Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

          H.G. Wells’ horrific story about a mad scientist who gene-splices animals with men on his own private island was first filmed in 1932 as the extraordinary Island of Lost Souls, which boasted disturbing atmosphere and a perverse performance by Charles Laughton as medical maniac Dr. Moreau. Four decades later, schlock merchants American International Pictures produced a remake with a lot more action but a lot less artistry. Directed with typical indifference by Don Taylor, The Island of Dr. Moreau stars Michael York as an English seaman who survives a wreck and washes ashore on the titular land mass. Burt Lancaster plays the not-so-good doctor, but his stilted intensity fails to capture the unhinged majesty of the Moreau character, and York isn’t much better, substituting eye-bulging breathlessness for convincing terror. In one of her first major films, Nicaraguan model-turned-starlet Barbara Carrera is sultry as York’s love interest, although her presence is purely ornamental. In all versions of the story, the jungle surrounding Moreau’s compound is filled with examples of the doctor’s experiments, animals converted into hirsute bipeds whose innate bloodlust is (barely) kept in check by Moreau’s brutally enforced laws; tension arises from wondering how long these “manimals” will tolerate Moreau torturing them in his lab, which the creatures refer to as “the House of Pain.”
          The team behind the ’70s version unwisely depicts the manimals through the use of waxy-looking masks that are filmed in garishly bright lighting, so the sight of genetic aberrations roaming through the jungle is mundane instead of horrifying. Making matters worse, the story frequently degrades into clunky thriller scenes, like chases through the jungle and comin’-at-ya monster attacks. This lowbrow approach is a hell of a comedown from Island of Lost Souls, but for those who’ve never seen the original version (or read the Wells novel), The Island of Dr. Moreau is passable escapist junk: The production looks and feels like bad episodic television from the ’70s, with blandly utilitarian camera setups and twinkling music straight out of a Fantasy Island installment, and the climax is amusingly overwrought, right down to the endless final duel between the surviving major characters and a persistent manimal. The picture’s epilogue, unfortunately, is a complete cop-out.

The Island of Dr. Moreau: FUNKY

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