Awfully Good: The Island of Dr. Moreau

I was tempted to do a column on the historic badness of CATS, but I feel enough has been written about that abomination. Instead, let’s look at another cinematic disaster featuring terrifying animal-human hybrids…


The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)


Director: Richard Stanley (Week 1), John Frankenheimer
Stars: Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis


A man survives a shipwreck only to end up stranded on an island filled with hideously deformed creatures. And I'm not just talking about Marlon Brando.

It takes a special kind of movie to be so terrible that someone makes an entire feature length documentary about how bad it is. LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY'S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU was released in 2014 and meticulously chronicles the famously disastrous production that Marlon Brando once described as "trying to complete a crossword puzzle while falling down an elevator shaft."

If you're not familiar with the behind-the-scenes drama of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, here's a quick rundown of what went wrong. (Spoiler Alert: EVERYTHING.)


Original director Richard Stanley, the man behind the 1990 cult film HARDWARE, spent nearly five years adapting H.G. Wells' classic novel as a personal passion project. New Line Cinema, who was already skeptical about turning over such a hefty production to a big budget newbie, only came around after attached star Brando took a liking to Stanley, allegedly due to the fact that Colonel Kurtz from APOCALYPSE NOW was based on one of Stanley’s relatives. Stanley convinced legendary effects guru Stan Winston to handle the creature FX and they were officially greenlit.

By all accounts, that was the last good thing to happen to THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU.

Not the DREDD sequel we wanted.

Everything that transpired next was a mix of cruel fate and competing Hollywood egos. Before filming even began, an avalanche of bad luck befell the cast, throwing everything in to chaos. Marlon Brando’s daughter took her own life, pushing the already eccentric actor further in to a downward mental spiral. Bruce Willis, who was originally supposed to play the role of Douglas, dropped out due to his divorce with Demi Moore. Val Kilmer took over the part, only to learn his wife was also divorcing him. The actor himself later admitted this turned him in to a nightmare on set, starting with the demand that he only work a fraction of his original contracted days. Even after they switched him to the smaller supporting character of Montgomery, Kilmer still refused to deliver his dialogue properly and constantly and publically criticized Stanley just to be difficult. It caused so much tension and fighting that filming was halted and even more actors dropped out.

Less than a week after production started, the studio fired Richard Stanley in the most 1990s way possible—via a fax. (Stanley largely disappeared after this; although legend has it he camped in the Australian outback and eventually snuck back on to set as one of the heavily made-up creatures.) New Line brought on RONIN director John Frankenheimer, who immediately recast the lead role with David Thewlis and had the entire script overhauled. The constant rewrites led to a lot of adlibbing and ill-prepared actors, including Marlon Brando, who famously had to use an earpiece to feed him his lines. Not only did this result in a stilted, awkward performance, but the famed actor’s receiver would randomly pick up police scanners and other signals. (Thewlis claims Brando actually delivered the line “There's a robbery at Woolworths,” thinking it was in the script.)

ISLAND OF DR MOREAU david thewlis gun
David Thewlis, tell us how you really feel.

That's assuming they could even get the actors on to set. Marlon Brando constantly refused to leave his trailer due to the heat, while Val Kilmer simply continued just being a huge douche to everyone, everywhere. In fact, Brando and Kilmer hated each other so much that both men held the production hostage regularly, refusing to be the first one on set, instead leaving crew and cast, many in full creature makeup, waiting for hours.

And this is only scraping the surface of how dysfunctional, out of control, and downright wacky the production got. By the end, it was like real life imitating art—what was supposed to be six weeks stretched in to a six month shoot, making everyone despise Brando and Kilmer for being insane egomaniacs just like their characters in the film. There's a story that when Frankenheimer yelled "Cut!" after the final take of Val Kilmer's last day, he immediately followed it up with, "Now get that bastard off my set."


Some films can have troubled productions or suffer massive creative differences and still come out fine, but DR. MOREAU is definitely not one of them. The final product feels like the result of so many bad decisions and so many people throwing their hands in the air and giving up. There are hints of potentially interesting ideas about human nature and religion, but the giant nothingburger of a script (or whatever was adlibbed on set) doesn't bother to explore any of them. The closest you get is a bizarre monologue Brando delivers about killing the devil that doesn't make any sense in the context of the film. And for something based on such well-regarded source material, there's barely any real characters or story explored, instead wasting time with weird tangents. I think Brando's Mini-Me sidekick gets more screentime than any of the other characters more important to the story.

