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The F*ckin Black Sheep: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

08.06.2015by: Ryan Doom

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
Directed by John Frankenheimer

“It’s one of the most fascinatingly entertaining movies ever made.”

So last week over on my Test of Time column, I wrote about a supposed classic that I had never seen: THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (from 1977). While a respectable production, the end result is decent at best. The 1996 remake of the classic H.G. Wells story is…something else entirely. A movie plagued with so many problems (fired director, unending rewrites, angry and unwilling cast members) that it has become Hollywood legend.

In case you missed this one, a Brit named Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) is stranded out in sea after a plane crash. He’s rescued by a vet named Montgomery, (Val Kilmer) who takes him to a beautiful island ran by a mysterious Dr. Moreau  (Marlon Brando) and his merry band of man-beasts. Douglas quickly learns that Moreau and company are playing God out here, conducting experiments at will and pushing the boundaries of science to dangerous levels. 

It’s been nearly two decades since I last watched it, and I have to admit John Frankenheimer’s THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is a hell of a lot more entertaining than I remembered. Somehow, the fact it is a Frankenheimer production is intriguing (he directed tons of movies from RONIN to THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE). He didn’t always make good movies, but he never made anything this freakin’ strange as the movie plays like a demented Terry Gilliam flick. Frankenheimer came onto the movie after the original director Richard Stanley was fired a few days into production, but still he was in control of what ended up on screen. That seemingly lack of control is what makes the movie legendary, because it all ends up so f*ckin’ odd.

Now since I just revisited the 1977 version where Burt Lancaster played Dr. Moreau as a very subtle mad scientist, Brando…well, went for the opposite approach with perhaps the most peculiar performance of his career.  Skin painted Joker white, draped in white and sporting some shades, it’s just something else entirely. Supposedly, Brando insisted on having the world’s smallest man as his sidekick, which adds to the weirdness and makes THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU so bizarrely entertaining that it’s just short of fantastic. Take the scene where Brando and his small son (dressed in white same like Mini Me) play piano together or when he decides to sport an ice bucket on his head. Brando (who had just lost his daughter) is out there, man, channeling something no one has seen before.

At the same time, one of the best things about THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU comes from watching Val Kilmer when the man still looked like a stud and remained a legit star. Today…not so much, but holy shit, DR. MOREAU comes only one year after he was freakin’ Batman! As Montgomery (Moreau’s right hand man), he’s wacky good with a performance that seemingly belongs in a TOP SECRET sequel. It’s a shame Kilmer didn’t star as Douglas as he had the personality, the charm, and the chops to really be the star of the film (reportedly the role was his, but with a divorce and weirdness of the movie, Kilmer wanted a smaller role). Thewlis is a fine actor, but he just exists. Kilmer could’ve added much more. Sadly, this was the beginning of the end of his star power. Thewlis actually seems like the outsider on this perfect island as he, along with Fairuza Balk (Moreau’s daughter), are the only people playing their roles straight, injecting a bit of sanity to keep it from going completely over the rails.

I actually thought the man versus animal angle was much stronger in this version because their makeup is what actually elevates the movie as done by Stan Winston. If the creatures had not looked good and perfectly creepy (they don’t look like PLANET OF THE APES characters), then this would have suffered greatly. But I think it works. It’s a crazy movie and Kilmer (especially his Brando in white impersonations and his final line: “I want to go to dog heaven”) seems like he’s actually trying to hold onto his sanity.  

THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU isn’t a good movie. The acting is all over the place, the tone is bi-polar, and the story confusing, but it’s one of the most fascinatingly entertaining movies ever made, one so good that it starred a legend in perhaps his most nutty performance ever.





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