Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 1 release of The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977). The first of many bare-bones DVD releases that will be showcased in my “Bare-bones Gems” column, which will appear regularly on this site.
Sailor Andrew Braddock (Michael York) is washed aboard an island in a small rowboat, and is treated hospitably by the island’s host, a scientist named Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster). Moreau lives in his island fortress alongside his beautiful female friend Maria (Barbera Carrera) and his cynical assistant Montgomery (Nigel Davenport). Moreau is also aided by a strange servant named M’Ling (Nick Cravat), an animal-like humanoid figure that is a somewhat grotesque sight. However, as soon as Braddock has settled in to Moreau’s island, he soon realises that Moreau’s experiments are along far more sinister lines, and that Moreau is actually experimenting with a plan to transform beasts into humans. Braddock also encounters many failed ‘humanimal’ experiments of Moreau’s on the island, and has to face the notion of escaping these horrors, considering the next supply ship arrives in two years.
The Island Of Dr. Moreau is the perfect example of seventies’ Saturday afternoon science-fiction. It isn’t the first time this H.G. Wells novel has been brought to the screen (Erle C. Kenton directed Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi in the 1933 Island Of Lost Souls) and it hasn’t been the last (John Frankenheimer’s infamous mid-nineties remake starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer), but it still remains the best version. The film works because it doesn’t pander to over-ambition; the plotting is stripped down, the characters kept to a minimum, and the special makeup effects were produced by John Chambers, a man who had already cut his teeth with the legendary Planet Of The Apes.
The film’s low budget works towards rather than against its interesting appeal. Moreau’s island should appear desolate, run-down and tranquil, as opposed to the apocalyptic and ghastly location in Frankenheimer’s remake. Whereas producers of the nineties remake of the film were obviously typecasting by having Kurtz from Apocalypse Now as Dr. Moreau, it’s interesting that Burt Lancaster was chosen as the scheming scientist in this version, as Lancaster’s warm persona seemed a leftfield choice. However, Lancaster is ideal as Moreau, as he perfectly balances a benevolent calm with a chilling lack of remorse, as if his quest for scientific advancement has detached himself from the issues of morality and humanity. Despite actor Michael York being miscast in the excellent futuristic tale Logan’s Run that was made a year before, the Englishman proves himself to be tremendous as Andrew Braddock. York presents Braddock’s slow transition from human to animal with emotional intensity, and he never loses any element of seriousness.
As the token female of the film, sultry Barbera Carrera fulfils her objectives by looking attractive throughout, but her role as Maria is never developed into any kind of third dimensional structure. Nigel Davenport provides fine support as the suspicious Moreau helper Montgomery, a man who appears to have mentally shied away from the horrors around him. Richard Baseheart also has a memorable role as the ‘humanimal’ Sayer Of The Law, a sort of missing link between human and animal.
Don Taylor directs the film with a mechanical sense of narrative, as if delicately balancing the science-fiction with action and suspense. It’s no wonder that Taylor had previously worked on the Planet Of The Apes series of films, as he seems reluctant to use the humanimal characters as any sort of exploitative gimmick, and treats them as characters in their own right. Taylor utilises beautiful Virgin Islands locales in tandem with cinematographer Gerry Fisher, to expertly contrast the horrendous experiments by Dr. Moreau with the exotic natural environment that surrounds him.
The film has its flaws. Some of the makeup effects, despite being innovative at the time of the film’s release, has unfortunately suffered the effect of being dated more than twenty five years later. The film also represents a forgotten age, in which old-fashioned science-fiction films were churned out much more frequently compared to today’s few mega-budget offerings. Therefore, some might find the film quite pedestrian in terms of pacing. 1977 after all, was the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
The Island Of Dr. Moreau is clearly a cult movie; a film that a small minority will treasure and a large majority will ignore in favour of more honourable classics. It’s an enjoyable slice of science-fiction that knows its limitations, and it provides what must be one of Burt Lancaster’s most obscure roles.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the transfer is very good for a film more than twenty-five years old and not as popular as other big releases of 1977. Mostly devoid of any artefacts, but containing a considerable amount of subtle grain, the transfer is generally pleasing and very acceptable.
Presented in the film’s original mono soundtrack, the mix provided is lacking in any dynamic range and yet is mostly suitable for the job. Some elements of dialogue are hard to distinguish, but this appears to be more the fault of mumbled acting as opposed to poorly recorded sound.
Menu: A nicely designed and yet silent, static menu which is colourful but lacking in any innovation.
Packaging: Presented in an amaray packaging with usual MGM Region 1 template cover artwork. Part of MGM’s Midnite Movies rage, which means three ‘Fun Facts’ are provided on the reverse of the inlay. However, no chapter listings are provided.
Original Theatrical Trailer: Just the trailer is provided in terms of extras, and it is lengthy and features many highlights from the film, so you’d be advised to check it out after you have seen The Island Of Dr. Moreau.
The disc is bare-bones but contains decent picture and sound quality and a very entertaining adaptation of H.G. Wells’ eerie novel. The low retail price for this DVD should ensure that any well-informed sci-fi fan will snap this up.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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