The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996.
Directed by John Frankenheimer.
Starring David Thewlis, Fairuza Balk, Ron Perlman, Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, Temuera Morrison and William Hootkins.
On a remote island a visionary doctor combines animal DNA with that of humans, upsetting the balance of nature.
Dante described nine circles of hell. Various Chinese beliefs speak of anywhere from four to eighteen levels of fiery torment. However, whilst you are still alive, the closest thing that could probably approximate to the feeling of never-ending torment and woe of being cast down into some unintelligible, indescribable horror is The Island of Dr. Moreau.
This is not to say that there isn’t some kind of perverse pleasure to be had from the film, it’s just more akin to being a sado-masochist in hell than any kind of healthy, expected experience. Part of the horror is seeing so many fine actors wading their way through the crappy script, the shitty effects and their own blatant discomfort. Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis, Fairuza Balk, Ron Perlman. All are present (Well, physically at least) and all are sucked into Dr. Moreau’s black hole of despair (gross).
Marlon Brando, at this point so committed to the craft that he wore an earpiece so he could be fed his lines via radio, is the gene splicing, pontificating, sun lotion covered Doctor with Kilmer’s Montgomery his adjutant. Kilmer was having a very bad time of it during the shoot as he was in the middle of a divorce. Accordingly angry at the world, Kilmer made it his personal mission to be as pissy and troublesome as possible. After getting to the set two days late and after demanding his role be reduced, he proceeded to have a spectacular falling out with director Richard Stanley, with Stanley eventually being booted of the picture after four days and replaced by John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer stated that the only reason he wanted to do the movie was so he could work with his idol Brando, the same reason cited by Ron Perlman. I’d wager that after wrapping, both men wished they’d just kept those warm memories of On the Waterfront and Streetcar.
As it is, the film kicks off with Thewlis’ Edward Douglas adrift at sea after a plane accident and eventually picked up by Kilmer’s boat, which is on its way back from some trip to the mainland. After some TLC, Douglas is forced to disembark on Moreau’s island after he is warned that the ship’s captain has a bit of an eye for some Thewlis. Taken back to the compound, Douglas soon runs into Aissa (Fairuza Balk) who is Moreau’s ‘Daughter’. She runs away as Kilmer approaches and after Douglas remarks that she’s beautiful, Val remarks ‘Yeah, she’s a pussycat.’ (Har Har Har, it’s a joke and foreshadowing all rolled into one! GET IT?!)
Anyway, after some snooping Douglas witnesses one of the good Doctor’s creatures giving birth in a laboratory and, as clumsy people trying to be quiet in films are, he is soon heard and chased by more beasties. Eventually taken to the ‘Sayer of the Law’ (Ron Perlman), Douglas listens to the Sayer’s sermon which basically lays out the humanity in the hybrids as their godliness and the animalistic as their debased, sinful side. Ron Perlman, playing a character without the use of his sight, wore contacts that rendered him blind, so as to really get into the character of what appears to a half-man, half-lion (those wise old lions). As a bonus, it’d also spare him having to witness a lot of the ‘acting’ that was going on as well.
So far, so bad. But ho hum, Brando’s about to appear so it might be alright. Yep. Marlon Brando makes his BIG entrance and he looks like… Well, I can’t really say. I have never seen anything like it before or since. He’s just Marlon Brando. But nuts. Brando’s Moreau has a sort of soft, lilting English accent which only really adds to his oddness. He also seems to be wearing dentures and this kind of detracts from any wisdom or insight that he might have and just makes him seem like even more of a fruity weirdo, if that’s at all possible.
