Visiting and Revisiting: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) Pt. 1

This is Part I of a two-part article in which my good friend Aaron Lowe (Working Dead Productions) and I discuss the 1977 film version of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. To read Part II, click here

Rik: The 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau was the first film that I ever saw by myself in a movie theatre. My craving to see the film led to my mother dropping the twelve-year-old me off at the Fireweed Theater in Anchorage, Alaska, while she and my brothers went shopping. At the time, we lived in Eagle River, about fourteen miles outside of Anchorage proper (which is considered to be a "suburb" of the bigger city, but growing up there, we always thought of it as a town unto itself since there is no real physical connection). It was also a very different time, and while I do recall being a little weirded out at being all alone in a movie theatre with random strangers about me, all of that went away when I realized that I was in my element. I had finally found my church. It is a mood that has stuck with me the rest of my life.

What fired me up about seeing the film was a book. Not THE book. Not the novella written by H.G. Wells in 1896, but rather a novelization of his famous story, built around the screenplay for the film. I had picked up a copy of it on a visit to a Mom-and-Pop bookstore in Eagle River (I do not remember the name, but it was same store where I first purchased my Marvel Star Wars comic books that summer). I had seen the trailers for Moreau on television as well, and those had me pretty excited, but the book in my fingers not only had pictures of all the characters on the front and back covers, along with movie credits, but there was also a generous supply of black-and-white plates in the middle of the book mainly featuring photos of the "humanimals" (the trademarked name for the half-human creatures in the film) and some behind the scenes shots as well.

I had not read the original story at that time, though I had read several Wells novels like The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. And truthfully, I forged through the book not realizing it was a novelization (by Joseph Silva, which does appear on the lowest part of the back cover and on the title page, but not anywhere on the front cover). It was certainly not in Wells' style I knew at the time, but I loved it all the same, and immediately began demanding that we go see the movie. Of course, while just a PG film, it was definitely not material for the younger set, so I totally understand why I ended up on my own at the theatre without my little brothers. [Just to set a time frame a little more, the film that I got to see at the movies in faraway Anchorage before this one was Star Wars, with the whole family (sans my divorced father), and the next film I would see would be The Spy Who Loved Me, which my mom and I took in, sat in the front row, snuck in Doritos and shaky cheese, and watched all the way through the second feature, Won Ton Ton: The Dog That Saved Hollywood.]

I remember being both scared of and awed by the creatures in the film, and fascinated by the story itself and its lead actor, Burt Lancaster, who plays the mesmerizing Dr. Moreau, a scientist obsessed with creating his own race of beings by fusing man and beast together in various combinations. I knew Lancaster mainly from one film at that age, another of my favorites, The Crimson Pirate. Being that there are exactly 25 years between the films, I don't believe that I caught on to the fact they were the same actor until it was explained to me. I just thought Dr. Moreau was an incredible character, though his methods shocked me as I was fanatical at the time about becoming a veterinarian. That said, I find his portrayal of the doctor to be the most humane version at the outset, where he doesn’t appear immediately insane or outrageously flamboyant as in the other versions. You can believe he is a serious scientist deeply involved in research that he believes will better mankind.

Aaron, this is your first time with the movie. What is your history with the film? Did you remember hearing or knowing about growing up, and is there a specific reason why you waited so long to see it?

Aaron: I don’t really have a history with this film, and I can’t think of any specific reason I never saw it, other than the fact that I just wasn’t ever around it. I don’t recall seeing it on the shelves of the nearby Video City that became my second home for many years, though it’s likely that I just kept passing over it on my regular perusals. The first time I really remember seeing the movie on a shelf was when I worked at Suncoast in the early-to-mid 2000s. The DVD featured a menacing Burt Lancaster holding a hypodermic needle, a screaming Michael York, looking rather ridiculous in both facial expression and in the mid-metamorphosis makeup he’s wearing, and a few of the humanimals looking concerned in the lower corner. It was not the most interesting cover, and made the film look like any number of hokey, brightly colored ‘60s/’70s fantasy films.

