REEL RETRO CINEMA: 1977’s The Island of Dr. Moreau

New looks at old flicks — and their comic-book adaptations!

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By ROB KELLY

1977’s The Island of Dr. Moreau is the second (official) adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, and the first to use the book’s actual title. Directed by Don Taylor (Escape From The Planet of Apes, an experience that undoubtedly came in handy here), it stars movie legend Burt Lancaster as the quite bonkers Dr. Moreau, Michael York as Braddock, a sailor who unwittingly finds himself on the infamous island, and screen ingénue Barbara Carrera as the comely but timid Maria.

After Braddock’s sailing ship sinks, he and two crew members are the only survivors, slowly starving to death in a lifeboat. One of the crew dies soon after, and the other two pass out, unable to stay awake any longer. Braddock wakes up just in time to see a massive island nearby, and soon he and his shipmate come ashore. Braddock leaves his friend to forage for food, ending up too far away to hear the man screaming for help, when he is attacked and dragged off by someone….or some thing.

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Eventually Braddock discovers the relatively opulent compound of Dr. Moreau, who treats the Englishman as an honored guest. It doesn’t take long, however, for Braddock to see that something is very, very amiss: The natives are unlike any kind of people he has ever encountered. After hearing some commotion outside his room, he sees some of Moreau’s men physically accosting one of the natives, who is trussed up in chains. The “man” looks up at Braddock, and we see that he is some sort of dog/man hybrid!

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As you might imagine, Braddock confronts Moreau for an explanation, and the mysterious doctor explains just what he’s been doing in this very remote part of the world. In an attempt to understand the basic building blocks of humanity, Moreau has been experimenting with a new serum, one that transforms animals into humans—or something close, at least.

Soon after, Braddock falls in love with Maria, and finds himself in the middle of the tenuous “peace” that rules the island. Moreau has instilled in all the “Humanimals” ™ an inviolable rule against killing. When Braddock breaks that by mercy-killing a bull-man rather than let it be dragged off into Moreau’s “House of Pain” as punishment, he realizes his—and Maria’s—time is running out.

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The Humanimals eventually turn on Moreau as well when he takes a life (that of a human associate, a mercenary named Davenport). Moreau gets revenge on Braddock by injecting him with the serum, slowly turning the man into a feral beast. Braddock struggles to retain his humanity, and manages to escape with Maria when the Humanimals storm Moreau’s compound, burning it to the ground and hanging Moreau (in the film’s most chilling scene). One of the man-beasts almost manages to kill Braddock and Maria in the lifeboat, but is stabbed to death. Eventually the serum wears off, returning Braddock to normal. He spies a ship off in the distance, meaning he and Maria will be rescued.

As I mentioned above, The Island of Dr. Moreau is the second pass at this legendary story. The first version, 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, is a deeply weird, creepy little movie, featuring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. Filmed before the Hollywood Production Code came in and ruined everyone’s fun, its low-budget griminess fits the story perfectly, and some of its dialogue “Are we not men?” went on to become part of the culture.

Don Taylor’s version, produced by American International Pictures and blessed with big stars and a big budget, didn’t have that kind of an impact. It’s a perfectly well made film, with solid performances. But there’s a kind of drabness that hangs over the whole thing. For a story about a guy who transforms animals into people and vice versa, there’s not a lot of shock or surprise to be found: The story unfolds pretty much like you’d expect it to, all wrapped up with a reasonably happy ending. Lancaster, so often the good guy, seems almost reasonable as the loony Dr. Moreau, but of course we the audience know full well what he’s up to, so we’re just waiting for Braddock to catch up.

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Speaking of happy endings, now is the perfect time to mention Marvel Comics’ double-sized adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, published as a one-shot Marvel Movie Special. Written by the always-dependable Doug Moench, pencilled by Larry Hama, and inked by Jess Jodloman (one of the lesser-known artists from the “Filipino Invasion” of the 1970s),

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Moreau takes a few minor liberties with the story of the film. Braddock is alone when he finds the island, and Maria is much more loquacious, often engaging in philosophical conversations with her beau about life on the island. But there is one big difference, taking place at the very end, with Braddock and Maria in the lifeboat as they wait for someone to rescue them.

In the film, Braddock wakes up, his humanity restored. He sees a ship, motions to Maria, and that is the end of the film. In the comic, however, no such salvation awaits. In all of one page, Braddock fights off the last Humanimal, drifts off into open waters, passes out, wakes up, eventually sees the ship, and:

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Wham-o! Instead of the happy ending of the movie, Marvel gives us something out of an EC comic! I can only assume that this was the original scripted ending, and at some point during production a happier end for Michael York and Barbara Carrera was ordered. Maybe it’s my feverish mind, but I think there’s even a hint of this darker ending still left in the movie—after Braddock wakes up, there’s a shot of Maria, who is turned away from the camera. Her long hair obscures her face, and the shot holds on her just one or two beats too long than usual, as if there’s something else we’re supposed to see.

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But no, the camera pans back to York, then to a smiling Carrera, and we’ve reached The End.

As you might expect, the comic-book version drops a lot of the talky-talky scenes, preferring to focus on the man-on-Humanimal action scenes. It’s a solid book, and the art combo of Hama and Jodloman gives it an old-timey feel, like the kind of illustrations you would see during the era the story is set in. Plus it features a nifty cover by Gil Kane, done the Mighty Marvel Manner!

All in all, The Island of Dr. Moreau isn’t a bad movie, it’s just not the gut punch most horror fans have come to expect from this iconic story—in fact, it’s almost downright respectable, and where’s the fun in that?

One final thought: If you’re in the mood for a Dr. Moreau binge-watch, my advice is this — Watch the 1932 film, read the 1977 Marvel comic, and then cap the day off with the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which is way more entertaining than the 1996 boondoggle (starring Marlon Brando and a funny hat) the documentary is ostensibly about. Bonus 13th Dimension points if you wear some old Garanimals while doing it.

Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the co-creator and writer of the award-winning webcomic Ace Kilroy, and the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. If he had to, he’d like to be transformed into an Octopus-Man, so he could write more than one of these columns at a time.

You can read more of his REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.

 

Author: 13th Dimension

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1 Comment

  1. I remember going to see it at the theater because of the Marvel Comics adaptation. By that point I was in full swing a hard core Marvelite. In my 11 yr old brain I was supporting good ole Marvel. Just as I thought I was supporting Marvel by seeing Star Wars for the same reason. I had zero idea or understanding of what Star Wars was about but I felt I was supporting them because I’d bought the comic a month or two earlier. Little did I know that wasn’t too far from the truth, as some have said it was the thing that saved Marvel from the brink of bankruptcy. Or I believe that’s what I’ve read.

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