Did you ever hear the one about the visionary director who went into the jungle with Marlon Brando and nearly lost his mind while trying to adapt a dark Victorian-era literary classic about civilization’s heart of darkness?
No, not that one. The other one.
Unlike Apocalypse Now, there’s never been any grand reappraisal of the 1996 version of The Island of Dr Moreau. Aside from inspiring a couple of memorable pop culture parodies, that film’s legacy is purely destructive: it killed original director Richard Stanley’s career for a solid two decades, precipitated Val Kilmer’s expulsion from the A-list, and cemented Brando as a laughingstock during his twilight years. This is to say nothing of the collective trauma its implausible production inflicted on the rest of its cast and crew (all of which is covered in the entertaining documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau).
Today, it is universally regarded as one of the worst movies of the 90s, and while there are some who consider it so-bad-it’s-good, it enjoys nowhere near the same camp cachet as fellow big-budget turkeys from its era (although it would certainly make for a perfect double feature with the most recent inductee to this disreputable canon, Cats).
It falls then on me to defend the film on un-ironic grounds – a mission that will no doubt result in my being thoroughly and deservedly savaged, not unlike the titular good doctor. But while I would never argue that The Island of Dr Moreau is a good movie, I do say it is altogether too strange and too memorable to be dismissed as garbage.
The third cinematic adaptation of HG Wells’s great 1896 science fiction novel, this updated retelling finds a plane crash survivor (David Thewlis) land on a mysterious island run by a messianic mad scientist (Brando) and populated by a horrifying cross section of human-animal hybrids. As he attempts to escape, rebel factions within the vivisected tribe plot to free themselves from the shackles of their god-like master. The end result is basically Planet of the Apes by way of Jonestown, or even the recent Capitol riot. Scoff if you will, but I defy you to watch the movie’s (admittedly ham-fisted) final coda and not think of this month’s events.
If that all sounds unpleasant, well, that’s the point. It’s also a major point in the film’s favor. If nothing else, Moreau ought to be appreciated as one of the gnarliest, most aggressively stomach-churning movies ever produced by a major studio (unbelievably, it carries a PG-13 rating). This is due mostly to the centerpiece makeup effects, courtesy of Stan Winston Studios, which run the gamut from strikingly realistic to uncannily off-putting to outright comical. But collectively, the beast people – including a leopard man, hyena man, pig woman, a couple of dog boys, and, most memorable of all, a four-foot tall, flayed-skinned Brando clone – make for a truly revolting collection of monsters. Like Thewlis’s character (and probably Thewlis himself), the viewer is consistently on the verge of hurling. John Frankenheimer, who replaced Stanley as director after only the second day of shooting, doubles down on the intoxicated, carnivalesque atmosphere by loading the frame with wide-angle closeups, split diopters, arc shots and Dutch angles, all of which heighten the utter insanity unfolding on screen.
Several of the most baffling scenes come courtesy of Brando’s constant tinkering and improvising: his grand reveal, which finds him draped in a white muumuu and caked in Kabuki makeup; a piano duet with his tiny clone where they’re stacked like musical Matryoshka dolls; a rambling heart-to-heart with his cat-woman daughter (Fairuza Balk, sadly, mostly wasted) while she pours ice into a metal bucket he’s wearing as a hat.
Brando may have been taking the piss with these bugnuts ideas, but they imbue the film with a heavy dose of dream logic. Meanwhile, his co-star and fellow prima donna Kilmer finds himself playing another Jim Morrison type, only more soured and sinister. His open contempt for the material informs his embittered character, lending a sharp edge to the proceedings that slices through the druggy fog lying over it all. Kilmer was supposedly a real bastard behind the scenes, but you can’t say he’s not giving a good performance, especially once he starts hilariously aping and mimicking Brando in the apocalyptic third act.
It’s cliche to describe a movie as a “fever dream”, but in this case, the term truly fits. After watching The Island of Dr Moreau, the viewer is sure to feel pretty queasy, a little sleazy, and probably very confused as to what they just went through.
Does this make for a pleasant viewing experience? No, but it’s makes for a memorable one. We think of Hollywood as a dream factory, but no one ever said they had to be nice dreams.