Bad Movie Night: The Notorious, Disastrous, Fascinating ‘Island of Dr. Moreau’

In celebration (?) of the upcoming twentieth anniversary of its theatrical release, we take a look back at this famously troubled production.

Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, in celebration (?) of the upcoming twentieth anniversary of its theatrical release, we take a look back at the notoriously troubled and jaw-droppingly incoherent 1996 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.

When John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau hit theaters on August 23, 1996, it seemed like a good bet. It was a dark sci-fi picture suggestive of Apocalypse Now, right down to the presence of Marlon Brando as a nutty demigod in exile; it had Naked’s David Thewlis, The Craft’s Fairuza Balk, and a still white-hot Val Kilmer in supporting roles; and at the helm was Mr. Frankenheimer, the master behind such ‘60s and ‘70s classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Black Sunday.

And then we got a look at the film, which was an experience roughly akin to watching a slow-motion train wreck in which the flames spread into the brush and become an out-of-control wildfire. What the hell happened?

Well, the answer to that question could fill a whole other movie. In fact, it did: the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (yet another similarity to Apocalypse Now, which begat the fascinating doc Hearts of Darkness). It’s a terrific movie, a far better one than the film that prompted it – and look at that, it’s on Netflix, there ya go, you’re welcome – recounting every grisly detail of how this passion project from the director of the low-budget sci-fi/horror fave Hardware morphed, much like the characters of its story, into an unrecognizable beast that ate its creator alive.

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It was a familiar story of a fiercely independent director who simply couldn’t – or chose not to – engage with the filmmaking-by-committee style of his studio masters at New Line, and found himself unable to handle the egos of his stars. And there’s also an argument, made by those on the other side of the equation, that Stanley was out of his depth, unable to cope with the scope and demands of a production on this scale. Whatever the case, Stanley was removed as director of his movie less than a week into production (he retains a screenplay credit), and Rob Morrow asked to be replaced as protagonist Edward Douglas, a role that had already been occupied and vacated by Bruce Willis (who left the project entirely) and Val Kilmer (who asked for a smaller role, and got one, displacing James Woods). New Line brought in David Thewlis to star, or more accurately, twitch.

Stanley was so devastated by the experience – as was his reputation – that to date, he’s never directed another feature. (He also famously snuck back onto set, in creature make-up, to observe the ensuing disaster.) To fill in as director, New Line brought in Frankenheimer – an unlikely choice, not because he wasn’t skilled, but because there was nothing anywhere in his filmography that points towards a make-up and effects-heavy sci-fi/action hybrid like this, even with a proper pre-production period. (For his part, Frankenheimer reportedly took the job solely for the opportunity to work with Brando, a justification he would presumably come to regret.) Yet this awkward fit is part of what makes Island of Dr. Moreau so fascinating; watching a director with real gifts drown in an ill-advised exercise is infinitely more interesting than seeing an untalented novice do the same.

And it’s particularly striking in the case of Dr. Moreau because it starts off so promisingly. The film’s opening credit sequence is a marvel, snazzier and creepier than anything that follows, all storm clouds and microscopic cells and wild animals and darting eyeballs, promises the movie never comes close to keeping. This was the work of Kyle Cooper, the brilliant designer who was the mid-‘90s go-to guy for eye-catching, table-setting credit sequences, who had wowed everyone the previous fall with Seven’s opening, as well as Mission: Impossible’s earlier that summer. Frankenheimer follows that wizardry with a knockout overhead shot of a life raft adrift at sea, inhabited by three men, two of whom quickly kill each other (“They fought like beasts, not men,” intones the narrator – FORESHADOWING!).

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The third man is our hero, Mr. Douglas (Thewlis), who is later picked up by a passing ship and rescued by a Mr. Montgomery (Kilmer). The stories of Kilmer’s bad behavior on set became legend; he was still riding high from his turn as Batman and an acclaimed, still staggering performance in Tombstone, but the gossip from this set was so toxic that Kilmer was forevermore branded “difficult.” Frankenheimer did little to discourage this image; after the film’s release, he famously remarked, “There are two things I will never ever do in my whole life. The first is that I will never climb Mt. Everest. The second is that I will never work with Val Kilmer ever again,” and he reportedly told his assistant director during the production, “If I was making The Val Kilmer Story, I wouldn’t hire that prick!”

