The Island of Dr. Moreau

(John Frankenheimer, USA, 1996)


The Island of Dr Moreau was slipped past film reviewers and hurled onto the big screen without much fanfare. Could this be because, despite the pedigree of its stars (Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer) and its veteran director (John Frankenheimer), it carries the unmistakable, embarrassing stench of a trashy movie?

If so, here is an alert to all those film buffs who are used to ferreting through all manner of pop cultural trash for its queer, amazing jewels. The Island of Dr Moreau is definitely worth seeing, preferably in the most open-minded state possible.

The story is familiar from the novel by H.G. Wells and its previous screen adaptations, most notably Island of Lost Souls (1933). Moreau (Brando) is a mad scientist who is infusing animals with human genes in order to launch the next phase of evolution. Douglas (David Thewlis) arrives in this precarious, isolated kingdom just as it is cracking apart.

It is hard to intuit, through this film, the original meaning of Wells' social allegory. Frankenheimer (a replacement for Richard Stanley, who apparently crept back on set as a disguised extra) gives the tale a jaundiced, defeatist, apocalyptic mood: humans are fascistic tyrants, and animals are base, instinctual killers. And when human and animal are mixed into the one, unholy concoction, then the real horrors start.

But, beyond its gloomy moralism, The Island of Dr Moreau is also fascinated with the freakishness that it shows. Although, in every conventional sense, the drama is weakly scripted and executed, the minute texture of the film's vile, hybrid universe is a truly compelling spectacle.

This is more than a matter of an unsettling sound design, extravagant costuming and mind-boggling special effects (courtesy especially of make-up artist extraordinaire Stan Winston). Even the casting goes out on a limb: Brando, Fairuza Balk and Ron Perlman are all present because there is something inherently odd and animalistic about their physiognomies.

For some viewers, this voyeuristic, carnival-like, freakshow quality will only add to the immense trashiness of the film. But The Island of Dr Moreau, like De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974) or Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), takes us forcefully into a realm where humanity and monstrosity, tenderness and fierceness, intermingle in ways that are both abject and strangely touching.

MORE Frankenheimer: Ronin

© Adrian Martin October 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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