But then I’ve never had much of a history with H.G. Wells, either. I’ve read a couple of his novels, and of course have a longstanding love of all things War of the Worlds (even the bizarre musical version from Jeff Wayne, featuring members of Thin Lizzy, The Moody Blues, and Manfred Mann), and yet as a writer he’s never been a favorite. I like his plots, and I think he has great striking ideas, but I find his writing at times to be too clinical and detached. Although The Invisible Man has some great moments of dry humor in it.

Or possibly it was my memories of another H.G. Wells adaptation from the same period, and actually part of the same cycle produced by AIP: The Food of the Gods. [Editor’s note: The third film of that cycle is Empire of the Ants.] Now, The Food of the Gods is a film I actually do enjoy, though I think that owes more to the age at which I first saw it, back when I was young enough to not recognize the trickery that went into creating those giant rats and bees. I didn’t think of miniatures or rear projection; I thought they had actually found a giant chicken to menace those people..

There’s also something about a bad movie from the ‘60s or ‘70s that affects me unlike a bad 
movie from any other decade. While I can find some genuine enjoyment, and even some form of comfort, in a schlocky “B” movie from the ‘40s and ‘50s, or even the ‘80s and ‘90’s, a bad film from the ‘60s and ‘70s will often strike me as unpleasantly cheap and seedy, with an ever-present air of anger and violence. It’s no secret why that is; that period’s rage and frustration made its way into every genre of film, and probably most explicitly in horror films. But while I admire and enjoy that subtext in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes, I see those as standouts in the field. The period is often called a great turning point in American cinema, and rightly so, but it’s probably my least favorite period for horror. That being said, the movie truly started to win me over only once some of that seediness and anger began to push its way to the forefront, or perhaps I’m just grasping at straws there.

Rik: Aaron, I believe that not that long ago, if I remember correctly, you first saw the far superior 1933 version called Island of Lost Souls when Criterion Collection released it on Blu-Ray. I saw Souls after this one when I was in my teens, and it blew my mind. I had read the real novel by that point, and even though there were naturally some changes, I felt it stuck closer to the true spirit of what Wells intended (though Wells apparently hated the more horrific sequences). How do you feel the two versions stack up? And feel free to riff on the 1996 Brando/Frankenheimer abomination if you wish.

Aaron: That is correct, the first experience I had directly with this story was through my purchase of Island of Lost Souls on the absolutely essential Criterion disc. Just by virtue of my addiction to pop culture I was pretty familiar with the underlying Moreau story, and yet Souls really surprised me. Not only was the violence disturbing, but the sexual content was absolutely shocking. Laughton’s portrayal of Dr. Moreau is less a scientist, and more a vile, leering hedonist, even before he begins pushing Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) into having sex with his animal women. Laughton’s Moreau doesn’t seem to be interested in any real scientific advancement, only in casting himself as a Greek god in reverse, coming down in human form to mate with the animals.

Obviously my heart lies with Island of Lost Souls. I find it has an eerie, slightly unwholesome power, almost immediately from the first frame. That’s not something I would say about the 1977 version, which I found to be a bit dull for the first half. Maybe it was overfamiliarity with the plot (at this point I’ve seen both of the other versions, and, in the case of Souls, multiple times), but this version seemed to have the least personality at the outset. Burt Lancaster is indeed the most humane, and believable, Dr. Moreau in all the films, and while I love him as an actor and enjoyed him onscreen, I think the character needs more of a touch of madness, certainly more than Lancaster brings to the role for most of his screen time. And then you can look at the infamous 1996 version, where Marlon Brando went way too far with the character’s madness, to the point where it just doesn’t seem believable that this guy would have the presence of mind to figure out, and implement, a method for turning animals into humans. I don’t have a lot to say about the 1996 version, because I’ve only seen it the once and better writers than I have already dissected (or should it be vivisected?) that film completely. I will just say it’s the worst of the three versions. I usually love crazy, extravagant fiascos that get batshit insane, and the ’96 Moreau surely fits that bill, but it’s also too meandering and lazy to be entertaining.

