Anything one reads or hears about this doomed production is usually way more interesting than what was actually caught on film. Still there is always something that draws one in to watching a train wreck.
This was officially the third go around for the novel from H.G. Wells story originally written in 1896. Previously it had tangled with the “code” in the notorious Charles Laughton film of ’33 and in 1976 Burt Lancaster took on the role of the doctor who tampered with evolution.
Utilizing the stunning backdrop of Australian locations we have David Thewlis as a man lost at sea who is picked up by a passing schooner delivering supplies to the island of our title. On board he connects with Val Kilmer who professes to be heading to the island where he is employed by our mysterious Dr. Moreau.
“Are you a doctor?” asks Thewlis. “I’m more like a vet.” points out Val. Later when Thewlis runs into Fairuza Balk, Kilmer points out, ‘She’s a pussycat” Assuming one knows the story then the hint of a smile is totally acceptable.
When Kilmer warns Thewlis about staying in the island mansion and locking him in his room I can’t help but think of Jonathan Harker’s journey and subsequent imprisonment in Stoker’s Dracula. Realistically the first thirty minutes of this John Frankenheimer film are not all that bad. It’s the build up to seeing Brando on screen as Moreau that should be a moment of triumph yet when it comes it’s down right laughable. He’s being carried like a Roman Emperor in to a shanty town full of man like animals. He’s covered in white dress and powder to keep the sun from bothering him and uses a microphone to talk to the beasts.
The remainder of the film is almost irrelevant as it loses it’s way and turns into a Planet of the Apes style take over. The man like Hyena becomes the leader of the opposition to Brando and Kilmer leading a revolt toting machine guns and other assorted firearms against their creators.
Val Kilmer has been reported as totally ego driven while this film was in production. On screen he’s fine in the first few scenes but he’s totally taking a page out of Brando’s book when he goes over the top towards the fade out and actually imitates Marlon on screen. I’m not even sure it’s laughably bad as opposed to just bad.
Marlon seems to be channeling the spirit of Charles Laughton in another embarrassing “take the money and run” performance which he seemed to do repeatedly towards the end of his film career. In the space of 8 minutes he’s had more freaky looking costume changes than Marlene Dietrich in a 1930’s extravaganza. With the long journey of the first half hour coming to an end and the build up of Brando’s character it’s an easy comparison to his appearance in Apocalypse Now as Kurtz.
It should be noted that there is some magnificently made up actors here in the creature outfits credited to the wizardry of Stan Winston.
And where are “the house of pain” references?
Originally this film was conceived and put together by Richard Stanley. His tale of woe is well documented in Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Through interviews and archival footage we are taken from his early days of piecing the film together and production designs in the hopes of making a modestly budgeted movie with New Line Cinema. That all changes when Brando comes on board.
The budget explodes and Bruce Willis and James Woods are quickly attached to the production. As with most any film there are hurdles and obstacles along the way. Willis falls out, Kilmer comes on board and Woods is pushed aside. By all accounts Kilmer appears to be a total ass and director Stanley finds himself in over his head on a big budgeted film with egos the size of King Kong’s cranium.
Stanley is removed from his dream project and the sure hand of veteran Frankenheimer is brought on board. As we now know Island of Dr. Moreau was doomed from the start. Still I have to wonder if they had gotten a better troop of team players in the lead roles perhaps things might have worked out differently. For both Stanley and the finished product.
While the documentary rightly focuses on Stanley I kind of wish there was more on Brando and his ridiculous appearance in this box-office bomb. I guess any outtakes and behind the scenes footage he might be in wasn’t available to the makers of this effort. It should be noted that perhaps the supposedly spoiled brat Kilmer paid a little to much attention to Marlon on set. Not only can he do a fair imitation of Brando which he also did in Twixt for Coppola but he seems to have turned to Marlon’s tailor of late for fittings on his clothing size. Sorry Val.
If you’re going to watch either of these they really should be watched in succession to get a better idea of what the original intent was versus the final product.