It was a dark night, parents were already asleep and I was still craving to watch something before taking a nap. I was a kid, but I remember the film from this particular evening – The Island of Dr. Moreau. Gave me creeps all over my spine and it took me some time to sit to it again – more than 10 years actually. Even though the film is widely regarded to as one of the worst films ever directed, I shall become its ardent defendant. And if you belong to the vast majority of people criticizing Frankenheimer’s flick, you better prepare yourself properly before reading this text.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is based on a book from 1896, written by H.G. Wells. This English, multi-talented artist, was a very fruitful writer too – he is the author of The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Bearing this in mind, one may get the picture of the source material that the filmmakers were dealing with here – this ain’t no Shakespeare, but still a man with overwhelming imagination, whose ideas could be hard to show on a screen. The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1996, directed by John Frankenheimer, was the third time the book was approached and transformed into a film script. The story was quite simple – Edward (David Thewlis), a lone survivor from a wretched ship, is rescued by a former scientist Montgomery (Val Kilmer) and moved to a tropical island. It’s inhabited by Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando) and his horrid creations, genetic variations made from human and animal DNA.
The film had its definitive downs even before it landed on the big screens. The first director on board, Richard Stanley, abandoned the crew due to “lack of proper cooperation” and this was the first huge problem. John Frankenheimer took over the production, but later on – he did regret this decision. The cast he worked with may be described as the two most ridiculous cockalorums he could get – Marlon Brando, playing the role of Dr. Moreau, was widely known for his bossy behavior on set, whilst Val Kilmer was simply a simpleton, also quite known in Hollywood for rudeness. So, as one can imagine, Brando was indeed truly irritating, but Kilmer was the real nail to the coffin – allegedly, Frankenheimer said after shooting the last scene with the latter “Cut! Now get that bastard off my set”. Paints the picture, huh?
The critics bashed the film, the audiences also didn’t like the over-the-top acting by Brando, calling him cheesy, whilst the entire plot to be lacking the proper approach to the book. So, why on Earth, would anyone try to defend this film? First of all, let’s be honest – Brando’s acting was always like that. Whether it was The Godfather, Apocalypse Now or Ultimo Tango a Parigi, he was always on the edge of kitsch. Nevertheless, we loved him for this mannerism and there was no exception to this way of acting in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Kilmer, no matter how difficult he was to work with, he surely knew the drill too and the only pitiful actor on the set was actually David Thewlis. Who, reportedly, felt so miserable he wanted to abandon the project several times and never watched the final cut.
The crew was completely torn apart and the set seemed to be hell to work there. Yet, the film was still kept consistent in terms of its nightmarish graphics and the terrible atmosphere could actually leverage it a bit. Many critics pointed out the terrible make-up and CGI too. It does ring a bell, because nowadays, everyone complain about the usage of CGI (guess why Mad Max: Fury Road was given so much credit…). Therefore, I’d rather applause to Frankenheimer for, at least, trying to make use of CGI, when it was still crawling and not going early-Planet-of-Apes-like entirely, with the utterly ludicrous make-up. And to be fair – The Island of Dr. Moreau is nowhere near any good in terms of the special effects , but just imagine the possibilities back in those days…
Finally, the script. At this point, Itotally agree that there is a great deal of corner-cutting. Many lines, especially those delivered by Thewlis, sound artificial and unconvincing. Yet, Frankenheimer’s film, using the direful scenery and Dr. Moreau’s eerie creations, works as a nasty, oldie-horror, finding a way out from the dull writing. Some of the scenes, like the birth in the laboratory or first encounter with Lomai, are quite memorable. Humans playing the game of God are destined to become the preys of their own creations, even though we treat ourselves as the kings of the Earth. The Island of Dr. Moreau, although taking the road of a horror film, delivers this message. And considering this, Frankenheimer ddin’t fail so miserably as we comfortably assume today.
One may say that there are film’s that – no matter what happens – they will be hated. Sometimes the expectations are too high, sometimes it’s bad luck, the star-studded cast or the huge budget. Or sometimes, it’s Brando and Kilmer on one set. And obviously, I’m not trying to convince anyone to immediately love The Island of Dr. Moreau. Maybe it’s the childhood memories, maybe it’s the respect for my favorite actor of all time that made me root for this film. Either way, you should see it for yourself.