From a technical standpoint, it's also a disappointment. There's barely any memorable action or excitement. The editing is amateurish, often connecting together scenes with confusing timing. And the creatures themselves should've been a slam dunk coming from Stan Winston, but at best, they're a mixed bag. Each is supposed to be a hybrid of different animals, but everything looks so muddled that you can't tell what any of them are supposed to be. And don't get me started on the hilarious CGI they use when the animals run.

Well, this is the weirdest Rolex ad ever.

To hear everyone explain why they signed on to DR. MOREAU in the first place, the simple answer is that they wanted a chance to work with Marlon Brando. The role of a mad scientist who creates generations of human-animal hybrids in search of the perfect creature seems like a good match for the actor and a performance enough for him to chew on. But even though Brando is really only in the movie for the second act, he still manages to derail it with all of his odd choices and behavior.

Due to the heat, Brando insisted on only wearing mumus and other similar garments. He also would randomly show up in horrifying whiteface to protect himself from the sun. (This was written in to the script as an allergy to sunlight.) And who could forget the scene where the title character is randomly wearing an ice bucket like a hat, solely because Marlon Brando refused to shoot the scene unless he could have a container of ice on his head and the production, just wanting to go home, actually let him do it. So there you have poor Fairuza Balk stuck pouring ice on to Marlon Brando's head while he adlibs a line about his "caloric inverter" being empty. This is not what anyone signed up for.

Brando's most memorable demand, however, has to be the inclusion of 2-foot, 4-inch tall actor Nelson de la Rosa as Moreau's miniature clone. Originally hired to be a background actor, Brando became obsessed with de la Rosa and insisted that he be given more and more scenes with him. So the writers took away lines and story elements from other characters who had a real role in the story, and added in nonsense scenes where Marlon Brando plays a full-length piano duet with his little friend. Ironically, it's not only the most enjoyable element of the final film, but it went on to inspire similar characters in AUSTIN POWERS and SOUTH PARK.

ISLAND OF DR MOREAU marlon brando mini meISLAND OF DR MOREAU marlon brando mini meISLAND OF DR MOREAU marlon brando mini meISLAND OF DR MOREAU marlon brando mini me
Mini Me, you complete me.

Not to be outdone, Val Kilmer also saw his character Montgomery suffer from the actor's bizarre demands and choices. That ranges from something small like Montgomery randomly kissing and having sexual tension with creatures to a scene where Kilmer decided to wear a damn motherboard on his head for zero reason. And you can really feel the hate that Kilmer and Brando had for one another in any scene they had to share, with each actor determined to out-crazy the other with their performance. This culminates in the final act of the film where Kilmer just stops giving any semblance of f*cks and starts straight up doing a bad Marlon Brando impersonation (while running a nightclub and doing drugs with the animals), mocking him in ways that I'm sure were not originally scripted.

Why yes, that is Marlon Brando's miniature clone standing completely nude in the background of this shot. Why do you ask?

And you can't help but feel sorry for the other actors:

  • David Thewlis is the main character of the film but he spends his entire runtime just reacting to all the random stuff and bizarre behavior of the other actors. The only scene where Thewlis doesn’t seem to be actively miserable is one where he gets to slap Kilmer, so much so that he can't help himself from smiling.
  • Fairuza Balk plays a female love interest that only exists because the filmmakers felt like they needed one. She eventually begins to turn in to a cat and the editors just hysterically dub real cat noises over her.
  • Ron Perlman is also in this movie and there's a creature that looks just like Ron Perlman, but for some unknown reason, this character is not played by Ron Perlman.

Amazingly enough, this is NOT the creature played by Ron Perlman.

I could write about THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU all day. It's one of the most spectacular and fascinating failures in modern cinema. I'd be lying if I said that didn't make it at least somewhat entertaining to watch, especially once you know more about the behind-the-scenes chaos. If you have any interest, I highly recommend checking out the LOST SOUL documentary to hear the full, crazy story. And be sure to support Richard Stanley's first (!!) movie since MOREAU, the Nicolas Cage-H.P. Lovecraft flick COLOR OUT OF SPACE which is out in theaters in a couple weeks.

Nonsense from Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando, and Val Kilmer imitating Marlon Brando.

Some of the film's most unforgettable moments.

Just a topless horse monster during childbirth, Sexy!

Wanna go to doggy heaven? Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • Marlon Brando does something crazy
  • Val Kilmer does something crazy
  • David Thewlis is visibly full of regret
  • Someone talks about the law

Double shot if:

  • An animal is electrocuted


Thanks to David and Ryuma for suggesting this week's movie!


Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email or follow him on Twitter and give him an excuse to drink.


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