Rik: I am so with you on the Island of Lost Souls, sir. For me, it is not just one of the best horror films of the 1930s, but one of the greatest and most perverse of all time. It is truly twisted in a way that is impossible to believe could be achieved in those days. The John Frankenheimer version in ’96 is also a mind-melt, mostly due to Brando’s machinations, but it is also regrettably an unpleasant, sweaty, and uncomfortable experience. It is not the film the already immensely successful Frankenheimer signed on for after the dismissal of original director/screenwriter Richard Stanley (battles recounted in the rich documentary from 2014, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau). It really got out of his hands.

Getting back to the 1977 version now, Michael York plays the lone human protagonist, Andrew Braddock (Edward Prendick in the true novel), who ends up on Moreau's island after being lost at sea. Watching the film again, I am shocked at how thin (though still muscular) York appears, and this may be purposeful since he is supposed to have been at sea with no food or water for a considerable period. I knew York from The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, where he played D'Artagnan, and York was somewhat of a hero of mine at that age. I suppose my swashbuckling fanaticism at that time was another reason I was able to convince my mother to let me see the film, but I am fairly unsure of that point.

Aaron: I believe this is the only version of the story where the Prendick/Braddock character falls victim to Moreau’s experimentation, and it’s through that subplot that my true enjoyment in this film originates. For a while it seems like Braddock might be coming around to Moreau’s way of thinking. If he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the experiments being carried out in the compound, he’s at least decided to not rock the boat. That changes when Moreau and Braddock hunt down a humanimal who has shed blood, which is strictly against Moreau’s law. This is punishable by a trip to the House of Pain, where Moreau’s hideous and painful experiments take place. The humanimal is injured in the chase, and pleads with Braddock to kill him instead of hand him over to Dr. Moreau, and Braddock complies. This is in violation of the Law, and Dr. Moreau must punish Braddock for his transgression, or ignite distrust and anger in the population of humanimals. That’s open to debate, of course, because Moreau is such a godlike figure to these creatures that he likely could have avoided punishing Braddock. It actually seemed to me like Moreau was simply curious as to whether he could turn a man into an animal, instead of the other way around. And why wouldn’t he be? It’s something I’d always asked myself while watching the other versions of this story, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been repeated in any of the other iterations of this concept. 

This section of the film was the most compelling to me, and the most chilling, as Moreau calmly describes to Braddock the changes his body and mind will be going through. His thoughts begin to break down and words are replaced by images and instinct. His screams of pain seem to inspire even the sympathy of the humanimals, who certainly know better than anyone what he’s going through. It also inspires the sympathy of Moreau’s right hand man, Montgomery, who opposes Moreau’s decision only to get shot for it. This angers the humanimals, who witness Moreau breaking his own law, and sets the stage for the final confrontation when the beasts storm Moreau’s compound. There’s a nice touch in this section, after the humanimals have killed Moreau, where Braddock and Maria string Moreau’s body up over the compound’s gates and try to convince the humanimals that Moreau is still alive. This actually works, for a few seconds, and I thought that was a nice detail that shows how animalistic the thinking of the humanimals was, and how high Moreau’s stature was in their eyes. He wasn’t another animal, he wasn’t even mortal, he was a god to them, and even seeing their lifeless god hanging from a rope was intimidating.

Rik: This version really downplays the fact that in the original novel, Moreau is a vivisectionist who experiments quite messily to achieve his results in creating the Beast-Men. Once again, I didn't know this at the time, and did not even know the term "vivisectionist," so I suppose if they stuck to the original intent, I would have been even more shocked than I was by Moreau's domineering behavior. Here, the doctor mainly sticks his subjects with a syringe; using some sort of serum he has developed using human genes that can somehow transform the animals into human beings. What a rotten turn for the animals. They were certainly better off before.

Part II of this discussion can be found on The Working Dead Productions blog by following this link:


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