For all the trouble he caused, it must be noted that Kilmer is pretty good in the role, creating an recognizable yet enigmatic character out of what seems a tanned, shades-and-beads-wearing good-timer. When he takes Douglas to the titular island, he puts across the exposition smoothly, and Frankenheimer uses his gifts for framing, montage, and movement to create a properly creepy mood, building to his big reveal of the good doctor, and what he’s up to. And that’s when the wheels fall off the wagon.

You see, it seems the Nobel-winning Dr. Moreau has spent 17 years in exile, “obsessed with his animal research.” That research involves the fusing of human and animal DNA, creating various races of hybrid beast people. As soon as we meet them, things started getting, well, goofy. Part of the problem is the creatures themselves; though they were designed by the great Stan Winston, they all look just a little bit off. Something in the way Frankenheimer’s cinematographer William A. Fraker (the great D.P. responsible for Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt, and Heaven Can Wait, among others) frames and lights them, the way Frankenheimer directs them, the way the actors voice them – for whatever reason, we’re never convinced that they’re anything more than actors in Halloween masks. And that becomes a major handicap.

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The other appears not long after. The thing about a talent like Marlon Brando is that he often seemed capable primarily of either spectacular successes or spectacular failures; he went all the way with both his brilliant ideas, and his terrible ones. His characterization of Dr. Moreau falls most decidedly into the later category. From his first appearance, in Joker pancake white makeup and flowing robes with a butterfly net over his head, the entire performance is a glorious miscalculation. He seems to be trying to channel Charles Laughton (not the worst idea, since Laughton played the role in the earlier 1932 adaptation Island of Lost Souls), but it just comes off like a junior high actor’s signaling of sophistication – an odd British accent, whistling “S”s, chuckling condescension. But he was Brando, and Frankenheimer (and everyone else, presumably) was in awe of him, so he was seemingly allowed to run riot, pursuing every inexplicable impulse that wandered into his head. He plucked out a tiny extra and made him his identically-dressed sycophant/pet (later famously parodied in the form of Austin Powers’ “Mini-Me”). He suggested a scene where the pair play a duet on matching large and tiny grand pianos (a scene covered by a circling camera that seems to shrug, “Yep, we’re doin’ this!”). And he plays an entire scene with Balk wearing an ice bucket on his head; your guess is as good as mine, and as good as Frankenheimer’s, apparently.

He’s eaten alive by his creations roughly an hour in, part of a bloodthirsty, uzi-firing revolt that takes over the second half of the picture, and moves it into both literal and narrative chaos. Kilmer trots out a pretty good Brando impression (their reported offscreen hatred of each other offers some tasty subtext for their scenes together), not once, but twice; by the second appearance, he’s dropped the Moreau accent and is just doing Brando in Apocalypse Now. It’s an entirely distancing wink, but an appropriate metaphor for the film, which has by that point become a burlesque of itself.

The second half is basically a slasher movie – we’re just sitting around waiting to see who dies next – and while those deaths are fairly grisly, they’re still pulling punches, since the film is, contrary to Stanley’s original vision, a PG-13. God knows why New Line thought they had to soften the gore for the benefit of all the teen Brando fans in the summer crowd, but it’s indicative of a quality of compromise that hangs over the entire endeavor. Credit where due: a movie like The Island of Dr. Moreau is risky as hell, and (as we see) it’s very easy for a story with this many ridiculous elements to fall flat on its face. It requires a filmmaker willing to go all the way with it. And that’s where this viewer ended up, after revisiting both Dr. Moreau and the documentary it inspired – with the realization that this could never land as summer studio product with a hired hand at the helm. Maybe Stanley couldn’t have made it all work. But at least it would’ve been his.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is available for rental or purchase on iTunes, YouTube, and the usual platforms.