Should I Watch..? 'The Island of Dr Moreau' (1996)
What's the big deal?
The Island Of Dr Moreau is a sci-fi horror film released in 1996 and is the third filmed adaptation of the 1896 novel of the same name by HG Wells. The film follows the efforts of a man trying to escape a scientific research facility on a remote tropical island and the human-animal hybrids that populate it. Directed by veteran John Frankenheimer, the film stars Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis and Fairuza Balk. The film has become notorious for a string of off-screen issues such as the firing of original director Richard Stanley, Kilmer's bad behaviour on set, Brando's unprofessionalism and a budget spiralling out of control. Savaged by critics when it was released, the film made a disappointing $49.6 million worldwide as well as earning six nominations at that year's Razzie Awards.
What's it about?
In the then-future of 2010, UN negotiator Edward Douglas survives his plane crashing into the Java Sea when he is eventually rescued by a passing boat. On board the Ombak Penari, Douglas is returned to health by Dr Montgomery who promises to escort Douglas to Timor once he has stopped at Moreau's Island. When they get there, Montgomery suggests to Douglas that he can use the radio on the island to contact the authorities.
However, the island is home to a number of human-animal hybrids created by Dr Moreau in his quest to create a life-form incapable of harm. After meeting Moreau's daughter Aissa, Douglas discovers the true horror of Moreau's experiments and the doctor's unique way of controlling them - via an implant in the creature's necks that administers pain as well as positioning himself as the Father of the beasts. But as things start to get out of hand, will Douglas ever escape the island?
Nelson de la Rosa
Sayer Of The Law
Richard Stanley & Ron Hutchinson*
Release Date (UK)
15th November, 1996
Action, Horror, Sci-Fi
Worst Supporting Actor (Brando)
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Film, Worst Supporting Actor (Kilmer), Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst On-Screen Couple (Brando & de la Rosa)
What's to like?
The scenery looks nice.
Oh, you wanted more? Right.
It's no secret that The Island Of Dr Moreau is a complete car-crash of a production but rarely has so much chaos and disruption effected a film as badly as this. The film is a badly orchestrated blend of uninspired action, miscast characters, lousy makeup and effects, confusing storyline and the possible sense that the screen itself may implode at any moment. Kilmer certainly doesn't help himself or his reputation as he seems drunk during most of the film but Brando is the embodiment of someone going off the rails. providing an utterly baffling performance that probably only makes sense to him. You get the sense of someone riding their own stature and reputation into a production and seeing exactly how much madness he could get away with.
As it is, this film will only appeal to viewers who really love trashy cinema - those lucky audience members who enjoy guff like The Room or Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever. Sadly, I'm not that kinda of guy - this movie is a hilariously bad excuse of a horror film that has zero scares, zero thrills and zero reasons to recommend it. Trust me - even if you love bad movies then you'll find yourself struggling to enjoy a film that gets plenty wrong on and off-screen.
- After original director Richard Stanley was fired by fax a few days into shooting, it was rumoured that he told the film's production designer to burn the set down. As a result, heavy security was hired to prevent this from happening. Another rumour suggests that Stanley remained friendly with the makeup crew and even appeared in disguise on screen as one of the beasts without Frankenheimer's knowledge or consent.
- Kilmer's behaviour, attributed by the actor to discovering he was getting divorced via a TV report, was so bad that when the actor had filmed his last scenes, Frankenheimer was reported to have said "Cut! Now get that bastard off my set." Kilmer famously did not get on with Brando with both actors refusing to leave their trailers before the other had.
- Brando also had a torrid time on set as he was still recovering from his daughter's recent suicide. Typically, he hadn't learnt his lines and was fed them via a hidden radio. However, the radio often intercepted other signals and as Thewlis later explained, he would be in the middle of a scene before picking up police signals, repeating "there's a robbery in Woolworths".
- Thewlis refused to attend the film's premier, saying that his experience working on the movie was so bad that he never wishes to see it. He has also said that he'd love to give a real account of the backstage drama behind the film but doubts he would ever work again if he did.
What's not to like?
So what exactly does the film get wrong? I'd start with the casting - Brando's heavyweight presence (in every sense of the word) overshadows everything in the picture while Kilmer's deranged performance along with Thewlis' underwhelming one gives the film the odd sense of watching it while high on something. The film's narrative, only loosely based on the original novel, feels confusing while the makeup and effects are lousy. Many of the creatures look as if they've stumbled from the set of the original Planet Of The Apes. The only exceptions are Balk who feels thrown into the film to provide some eye candy and de la Rosa, Moreau's diminutive sidekick who almost looks and feels like a puppet. It doesn't help Brando and de la Rosa remind you of Dr Evil and Mini Me from Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Frankenheimer directs the film with all the enthusiasm of a man whose family is being held hostage, providing a film that never engages with its audience or offers anything like its promising opening might have suggested. The film crashes and burns with all the grace of the Hindenberg - there's next to nothing to salvage from the wreckage as Thewlis, Kilmer and Brando's careers were all tainted by this disaster. Even Frankenheimer - a director behind classics like The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix and would go to helm under-rated thriller Ronin afterwards - found himself disenchanted after this film, one which he refused to discuss in interviews.
Should I watch it?
I really wouldn't if I were you. Unless you can enjoy laughably bad films, The Island Of Dr Moreau is one of those utterly awful films that resembles a genuine car crash. Seemingly sabotaged on all fronts, it's a staggering surprise that the film was finished at all and even more surprising that New Line released it instead of cutting their losses and leaving the film on a shelf somewhere. Literally nobody escapes from this notorious flop and nor should they. It stands as a sad tribute to studio interference, actor egos and sheer bad luck.
Great For: masochists, trash cinema fans, soiling Brando's iconic status
Not So Great For: HG Wells (who is still spinning in his grave), the entire cast and crew, anyone expecting a half-decent film
What else should I watch?
While still not exactly a classic, the 1977 version of The Island Of Dr Moreau is generally regarded as superior - although given how bad the 1996 version is, that's not exactly comforting. Burt Lancaster plays the archetypal mad scientist in this version with Michael York as the unwilling interloper. But despite Wells' own disdain for the picture, the 1932 film Island Of Lost Souls is generally considered the best adaptation of Wells' novel. Emphasising the horror rather than the book's philosophical questions, the film has become something of a cult.
Given how highly regarded HG Wells is as an author of speculative science fiction, it's perhaps surprising that there hasn't been a more recent adaptation of his works than 2005. Most adaptations like First Men In The Moon, Village Of The Gods and the grandiose-titled H.G. Wells' The Shape Of Things To Come are half-hearted affairs, usually using the writer's imaginative prose as an excuse for special effects that often strain the definition of the word 'special'. The only film that really stands out are the two adaptations of his most famous work The War Of The Worlds. The original 1953 version might relocate the action from London to California in the 1950s but remains an enjoyable and surprisingly faithful reworking while the big budget War Of The Worlds features Tom Cruise running away a lot from giant alien war machines, apparently using those vuvuzelas. I found it remarkably dull.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox