Creature Features in Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
Awe, the 90s. Nothing quite hints that you are venturing into the realm of 1990s cinema like introspection, mad science (or fear of science), and Val Kilmer. 90s movies are also grouped into that category of not so cult classics with few actually becoming cult classics, sometimes rightfully so, others…not. Actually, truth be told, there are quite a few 90s flicks most consider to be bombs I, for some off reason, rather enjoy. The Ghost and the Darkness is a great example of a wonderful film that has fallen into obscurity. Lions, Douglas, and The Val Kilmer!!! What more do you need? Some 90s horror flicks are more serious than others, such as The Relic. And others are more comedic, like Tremors. And there are some 90s films too great, too fantastically wrapped in speculation that it ascends all others. I am of course referring to the 1996 debacle that is The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Before we continue, shall we recall this delectable movie?
After being rescued and brought to an island, a man discovers that its inhabitants are experimental animals being turned into strange-looking humans, all of it the work of a visionary doctor.
Have I mentioned how much I love those IMDb synopsis?
Well, they are not entirely wrong. It just feels…horribly vague compared to the drama that surrounds and infuses The Island of Dr. Moreau. What drama you ask? We’ll get to that in a moment. First, lets break this sucker down, shall we? So yes, there is a rescue out at sea when one Edward Douglas (played by the always charming Brit David Thewlis) is on a life-raft set a drift. And our survivor is not alone, there are others with him, and as the movie narrates for us, the survivors are fighting each other over the quickly diminishing supplies. Thus, this very short and easily missed scene establishes for us perhaps what the question is that we’ll be wrestling over, human nature and violence in the ugly face of survival, or so one would think…
Anyhow. Our survivor is soon rescued and brought to a private island where he can radio for another boat brave enough to venture to this very isolated and secretive island. And just who was his dashing rescuer? Who is the hero who pulled him out of the sea? Val mother f-king Kilmer, playing the role of one Dr. Montgomery, who is questionably a doctor; more a veterinarian. We need to perhaps discuss a little more on Mr. Kilmer. I know there are not too many fans left around seeing how he’s been reduced to playing in horribly produced b-movies nowadays, but this was a shy over twenty years ago (feeling old?). He was in his prime. Some may question if he’d ever had a prime, but I say boo boo to those naysayers. Kilmer was a fantastic actor, from high flying jerk in Top Gun to sociopathic killer turned armed robber in Heat. He’s done drama and comedy and everything in between. Not to mention his stint of the cape crusader in Batman: Forever. Perhaps not the most beloved Batman film, but certainly not the worst. His role as Montgomery felt strangely in tune to the insanity hanging over not only the island but the production as well. Playing both mystic hippy and savior to psychotic and oddly stoic. For me, his Montgomery is one of the better parts of the movie.
The movie begins to kinda take off at a sprint around the time when our survivor is locked in his room by Montgomery. And one would think there ought to be some feeling of mystery or dread here, give me some lightening and rain, but sadly no. At best, Douglas acts as some spoiled brat, ungrateful for his rescue, and “breaks out” as a teenager escaping being grounded to his room. In fact, let us surmise something important here and now. When I first screened this movie back in the 90s, I was all about seeing Douglas, the survivor and moral judge of the film, as the hero. I was young and understood the world very little. In my mind, he was the good guy because he was simply the protagonist. The soon to be discovered “beasts” were the villains only because they were…well…beasts. Horrible, I know, but hey…I was naive. Watching the movie today, I found myself shouting victor for…everyone else. Even the quack scientist/wanna be god, with a small g, Dr. Moreau (played by an aging and supposedly uncaring let’s collect our paycheck Marlon Brando).
Not to get ahead of myself. The film does get a little catwampus from here. Douglas goes for a stroll after escaping his room and happens upon some strange sounds. He investigates cause…I guess that’s what you do when you hear strange noises. He soon discovers the source of those macabre screams. It seems one of the locals on the island is giving birth. But this is no normal birth and those physicians, aside from Montgomery, are no normal people. To Douglas they seem like upright horrors with fur and large teeth. Even the soon delivered baby has some rather haunting eyes and a screech that is no utterance of any human baby. To be perfectly honest, this scene is just about perfect and does ring of terror. They baby…whatever it was, mere-goat, looked grotesque and chilling, as if screaming, “Why have you made me?”
Douglas, terrified, runs off into the woods. He runs into Aissa (played by bug eyed beauty Fairuza Balk) who promises him, what sounds like, a way off the island as long as he promises to take her with him. But that’s not what she does and even if she could, the only ship there is invested with rat-people, very small very CGI rat-people. Anyways, this is where things get kinda of confusing. Aissa leads Douglas to Sayer of the Law, some kind of blind man-goat preacher (played by the always badass Ron Perlman), but why? You’d think maybe the Sayer was some sort of resistance leader against their “creator.” But he isn’t. Sayer preaches the Master’s gospel of non-malevolence. Why did Aissa bring him there if she wanted to escape? Did she even want to escape? I’m so confused…
And that’s about the summation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Confusion laid on top of more confusion. Especially when Douglas is “captured” and has a long talk with Dr. Moreau about what the good doctor has done and without much build up that Douglas was even religious starts in on this whole blasphemy stick. Crimes against God, with a big G, and so on. I understand the argument, this was the 90s after all and cloning was in the news a lot, something about a cute little goat being cloned and the religious right was on the warpath. But if you’re going to make that argument, you have to lay in some ground work first. Let the audience know Douglas is zealous.
Which they didn’t.
And folks like me got really confused over Douglas’s moral standing.
The confusion perhaps could have something to do with the direction of the movie verses producer expectations. In fact, there’s an entire documentary called Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Yup. A over an hour long documentary was made on the strange and confusing tale of turning H.G. Wells literary masterpiece of the same title into a movie. Scandal be damned, it’s actually really good. And informative. Needless to say, changing directors and actors mid-stream can create…confusion. I’m actually surprised an actor as iconic as Brando stuck around, unless of course he needed the paycheck.
If given the chance and ignoring some of the confusion its not that bad of a movie. My perspective has certainly changed since my original screening back in 1996. As well it should. Given the twenty some years, my perspective had damn better change some. On Dr. Moreau’s strange island of human-beasts, I first saw them as villains, as monsters, because they looked like monsters. Now I know better. Now I know its not what’s on the outside that make’s us beasts, its what’s on the inside. In our struggle to survive on life boats or how we present ourselves to the world it is our actions that define us. Good or bad. If a movie can teach us that, well…then that’s a pretty damn good movie in my opinion. And besides, its got the Kilmer in it, how could you NOT like it?
My rating: 3.5 out of 5.
With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.