by Tom Kapr
Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Adapted by Philip Wylie & Waldemar Young from the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells.
“Do you know what it means to feel like God?” — Dr. Moreau
This was the first film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, criticized by Wells for focusing more on the horrific aspects of the work than the philosophical aspects. This is one of the Wells novels I have not yet read (though I love The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds) so I can’t comment on the adaptation itself, but I will take the author’s word for it. Indeed, there isn’t much gray area explored when it comes to genetic engineering done of Moreau on his secretive island. He does come off as more of a villainous mad scientist; but oh what a villain!
Let me start with the good here, before I get into my problems with this film. First off, I have seen the 1996 trainwreck of an adaptation that starred Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau. It was one of the most storied troubled film productions in history, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, may I recommend the wonderful 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. The stories are insane. Brando was clearly insane, or had by that point gotten so high on himself that he shanghaied the production with his antics. Maybe he thought he was the second coming of Charles Laughton. Well, I have seen Island of Lost Souls, and you, Mr. Brando, are no Charles Laughton. Laughton is fantastic as the creepy, obsessed, manipulative doctor. And this film is far superior to what they managed to spit out in 1996.
Other good stuff: Kenton’s direction is pretty solid, and all the technical stuff is solid. It seems the studios just knew how to produce a film in the 30s. The makeup is excellent. And supporting players Arthur Hohl, Leila Hyams, and Bela Lugosi (my second Lugosi performance this month after The Body Snatcher) are all fine. And the ending is truly horrifying. It reminds me of my reaction to the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, which I covered during my 30 Days of Madness project six years ago. Whether its target is deserved or not, mob mentality is terrifying.
Now the not-so-good stuff. The plot feels a bit rushed, and as it centers on the brick wall that is protagonist Edward Parker (played by Richard Arlen of Wings fame), a character whose disposition toward his predicament seems to change from scene to scene (and sometimes mid-scene), it also feels like it meanders sometimes. His first night on the island he is so horrified by what he witnesses that he calls Moreau a monster–then just kind of hangs out afterward.
And then there is the “Panther Woman” subplot, where Moreau sends his one female creation, Lota, to Parker to see if she will react toward him with a woman’s emotions rather than an animal’s instincts. I understand what they were going for here, but it really is the weakest part of the entire film, compounded by the fact that each scene focuses on a brick wall and a woman who had never acted before. The scenes are clunky and unbelievable, ethically wishy-washy, and frankly not much more than a gimmick to sell the film. (Also, the Panther Woman reminds me a little too much of a girl I once dated.)
There is a scene in which Parker gives in to his attraction to Lota, but then walks away looking disturbed. She then runs to him and puts her arms around him, and he sees that her hands have animal claws, and is understandably horrified. I feel like they were trying to convey that, despite being in love with his fiancée Ruth, he was momentarily overcome by animal desire. But you know what? Many men wouldn’t lose their self-control so easily. And, dude, before you were horrified by her fingernails, when you were making out with this beast woman, do you realize that your devoted fiancée was moving land and sea to find you? This, of course, is never addressed as a problem.
Ruth, thankfully, is the strongest character in the film, despite screaming like a typical horror movie heroine at a couple points. When Edward doesn’t show up, she doesn’t sit around wringing her hands. She tells off the captain of the ship that marooned Edward on Moreau’s island, probably destroying his career in the process, and then goes herself across the sea to rescue Edward instead of just sending a crew and sitting around fretting about it. When she gets to the island, she shows more backbone in the face of entering scary caves and jungles than the ship captain who is accompanying her. (Though why one woman and one ship captain venture onto a strange and mysterious island to rescue a castaway who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances and bring no crew with them is a question I’d like answered. Oh, right, because it’s in the script.)
Last negative criticism: I have a difficult time with seeing real animals in distress, which happens so often in old monster movies. Seeing tigers being riled into viciousness in a small cage hurts me inside. I am glad, however, that they didn’t do the same to a real gorilla. I’ll take an obvious man in a suit in a case such as this.
I know that all makes it sound like a really disliked this film, but I actually think it’s a decent horror film, and Laughton’s performance plus the makeup of the beast people and the real sense of horror it conveys bring this up to classic status. Final thought: I wonder if director Jonathan Demme was inspired at all by this film. There are several shots where characters are speaking in close-up directly into the camera.
Final grade: B
My Flickchart ranking: #877 (out of 3255, a relative 73/100)