Only the second of three English-speaking film adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel (the first of course being 1932’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS with Charles Laughton and the last being a 1996 version with Marlon Brando), 1977’s THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU was also the second of American International Pictures’ (AIP’s) trio of late 1970s stabs at the famed sci-fi author’s material, sandwiched in between 1976’s THE FOOD OF THE GODS and 1978’s EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. No longer stranded as an out-of-print MGM DVD release, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU now washes ashore on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
Surviving the wreck of a ship called The Lady Vain, young British engineer Andrew Braddock (Michael York, THE THREE MUSKETEERS) sails in a lifeboat for days with two companions before reaching the shores of a mysterious island. One of Braddock’s companions dies and is thrown into the ocean before they reach land, while the other one is attacked and dragged by an unseen assailant while arriving on the island. Braddock wakes up in Moreau’s compound to hear the news of his friend being buried, and is now in the presence of the mysterious recluse Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster, THE SWIMMER) who governs the tropical domain with his right hand man Dr. Montgomery (Nigel Davenport, NO BLADE OF GRASS) and his unfortunate servant M’Ling (Nick Cravet, who played the Gremlin in the celebrated “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of “The Twilight Zone”) who suffers from an acute case of homeliness. Also inhabiting the island is an exotic young woman named Maria (Barbara Carrera, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) who Braddock immediately becomes enchanted with.
As Dr. Moreau seems kind, sane and hospitable, he takes an instant liking to Braddock and makes him a welcomed guest, as it will be quite a long time before a rescue ship will make an arrival. But Braddock uncovers some very bizarre things, namely natives who are more animal than man, as Moreau has invented a serum which will turn wild predators into what you might call hybrid hum-animals that walk on two legs. Living inside a cave on the island, these genetically mutated man-beasts (who have the power of speech) are lead by the Sayer of the Law (Richard Basehart, MANSION OF THE DOOMED) and include a Boarman (The Great John L., BREAKER! BREAKER!), a Bullman (Bob Ozman, SUBURBIA), a Hyena Man (Fumio Demura, RISING SUN), a Lionman (Gary Baxley, NIGHT WARNING), a Tigerman (John Gillespie, THE ICE PIRATES) and a Bearman (David Cass, THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER). Moreau firmly rules over these beasts with a set of laws (not to eat meat, not to go on all fours, and not to spill blood) and if they defy them, they are sent to “the house of pain” for punishment. Not liking what he sees and convinced that Moreau is mad, Braddock plans to leave the island with the lovely Maria, only to be knocked out, strapped to a table and given the serum for a reverse treatment which will bring out his animal instincts. In the meantime, Moreau’s cave-dwelling experiments witness their master breaking one of the laws he has intimidatingly mandated, giving them enough reason to revolt against him.
During the 1960s, AIP took to world-famous fantasy literary sources such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft for numerous screenplays, and by the 1970s, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs came to the fold. In a last ditch effort to create another film series, the works of H.G. Wells were tapped. Their other two Wells adaptations were of the “giant mutated monster” variety and directed by Bert I. Gordon, who was a long-time specialist in this kind of cinema. The results were described as silly by some (they’re certainly fun films), with ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU coming out as the most serious and best-produced of the three at a time when AIP was struggling to compete with the majors. The film was directed by former actor Don Taylor, who had previously helmed ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, and he not only injects it with drama, suspense, and a bit of sensuality, but also, a decent dose of action. With high production values and an appropriately gorgeous location (Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands) used for the island setting, the film has a lot going for it including a top-notch cast and some terrific monster make-up by “Planet of the Apes” veterans John Chambers and Dan Striepeke, as well as Tom Burman (who had worked on THE FOOD OF THE GODS the previous year). As most of the man-beasts were played by real stuntman, that made it a lot easier for them to wrestle such killer wildlife as a fierce tiger during the wild climax.
Although Lancaster never reaches the grotesque eccentricity level of Laughton in the first filmed version or Brando in the last one, the Oscar winner (who took the role after a number of British actors had passed it up) is an ideal Moreau and actually comes close to Wells’ original conception of the character. Lancaster rarely appeared in exploitation movies, so this performance as a madman playing God is an exception, and he gives his usual all and plays well against British acting greats York (who had just been in LOGAN’S RUN) and Davenport, as well as Basehart who is also quite effective under all that make-up. There’s some fine cinematography by Gerry Fisher, and the terrific score was composed by the prolific Laurence Rosenthal. With many fans on the fence as to how this compares to the other film versions out there (not to mention imitations on the theme such as Gerry de Leon’s TERROR IS A MAN and Eddie Romero’s THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, both lensed in the Philippines), the bottom line is that the 1977 version has enough qualities to recommend it, and it makes for a great Saturday afternoon popcorn movie, especially now that it’s on Blu-ray.
First released on DVD in 2001 by MGM as part of their “Midnite Movies” line, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU came out as a Region B Blu-ray last year by 101 Films (and before that in Australia from a company called Shock), and before most of us gave up on the hope of a stateside Region A release, Kino Lorber Studio Classics stepped up to the plate a few months ago, announcing this welcomed release. MGM’s HD transfer has been utilized here, bringing us ISLAND in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio with very impressive quality. Colors look great, especially the bright blues of the oceans and sunny skies, contrasts are strong and detail is distinct and sharp throughout. The image is extremely clean with some minor filmic grain occasionally on display, fleshtones look realistically sweaty and the high definition quality doesn’t detract from the various monster make-ups which still hold up quite well. The DTS-HD master audio track sounds really good here, with dialogue (and beastie growling) presented with authority, and Rosenthal’s score (with its boisterous French Horns) comes through loud and clear. Optional English subtitles are included.
Extras include an extended trailer (5:51) which is more or less a promotional film with scenes from the movie, the original theatrical trailer and a single shot “Deleted Final Image” that was only found in the network broadcast version of the film. (George R. Reis)
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