The Island of Dr Moreau

There are lots of bad movies. Some movies are so bad they become legendary. Take Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room as illustrations. But how many bad movies inspire a documentary about their troubled production? On paper, the 1996 adaptation of HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau looked like prestige horror. There was John Frankenheimer on one side of the camera, and Marlon Brandon and Val Kilmer on the other side. And Stan Winston supervised the creature effects. What could go wrong? Plenty. Filmmaker David Gregory has already documented the movie’s troubled production in Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau. Yet after over 20 years, as Dr Moreau achieved cult movie status? Or is it still just a bad movie?

The Island of Dr Moreau Boasts Gonzo Performances

Bad movie fans will find lots to love about The Island of Dr Moreau. Chief among those reasons are Brando and Kilmer’s bizarre performances. From the moment he appears on screen, Brando captivates with his eccentric ‘performance’. Nothing about his character screams ‘Nobel Price winning geneticist’. At one point, Brando is covered in a ‘moo moo’ and white face paint. Later in the movie, Brando sports a bucket with ice on his head. Brando’s ‘Moreau’ spends most of the movie complaining about the heat. It’s not clear if he’s playing a character or just rambling incoherently. For his part, Kilmer looks bored with everything going on around him. By the movie’s end, Kilmer’s either stoned or has just given up and opted to go out with a spot-on Brando impersonation.

It’s not clear if he’s playing a character or just rambling incoherently.

Poor David Thewlis does his best to bring some dignity to the proceedings. However, it’s hard to tell sometimes if Thewlis is playing his character or if he’s just genuinely exasperated with his co-stars and the behind-the-scenes chaos. Maybe Ron Perlman probably just convinced himself he was still filming Beauty and the Beast, and collected his pay check. And The Island of Dr Moreau largely wastes Fairuza Balk (The Craft) in a role that borders on silly.

A Story As Mixed Up As Its Genetic Creatures

Don’t fret too much about The Island of Dr Moreau’s ‘interesting’ performances. They may be the best part. Despite its prestigious source material, Moreau has an incomprehensible story. To be fair, Richard Stanley’s screenplay may not solely be to blame. Editing certainly contributed to the muddled narrative. As the movie progresses, one clearly gets the impression that the studio left something on the editing room floor. Character motivations are murky. Kilmer’s ‘Montgomery’, for instance, comes and goes. Some ideas remain underdeveloped. Other plot points feel like they were sped up too quickly.

Where The Island of Dr Moreau really fails is its mishandling of the novel’s timeless themes. Yes, Thewlis’ ‘Douglas’ narrates stuff about humanity’s capacity for violence. And Moreau prattles on about ‘perfecting’ humanity with his hybrids. Most viewers can probably infer from the basic premise that Moreau touches on our primal nature and scientific morality. However, none of these ideas are really developed. Any clever concepts that pop up are quickly lost in all the chaos.

Stan Winston’s Creature Effects A Lone Highlight

Fortunately, the studio hired special effects wizard Stan Winston (Aliens, Predator). Though most of The Island of Moreau now plays for laughs, Winston’s creature effects are top-notch. In particular, ‘Hyena-Swine’ and ‘Cheetah-Man’ feel like real living, breathing creatures. Not surprisingly, Winston convinces you that animal-human hybrids are possible. Even after over 20 years, the make-up effects hold up. Other special effects haven’t age well. Anytime Moreau’s creatures move quickly, it can’t help but look unnatural. Nonetheless, The Island of Dr Moreau ones nothing to diminish Winston’s legacy.

The Island of Dr Moreau A Case Study in Bad Movie-Making

Undoubtedly, The Island of Dr Moreau is a bad movie. A really bad movie. This is the kind of movie that actors and directors wish they could leave off their CV. Still it’s not a boring movie. Some cinephiles may even find a perverse pleasure in watching Moreau. Like The Room and Plan 9 From Outer Space, there’s something oddly delightful in the movie’s dishevelled vibe. It’s not so much low expectations, but rather willingness to laugh along with (or at) The Island of Dr Moreau that makes it fun to watch.

FINAL VERDICT: SO BAD, IT’S GOOD

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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