BLU-RAY REVIEW: THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: DON TAYLOR / SCREENPLAY: AL RAMRUS, JOHN HERMAN SHANER / STARRING: BURT LANCASTER, MICHAEL YORK, NIGEL DAVENPORT, BARBARA CARRERA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOWYou may be more familiar with John Frankenheimer’s disastrously weird version of the H.G. Wells classic, but The Island of Dr. Moreau has actually been adapted for cinema three times – the Brando-starring flop was preceded by 1932’s Island of Lost Souls and by Don Taylor’s 1977 adaptation, now available on Blu-ray.
Mariner Andrew Braddock (York) survives a shipwreck only to end up on stranded on the remote island of exiled scientist Doctor Moreau (Lancaster) and his peculiarly grotesque servants. As Braddock becomes suspicious of the servants’ behaviour, he comes to realise that Moreau has been experimenting on the islands’ animals, turning them into humanoid creatures with the ability to walk and talk just like us. Moreau rules over these ‘humanimals’ like a god, but, of course, they’re not going to stick to his laws forever.
Compared to the Frankenheimer version, which brought the story into the modern day and added some unusual ideas to the mix, this is a relatively faithful adaptation, and Wells’ story remains a powerful warning against abuse of animals in the name of science, very relevant in the 1970s in which the film was released and, sadly, still relevant now. It explores man’s arrogant imposition of god-like control over the natural world, and does so with some rather horrific imagery.
Lancaster is a great Moreau, if more genial than the Brando and Charles Laughton incarnations, while York is a strong lead as Braddock. The film’s also successful in lending depth to its human-animal hybrids, rather than treating them as mere ghastly brutes. The more problematic characters are the two that don’t originate in the source novel. Injured shipmate Charlie comes to the island with Braddock and is almost immediately kidnapped by the creatures, then is never mentioned again. Which is a bit weird. Worse is Maria, a conveniently attractive young woman living with Moreau. Despite the fact that Maria repeatedly says she’d rather stay on the island, Braddock decides she’s wrong and needs to escape with him. She follows along unquestionably and does absolutely nothing to affect the plot. Sigh.
Another problem is that the make-up work hasn’t aged well – the bear-man looks more like a particularly hairy human. Nevertheless, Moreau’s lab does hold some actual tigers and lions, which provide a nice action scene when the inevitable break-out occurs, and the unflashy overall look of the island works well – it feels more like the isolated natural hideout of Wells’ writing rather than the over-the-top dystopia of the 1996 film.
A couple of unnecessary narrative additions aside, The Island of Doctor Moreau is a well-made adaptation of an important sci-fi novel. Hiding its low budget reasonably well, it’s no blockbuster but a solid piece of Sunday afternoon viewing.