To get ready for the latest adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, I boned up on my Wellsiana and read the book and again watched the 1977 Burt Lancaster and 1932 Charles Laughton versions. I was psyched going in -- after all, the new film is directed by John Frankenheimer and stars Marlon Brando as Moreau -- but now I feel like a big wuss having done all that research. After sitting through the sorry mess of Version 3, it's clear I prepared more for this film than the filmmakers.
Not that the ear-lier adaptations are marvelous. The Laughton version, called Island of Lost Souls, is easily the best but still full of howlers. As the insane scientist in his jungle kingdom who practices ghoulish vivisections on wild animals to bring out the human in them, Laughton had a pudgy demonism that couldn't be laughed off. He cracked his whip at his cowering beast-people like he was a dungeon master delirious with his own sadism. The glistening black-and-white cinematography turned Moreau's island into a heebie-jeebie shadowland.
But what poked out of the shadows was all too obviously a bunch of guys in hyena suits. And then there was Bela Lugosi as the furball-faced Sayer of the Law -- when he intoned, "Are we not men?" to his snorting legions he ascended into camp-classic heaven.
The 1977 Moreau was a dismal vivisection of Wells' genuinely creepy 1896 novel, which shocked late Victorians with its worst-possible-case Darwinism (and still resonates today in a world of gene-splicing and cryogenics and all the rest). Burt Lancaster toned down the sadist in Moreau and turned up the wronged man of science. He commits his atrocities in order to achieve Better Living Through Grafting. He's not a bad guy, really, just driven. He even listens to The Magic Flute on his Victrola. As the shipwrecked Englishman who is brought into the island horrors by Moreau's assistant, Montgomery, Michael York looks vaguely perturbed -- like he's lost his way at the L.A. Zoo. When Moreau turns him into a giant man-rat, the surprise is how little he's changed.
The Frankenheimer version, set in the near future, is a kind of Planet of the Apes meets Ed Wood. What is it about monkeyshines that sends Hollywood filmmakers into the dumper? If Congo was the worst high-level movie of 1995, this new Moreau is odds-on to cop 1996 honors. It's phony from the first moment -- when we find out that the shipwrecked (or, in this case, planewrecked) Englishman, Douglas, was en route to a U.N. peace-keeping mission. (First Bosnia, now this.) Since Douglas is played by David Thewlis, you can be sure we're in for a full evening of his man-at-the-end-of-his-tether gyrations.
And sure enough Thewlis starts playing tetherball at the sound of the first jungle shriek. There hasn't been a soundtrack with this much phony-baloney grunting and howling since ... well, since Congo (and maybe Showgirls).
Thewlis at least tries to give a performance -- terrible as it is. Val Kilmer, as Montgomery, looks like he's daring Frankenheimer to fire him. (I guess he won the dare.) Kilmer swaggers through the foliage in love beads and swank sunglasses and beach-volleyball pantaloons. He speaks his dialogue in smarmy-smarty soundbites and, in general, acts as if he was the coolest cat in the rain forest. Yo, dude, pass me the fetal implant!
Kilmer must have figured out fast what a bummer this Moreau would be. His attitudinizing is a way of commenting on the movie's atrociousness. But he's too facetious to pull off the difficult feat of joking around with the movie while letting us enjoy the joke. For that, we must turn to Brando. When it comes to shining at the expense of terrible material, he's the nonpareil. He makes the film almost -- I repeat, almost -- worth seeing.
As Moreau, Brando makes his grand entrance held aloft by his man-beast coolies and swathed in a cottony caftan and bonnet. His flesh has been powdered white, his lips are heavily rouged, his eyes are blanked by sunglasses. As he talks down to his growly minions with dainty solicitude, he begins to seem like a cross between Queen Victoria and Jabba the Hut, with perhaps some Margaret Rutherford and Gore Vidal thrown in, and a suggestion of Jerry Lewis' Nutty Professor in the two front teeth. Later on, when he's playing Chopin duets in the jungle hut with one of his homunculi, he's wearing a hairnet and bone necklace and a flower in his ear, and still later he models a high conical hat equipped with an ice chute.
Brando, of course, means all this to be funny. (Whether Frankenheimer saw the logic in having his movie lampooned from the inside is another matter.) He doesn't play Moreau as a man obsessed. Rather, he's a blinkered old fud who carries out his experiments because, more than anything else, he wants to surround himself with family. He's a tender paterfamilias. When some renegade man-beasts break into his compound and start banging away at the piano, he doesn't chastise them -- he leads a lecture on Arnold Schoenberg and his 12-tone scale. Yes, he's also trying to placate the creatures and save his life, but at the same time he doesn't want to hurt their feelings.
Playing Moreau as a persnickety, polite old queen is such a funny idea that Brando's disappearance halfway through the movie hits the audience like a mortal blow. We feel marooned in the thing right along with Douglas and Montgomery. Couldn't the filmmakers come up with a reason to keep Brando around? Or was he only available for his customary week's work? Probably the best thing that could happen to Hollywood right now would be if Brando fell on such hard times that he had to act again in a lot of movies. He's such a great actor that he even shows off his genius when he's playing patty-cake with it.
The Island of Dr. Moreau continues at area theaters.