The Island Of Dr Moreau (1977) review

The Island Of Dr Moreau posterDirector: Don Taylor

Starring: Michael York, Burt Lancaster, Richard Basehart, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera

MOREAU – “How does a cell become enslaved to a form, to a destiny it can never change? Can we change that destiny?”

ANDREW – “Should we?”

There are plenty of films that deal with the moral dilemma of playing God: whether it’s right to mess around with nature and what have you.

But how many of those films feature a man dressed up as a bear grappling with a real-life lion and diving off a balcony, dragging it to its death with him?

The short answer is “one”. The slightly longer answer is “one, The Island Of Dr Moreau“.

This ’70s curio, based on the 1896 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, stars Michael York (better known to younger generations as Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films) and Burt Lancaster. Oh, and a load of twats dressed up as animals.

"I can't believe he just called us that." "Let's face it, he's right"
“I can’t believe he just called us that.”
“Let’s face it, he’s right”

York plays Andrew Braddock, a crewman who’s forced to abandon ship and hop into a lifeboat when his vessel sinks during a nasty storm.

After days of drifting aimlessly in the lifeboat, Andrew finally washes ashore on an unknown small island, inhabited by a handful of people.

Most notable among the island’s residents is Dr Moreau (Lancaster), a charismatic but mysterious scientist who’s conducting secret experiments. It’s at this point that, were you a gambler, you’d put your cash on him being a bit of a dodgy bastard.

Sure enough, it soon emerges that the doc’s experiments are related to the odd natives also wandering the island, who Moreau tends to treat rather poorly.

"I must say, I'm rather displeased with the new bedroom tax Dr Moreau has established"
“I must say, I’m rather displeased with the new bedroom tax Dr Moreau has established”

These natives certainly look like people, but there’s something a bit off about them. Something a bit, I don’t know… animally.

It turns out those concerns are justified, and the reason they look like animals is because they actually are animals. Well, sort of.

You see, Moreau has stumbled upon a scientific breakthrough that lets him essentially fuck around with a creature’s DNA and do what he wants with it.

He’s invented a serum with a genetic human gene in it. When he injects an animal with this serum the human gene will replace the genes that define which animal it is, and slowly turn it into a human.

Not entirely, though. This lad's right hand still looks pretty human
Not entirely, though. This lad’s right hand still looks pretty human

Long story short, he can turn a bear into a human. Or a tiger into a human. Or a llama into a human. Probably a spider into a human too but he doesn’t try that.

Andrew doesn’t know how to feel about Moreau once he discovers his secret. On one hand he’s fascinated by this amazing new discovery, and the benefits it could mean for the human race: no more diseases, deformities or what have you.

On the other hand, lions is lions and that.

Things come to a head when, upon leaving Moreau’s complex one day, Andrew stumbles upon a cave full of half-man, half-animal creatures. Manimals, if you will.

These manimals (look, I’m sticking with it) have been brainwashed by Moreau to accept him as essentially their new god. He creates laws to keep them in line (no bloodshed, no hunting humans and the like) and they obey.

"That's right you animal pricks, I was in Austin Powers. What were you in? Oh right, this film"
“That’s right you animal pricks, I was in Austin Powers. What were you in? Oh right, this film”

It doesn’t take a genetic scientist to figure out what happens next: manimals (menimal? I don’t know the plural) eventually get smart enough to figure out what’s going on, revolution begins, shit proceeds downwards.

If you’re planning on watching The Island Of Dr Moreau, ensure you’re well rested beforehand because the first half is slower than a TOWIE star.

Thankfully it does eventually begin to pick up pace and once it all kicks off the resulting final 20 minutes is a glorious celebration of the good old days when spectacle took precedence over actor safety.

Most notably, there are numerous scenes in which men in shit animal costumes wrestle with lions, bears, tigers and the like. It looks dangerous as shit and it’s brilliant. Just look at this and try to tell me it’s safe:

Meanwhile, a horse is dragged to the ground by eight beastmen, a puma leaps through a window and a hyena sprints after two more horses as a massive blaze erupts around it.

Put it this way: it should perhaps come as no surprise that the American Humane Association didn’t start putting its “no animals were harmed” message in film credits until the 1980s.

Performances are carried by Lancaster and York, the former doing a brilliant job as a power-hungry scientist taking advantage of his new abilities and the latter excellent as the man who resists Moreau’s offer to help with his experiments and ultimately struggles to avoid becoming the subject of one.

"Austin, you must come quickly. It would appear Dr Evil has a sex lair now." The fourth Austin Powers film was light on laughs
“Austin, you must come quickly. It would appear Dr Evil has a sex lair now.” The fourth Austin Powers film was light on laughs

The rest of the cast doesn’t quite live up to the same standard and bring it down to the B-movie level it really should accept it’s at. Their hammy acting combined with the iffy costumes make it feel like a third-rate Planet Of The Apes knock-off at times.

Endure its painfully slow first half and The Island Of Dr Moreau eventually gives way to a fantastically ridiculous spectacle of terrible acting and dangerous animal stunts. Which, in a way, is all life’s really about.

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HOW CAN I SEE IT?
The Island Of Dr Moreau was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK by 101 Films as part of its Cult Horror Collection series. In the US it’s only available on an out-of-print DVD released by MGM in 2001 as part of its Midnite Movies range. It isn’t currently available to stream.

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