The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) / Horror-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and sensuality (PG-13 by today's standards)
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Michael York, Burt Lancaster, Barbara Carrera, Nigel Davenport, Richard Basehart
Director: Don Taylor
Screenplay: Al Ramrus, John Herman Shaner
H.G. Wells' classic chiller has graced the silver screen a handful of times, from 1933's Island of Lost Souls up to 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau. This 1977 version features the unlikely casting of Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity, Local Hero) in the title role, and though most would have cast a formidable British actor in the part, he does a very good job here. Dr. Moreau isn't necessarily evil -- he gets no satisfaction from doing malignant acts. He is merely a scientist that divorces morality from the equation, with the ends justifying the means because scientific exploration saves more lives in the long run than those lost due to the experiments themselves.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is set in the early years of the 20th century, where Andrew Braddock (York, Austin Powers) is shipwrecked on a remote island inhabited only by Dr. Moreau, his adopted daughter Maria, a mercenary named Montgomery, and a host of barbaric looking men and women with feral features and attitudes. Something is obviously amiss, as Moreau's compound has to be secured from intruders, despite no other humans around. Braddock is warned to never go out after sundown. Things become clearer as the days pass, as Moreau seems to be experimenting with the genetic makeup of the animals he has in captivity, tuning these beasts into human-like forms, although they still have animalistic tendencies. Braddock wants off the island, but is informed that the next supply ship would not be around for two years. With a madman on one side and man-beasts on the other, it's a question of survival that boils over into violent confrontations.
This horror-thriller starts off in very routine fashion, gaining more momentum as the main conflicts begin to emerge, finally becoming a very interesting thematic argument on science vs. nature. The performances are very good across the board, especially in a very sympathetic portrayal by Michael York as a man that slowly finds his hold on his on humanity slipping away. Barbara Carrera (Never Say Never Again, Lone Wolf McQuade) is also quite lovely as Maria.
Despite the quality performances and interesting climax, The Island of Doctor Moreau is still marred by the seemingly static build-up and an ending that seems too abrupt and unsatisfying to punctuate what has come before. It also doesn't help that what transpires isn't really explained. To a lesser extent, the stunt work involving the live animals on the island seems somewhat cruel, even if proper precautions had been taken to insure that they weren't injured.
All in all, it's a worthwhile experience for those looking for an interesting take on Wells' classic, and it's certainly much better than the 1996 version of the same name. The potential was there for a real shocker ending, but the creators took a more amiable approach, and left this intriguing adaptation feeling rather less remarkable than it should have been.
-- Additional adaptations not mentioned in the review include Terror is a Man (1959) and The Twilight People (1973)
©2005 Vince Leo