feels like it could really happen, as long as you accept the admittedly far-fetched premise that a doctor in the late Nineteenth Century could independently discover both DNA and how to manipulate it. The film eases you into the story, streamlines the wonky opening of having the protagonist rescued by a boat only to be stranded immediately afterwards, and takes special care to make the characters feel natural. It also helps to have the island setting so beautifully filmed, so that by the time you encounter the man-beasts, they feel like an extension of the island rather than a jarring inclusion.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
For a scrawny man, he sure doesn't mind taking his shirt off

The protagonist, Edward Braddock, is underdeveloped (as he is in every version), but actor Michael York is a master at conveying righteous indignation, which carries him through most of the film. He even gets a few opportunities to really flex his acting muscles towards the end, and though the performance feels a bit theatrical at times, it's one of the movie's biggest highlights. He is greatly overshadowed, though, by Burt Lancaster as the titular Dr. Moreau.

This version of Moreau is the truest to the novel, not only in physical appearance but in behavior. He's not the mustache-twirling sadist of Charles Laughton or the ludicrously unbalanced messiah figure of Marlon Brando. He is instead a man who has rationalized his way into becoming a monster in ways that appear subtle at first and only make themselves apparent as the story escalates. He is, at heart, a tragic figure, not a villain, and for the first half of the film, you almost want to believe in him and let him do his work. I daresay that Lancaster's Moreau is the best and most nuanced version of the character to appear on screen, and his performance is mesmerizing.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
Not the best bedside manner

Granted, things go a bit off the rails as the climax approaches, with Moreau injecting a genetic serum into Braddock that starts to transform him into a beast-man. I'll give the writers credit for being daring enough to take the story in a new and unexpected direction, but it doesn't quite work. It's horrifying, to be sure, and the scene of Moreau trying to convince Braddock to eat a live rat with his bare hands is disturbingly compelling to watch. However, it puts the story into a narrative cul-de-sac and lessens the underlying themes of Wells' story, most of which are lost in the mix.

Also lacking is this film's version of Montgomery, played by Nigel Davenport. A straight-up mercenary this time around, Montgomery is bizarrely written and largely unnecessary for the plot. He does nothing until his apparent moral awakening near the climax, at which point Moreau unceremoniously removes him from the story. Davenport also overacts the hell out of the role, which stands in stark contrast to Lancaster and York's more slick acting styles.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
Are you not men?

The "manimals" are great, though. The actors have fun with their animalistic mannerisms and growls, and even though the make-up isn't particularly laudible--not even by 1977 standards--they are believable enough as man/beast hybrids. Richard Basehart as the Sayer of the Law is excellent, and he's given more to do than either Legosi or Perlman in the other versions. You genuinely feel the change in the entire herd of creatures when the Sayer looks down at his bloody hands and realizes the Law has been undone.

Another thing that stands out is the live animal stunt work. There are several scenes with real, live animals on set, interacting--usually violently--with the actors. This is particularly harrowing during the climax, as the compound burns around them and the animals are let loose to create bloody mayhem. It's truly impressive filmmaking that you just can't do anymore, and I applaud the filmmakers for being able to pull it off without harming any animals or stuntmen.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)
Lancaster is still the best thing in the film

With all that said, yes, the film has some problems. The music is distractingly over-the-top; the first two acts are a bit slow; the romance between Braddock and Maria is unconvincing (though I give the filmmakers props for having the balls to follow through with it); and it never seems particularly interested in exploring the underlying ideas that make Wells' story so great. It is, beneath the skin, an exploitation film without the exploitation, and the failure of the film to commit to itself is a bit disappointing.

Still, it's an entertaining adaptation that fans of the material should give a fair chance. It has tremendous acting, a gorgeous setting, awesome cinematography, and a few surprising moments of dread-filled titilation. Standing on its own, without the obligatory comparisons to Wells' novel or the other adaptations, 1977's The Island of Dr. Moreau is truly deserving of the title of "Sci-Fi Classic."

-e. magill 5/9/2019

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