Then, back in Moreau’s study/lounge, the doctor and Douglas discuss just what the hell is going on in this topsy turvy place. He presents his ‘children’ to Douglas and he also has a mini-me, who clearly freaks the ever-loving shit out of Douglas and probably would any other sane person. One thing that the film is good for is brilliant unintentional comedy moments. Upon seeing this little fellow (and in light of the fact that Douglas says he is a UN negotiator) he shouts and points: “Look at these people! Look at Him!” You can only imagine his skill when he gets the Israeli’s and the Palestinian’s around a table. When the little pink man tries to shake his hand, Douglas responds thusly:
After Douglas displays all the tact and nuanced questioning tactics of a seasoned negotiator – “Did it ever occur to you that you might have totally lost your mind?” / “This is positively Satanic” etc. – everyone breaks for a while before dinner at eight. Dinner is preceded by Moreau and the little pink man playing a duet on the piano, which is made even more bizarre by Moreau and his companion both sporting long, white du-rags. After which they break out a couple of 40’s and get silly. After that part that didn’t really happen, they all sit down to dinner and one of Moreau’s boys reads a poem by Yeats called ‘The Second Coming’, which discusses feelings of desolation with the world in it’s current state and feelings of apprehension at what the future will hold. This could be either an allegory for the Doctor’s withdrawal from the world and his god complex or as more foreshadowing of when the island will descend into bloody chaos. Moments of highfalutin’ discourse like this are peppered through the film and make it even more obvious that the script was pulled in various directions by its many writers, with Brando even re-writing some of the script himself and Thewlis admitting he re-wrote his own lines. Mostly though, the film is wrenched more in the direction of action-chase sequences and oddly numbing, beastly violence. Rather than any kind of meditation on ethics or the thoughts Wells had of the ultimately animalistic nature of man and the implications of rapid scientific advancement, we get Val Kilmer trying to do an impression of Marlon Brando but sounding like he’s got a severe sinus infection. It doesn’t help the scene that Thewlis is making no attempt to stifle his laughter. Presumably the laughter of a man driven mad by the combined psycho powers of Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando.
Following an inevitable uprising, Moreau is torn limb from limb and everything truly goes to shit. The tenuous hold the doctor had on his creations gone and without their inhibiting serum, the beasts soon start to revert to their animal instincts. Things aren’t helped by a scene that heightens the creepy o-meter from ‘mild’ to ‘I want to go home and cry in the shower.’ Now in a mental realm somewhere beyond our nearest star, Kilmer’s Montgomery holds a sort of sweaty orgy rave for the rapidly regressing beasts and plies them all with mind bending drugs. What could go wrong?! Well, after five what I imagine were very uncomfortable and confusing minutes for the extras dressed as manimals, Montgomery is killed by Moreau’s evil son. Thewlis and Balk come steaming in and after a lot of comedy hissing and miaowing from Balk, both are subdued, with Balk’s Aissa summarily hung for being her Father’s favourite.
The creatures, now in control, soon turn on one another as one Hyenaman deems himself a god and is convinced by Thewlis that there must be a ‘Number One God’. Slaying all his heavies, Hyenaman is also shot and after a beating from those still loyal to their dead master, walks into Moreau’s burning house, shouting “Father… WHHHYY?” just like a really shoved-in-your-face religious parable.
Douglas leaves the island behind, safe in the knowledge that the benevolent Sayer of The Law will guide the remaining creatures to some kind of peaceable existence. Over a montage of people brawling in the streets, war, murder and so on, Thewlis narrates a monologue about how he sees the beast in all men and goes onwards, homewards in fear blahblahblehbleh. You know, just to really nail the message home.
After completion, David Thewlis declined to attend the premiere and says he has never seen the film as it was such a bad, painful experience. A decision which neatly mirrors the mindset the character his is based on in HG Wells’ book – Edward Prendick, who fakes having no memory of his year on the island because it was so horrifying. Interviewed at Cannes in 1997, Thewlis had this to say about it: “Well, The Island of Dr Moreau wasn’t very good, was it? I remember the day Brando turned round to me and said this was the craziest thing he’d ever been involved in and I thought, if this is the craziest thing Brando has been involved in, then fuck me…”
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