The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

DIRECTOR:  John Frankenheimer


Tales of chaotic productions and catastrophic flops remain irresistible to film buffs, arguably more so than famous successes, and few films have illustrated this better than “The Island Of Dr. Moreau”.

lostsoulsMore than twenty years after its release the film continues to be a fixture of “Worst films of all time” lists. It’s the subject of an excellent documentary and there is persistent talk of a remake.


The circumstances surrounding the troubled production are beyond the scope of this review but a summary can be found here. 


Lost in the midst of all this is the film itself. I’m not going to argue that it’s any sort of overlooked masterpiece, it is however, far better than it’s reputation would suggest and although ultimately a failure its an endlessly fascinating one.

 The opening credits are a mini-masterpiece in of themselves, establishing the mood perfectly. From there, the story cuts to the chase with shipwrecked UN negotiator Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) rescued from sea by Montgomery (Val Kilmer) and transported to the titular island where Moreau (Marlon Brando) has spent the past seventeen years conducting his experiments. Its hardly a spoiler to say that things go very wrong.

 Watching the film is a frustrating experience as it gets so many details right but never manages to put them together into a satisfying whole. The whole film feels like a rough draft, throwing up compelling ideas about the misuse of new technology (a very 90’s theme) and the dangerously naive idealism which often lies behind it, but in a hasty, unpolished form due to the nightmarish production.

thewlisGary Changs music and the frenetic cinematography lends the film an edgy, dread-filled atmosphere, like a bad dream. Often cited as a major flaw in the film, the eccentric performances of Brando and Kilmer actually enhance the atmosphere, suggesting two men no longer able to control what they’ve set in motion, only able to kick the can down the road in a doomed attempt to stave off disaster. Thewlis’ utter bafflement at the insanity unfolding around him complements his co-stars perfectly (I suspect he wasn’t acting).

The film’s crowning achievement, however, has to be the Beast People themselves.  The gene splicing by which Brando’s Moreau achieves his animal-human hybrids and the electric shock implants he uses to keep them in thrall are an intelligent update of the original novel’s “House Of Pain’ and Stan Winston’s designs and makeup bring the resultant creatures to life in stunning realistic and thrilling grotesque fashion. Even more impressive is the genuine life the actors (including New Zealand’s Temuera Morrison) manage to breathe into the beast people, far from just monsters they become fully realised and in some ways genuinely sympathetic characters.

Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) Marlon BrandoThe elements for a genuinely visceral and thought-provoking sci-fi/ horror film were there even in the revised scenario which bore little resemblance to Richard Stanley’s original script but the chaos that enveloped the production rendered that impossible. It’s difficult not to feel a little sad at the thought of what might have been had everyone involved been on the same page working to produce a film that properly developed the story and ideas.

Still, for all it’s flaws The Island of Dr Moreau  leaves an unmistakable impression. It continues to do that long after much more successful films of the same era have largely faded from view, the notorious production process has given the film a staying power that ironically a smoother production might not have achieved. For a film about misshapen mutants, that seems oddly fitting.


Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau

Val Kilmer as Montgomery

David Thewlis as Edward Douglas

Temuera Morrison as Azazello



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