Sunday, June 10, 2018

Reviewed: THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977)

Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau.
It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that this second filmed version of H.G. Wells' 1896 novel THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is tonally similar to PLANET OF THE APES (1968): it was directed by Don Taylor (ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES), its half-human supporting cast are adorned with similar facial appliances by Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (assisted by Dan Striepeke and Tom Burman), and Michael York strikes a respectably Hestonian figure as the shipwrecked sailor hero. Approaching his title role with customary poise and eloquence, Burt Lancaster is the cinema's only Moreau whose brilliance an audience can believe. He's not a camped-up autocrat with a messianic complex; when he strikes a messianic pose to keep his creatures in line, it's not a pose but the well-earned authority of a man who has played Moses. Nevertheless, he is deranged and his derangement is subtle enough to be plausible, his isolation from society having led him far afield of matters of morality and conscience, which York's accidental arrival brings suddenly to bear. There is a mutual respect, a cerebral spark between the two men that legitimizes York's questions and begins to slowly deconstruct the unassailable world this outcast has built for himself. What becomes particularly clear in this telling is that Moreau's misanthropic experiments, supposedly undertaken for the benefit of a mankind he has eschewed, have resulted in volatile conditions wherein any independent action runs the risk of producing truly Biblical consequences. In this respect, this oft-overlooked version remains more potent than either Erle C. Kenton's 1932 classic or the 1996 John Frankenheimer version shanghaied by Marlon Brando.

Barbara Carrera and Michael York.
Revisiting the film again after a gulf of 40 years, I find that it has aged remarkably well: the supporting roles of Nigel Davenport, Richard Basehart (as the Sayer of the Law), and Barbara Carrera well complement the two commanding leads; Gerry Fisher's cinematography (though occasionally marred by haphazard subjective insert shots during action scenes) is appropriately scenic and humid; the dramatic scenes are well-written; the action scenes feature some impressive stuntwork, and Lawrence Rosenthal's exotic, primitive score finds an appeal similar to that of Jerry Goldsmith's original APES music. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that M'Ling, Moreau's half-human majordomo, was played by Nick Cravat - Lancaster's acrobatic partner in so many wonderful 1950s films like Jacques Tourneur's THE FLAME AND THE ARROW. 

Remarkably, this was one of the last horror films to be distributed by American International and presented by Samuel Z. Arkoff, though nothing about it strikes an AIP vibe. Well... except for some unfortunate editorial meddling. Alas, the film's reputation was initially hobbled, and unfortunately will likely remain so, by the way it dances around the important issue of Carrera's female lead Maria. Of course, Maria is the analog of Kathleen Burke's "Panther Woman" character in the pre-code 1932 version. However, due to a fairly early scene in which she and York consummate their attraction, it was decided to skirt the issue of  bestiality and to leave her exact nature ambiguous, to make the difference between a GP and an R rating. Alternate endings were reportedly planned or shot (in one of them, Maria was to give birth in the escape boat to a litter of kittens!), and Kino Lorber's handsome Blu-ray disc includes (with two bonus trailers) a single close-up image of Carrera in semi-feline makeup, which a sloppy edit snips out of the climax. Without this necessary jolt, there is no complexity to the ending and the thought-provoking film ends with a simple implied rescue and no further consequences from the adventure. Marvel Comics produced a graphic novel adaptation (script by Doug Moench, pencils by Larry Hama and inks by Jess Jodloman) that retained the original ending:
Thanks to Gary Teetzel for bringing this to my attention.
The disc's aspect ratio is 1.85:1 and it upgrades the previous DVD release with the theatrical 2.0 stereo mix. 

If you don't mind going into a picture whose endgame is disappointment, there is much here to reward your time, not least of all York's powerful portrayal of a man resisting the chemically induced reversion to animal instincts. In his work here, one can see a rare antecedent of what David Cronenberg and Jeff Goldblum achieved in THE FLY. 


(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 



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