The Test of Time: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: Don Taylor
Starring: Michael York, Burt Lancaster, and Nigel Davenport

I think every movie fanboy has a list stashed somewhere of movies that they’ve always wanted to see but never did. Some of it is shameful crap (need to finish that CYBORG franchise) while others fall under that classic category (still need to sit through HALLOWEEN…kidding). For this week, I dove into that list to give one of those titles a go, one that (when people actually rented disks and bought them) I used to see all the time yet never pulled the trigger. Sure, H.G. Wells is the stuff of legends, but can a certain adaptation from 1977 stand the Test of Time? 

Under the examination: THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU.

At least his hair looks good.

THE STORY: When a couple Brits become shipwrecked, they wash up on the shores of a tropical island. After one of them disappears…like immediately, lone survivor Andrew Braddock (Michael York) meets Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster) and his assistant Montgomery (Nigel Davenport). Braddock notices that the folks on the island look a tad off (minus the very pretty Barbara Carrera) as they look like man-beasts or beast-men. Braddock gets all nosey and soon discovers that Dr. Moreau has been conducting experiments on people by genetically and surgically manipulating people into something inhuman. Can he set things right before he becomes one of them?

A mad scientist light on mad. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Hmm, I’ve written quite a few of these articles and this is one of the few titles that I’ve come across where not much holds up. Directed by Don Taylor (known mainly for directing sequels like ESCAPE FROM PLANET OF THE APES and DAMIEN: OMEN II), I honestly didn’t know what to expect while watching THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU for the first time. I knew the basic plot was obviously interesting enough and my love for 1970’s cinema and sci-fi should make this one of those lost classics that I never had the pleasure of meeting. 

The easy stuff to dig comes from the cast and the classic story. For those unacquainted, Burt Lancaster (Oscar winner and true movie star) always brings the goods, and here he plays the title role of the mad scientist…without much madness. He’s cool, calm, and a little messed up, but he makes a quality villain without going over the top. A toned down villain isn’t always a good thing, but it did catch me off guard as I expected something wackier like in the Marlon Brando remake. Michael York I mainly remember from LOGAN’S RUN but he’s decent here. It was tough not to compare him to Charlton Heston, and against that man is why York is only decent…coming across as a little too average. I’ll knock the makeup below, but it’s not terrible by any means. It looks like classic cinema makeup…it’s just too bad most of the characters look so Planet-Apish. 

It looks like they are carrying a random pair of legs. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: The bad comes from everything looking like a cheap, B-movie version of PLANET OF THE APES. From the sets to the makeup, nothing looks or feels original (which makes more sense after learning director Taylor is an Apes alumni). Now I know part of the problem with a film like this comes from knowing the story without ever seeing the damn thing (thanks to that old SOUTH PARK episode among others). The idea of Dr. Frankenstein on a pretty island and a safari hat in place of lab coat didn’t do much for me. Sure, it’s an H.G. Wells story but the screenwriters could have done more…like not depend so much on the “law” set in place by the good doctor that his creatures cannot kill. 

On top of that, the pacing is too damn slow, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the flick. For something like THE WICKER MAN, the slow pace works because the viewer gets wrapped up in the ploy of a murder. But for THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, suspense was seriously lacking. Maybe it’s like watching a new movie in which the trailer gives way too much shit away (looking at you, TERMINATOR GENISYS). The story is too familiar, too predictable. That’s not the film’s fault. That’s time. But…it helps if the thing isn’t boring as well. 

Folks don't hold guns like this anymore. 

THE VERDICT:  THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is interesting, but it lacks any serious punch or defining kick ass moments (either visual or action). Instead, it plays like an APES knock off; it really needed something more. Maybe there’s a reason why most folks never make it through that stashed list of movies to watch.





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