This is the first entry in a new feature covering some of the worst films to come out of Hollywood. Much like the outcast penal colonies from ages ago this will concern those movies deemed a crime against society and declared unfit for civilization. Their atrocities will be catalogued and banishment of said title will be considered.
Applicant: The Island of Dr. Moreau
App. # 823.96/NL40
Point of Origin New Line Cinema
Passage Via Frankenheimer, John (Stanley, Richard) — Brando, Marlon – Kilmer, Val
Starting off this new venture correctly was a surprisingly daunting challenge. Given the vast amount of offerings that qualify and the import attached to the initial salvo meant selecting wisely. I wanted to begin with just the right selection, and then it occurred to me; grab at a title that adheres to not only the purpose of this column but the theme. There is an entire archipelago of horrible isle-based films out there, but one rose to prominence on my horizon and I set a direct course for The Island of Dr. Moreau.
This misbegotten effort is actually the third time Hollywood chose to delve into the story written by H.G. Welles. The first was back in the 1930s starring Bela Lugosi and the next was a deliciously 70s affair with Burt Lancaster, Michael York, and Barbara Carrera. But then during the 1990s remake hysteria hit Hollywood like creative Ebola and this title must have had the rights at a discount price. Even before release this had become one of Hollywood’s most plagued productions, to an extent that it was assured to become a disaster. In the history of problem shoots I can only think of two other titles that may exceed – the infamous Waterworld production, and the cursed attempt by Terry Gilliam to film his Don Quixote story, which garnered a making-of documentary (Lost In LaMancha) while never being completed itself.
Dr. Moreau was such a troubled production it almost makes you feel sympathy for the studio suits (stress on “almost”). For openers, nothing good will arrive on your set any time you might cast the likes of a Marlon Brando, or a Val Kilmer. Any studio with the temerity to cast both of these head-cases however is not only asking for trouble, it is sending an engraved invitation with filigreed borders, with complimentary airfare included inside. Brando was well into his second decade of behaving like a loon when this began, and Kilmer was in the early stages of steering the locomotive of his career off of the rails. It did not take long at all for things to go sideways.
Even before filming Kilmer decided to start making pampered movie star demands. Unlike most actors who bitch and carp about not having enough lines or face time, Val actually took an original route; he approached initial director Richard Stanley and demanded that he have his role reduced by nearly 50%. Stuck for a solution, and with a full cast and crew on an outpost locale, Stanley decided to switch Kilmer’s role to that of the doctor’s island assistant. Actor Rob Morrow, originally cast as the assistant, by decree became the star of the movie.
Next up Kilmer’s sabotage led to the studio firing director Stanley in the first week, then Morrow decided to quit what promised to be a doomed production. Now scrambling to fill two key roles John Frankenheimer was brought in, and the lead was given to British actor David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the “Harry Potter franchise). Production was halted as Frankenheimer and Brando hammered out a completely new script, and shooting commenced as they were still writing – always a grand idea!
Brando groused about constantly having to remember new dialogue and demanded he be given a radio receiver so his lines could be fed to him. Thewlis said one time Brando began talking about a robbery on camera when his radio began picking up local police broadcasts. Kilmer began fighting with Frankenheimer next and the director famously scorched the actor in the press. Helping ramp the emotional needle up to eleven Brando had to deal with the suicide of his daughter, and Kilmer was served with divorce papers. By the end the whole thing was such a fiasco that the lead actor chose to completely skip out on the movie’s red carpet premiere.
So then, now that you have seen carnage in the making, how does this sausage taste? Things open up on a life raft with three men adrift. In voice-over Edward Douglas (Thewlis) explains their plane went down in the Java Sea. The two other men begin to battle over the last canteen of water and they cleverly continue their knife fight overboard in the shark infested waters. Douglas is eventually rescued by a tramp steamer where on board a man named Montgomery (Kilmer) is tending to his recovery. It is a bad day when you awaken only to see Val Kilmer administering things into your body intravenously.
Douglas Are you a doctor?
Montgomery I’m more like a vet.
They make it to an idyllic looking island and Douglas is put up in the main house and told not to leave the grounds. After a brief explanation about Dr. Moreau being a Nobel Peace Prize winner and needing the locale for his animal research, and encountering an exotic looking woman (Moreau’s daughter Aissa, played by Fairuza Balk) Douglas ends up being locked in his room that evening. He manages to break out and as he explores the island he comes upon an elaborate laboratory. Amidst the animal cages he sees Montgomery working on a baby delivery. It is around this time that Douglas comes to understand that this is not a Club Med island resort.
As he flees Douglas encounters Aissa, who wants to help him get off the island, but they are soon pursued by some of the island’s bizarre humanoid inhabitants. They exit a forest (where suddenly it has become daylight) as they make their way to a compound filled with biological grotesqueries. Douglas is revolted by what he sees, however there is a more disturbing sight coming up: the arrival of Dr. Moreau. Marlon Brando rides in with a corrupted Pope-mobile, looking like the Grand Marshal of a cross-dressing geriatric swim-aerobics parade.
The reason for his white body paint and the goofball adornments is explained as his protection because of an allergy to the sun. (I might diagnose an aversion to anti-psychotic medications as well.) Surrounded by the creatures Douglas then learns Moreau has computer chips implanted into them and can control them via remote shock collar methods. He gets invited back to the compound to discuss things further, and we will now become nearly overwhelmed by this film’s delirious avoidance of logic and normalcy.
Once at the compound Douglas is introduced to Dr. Moreau’s bio-engineered immediate family, including his diminutive sidekick, Majai.
If you are getting the vibe from this relationship of Dr. Evil & Mini Me, that is for good reason. Mike Myers patterned that dynamic after this cinematic watershed relationship. I swear, it must have been a beautifully unsettling moment when the studio heads first sat down to watch a rough cut of this picture.
This three-ring chaos continues, as Douglas makes attempts to call for rescue, gradually coming to the realization that he has become trapped on this nightmare of an island. During one escape attempt he is thwarted off of a boat by CGI rats.
Now I have to reveal that I do not possess a Nobel Prize in genetics, so when I ask what could possibly be gained in mixing human DNA with rodents it is from the standpoint of curiosity.
Next there is some tension introduced when a rabbit is found killed in the forest. It seems that with all the carnivores cross-bred with humans Dr. Moreau has mandated a vegetarian policy on the island inhabitants. A kangaroo court is set up (get it?!) where one feline creature is deemed guilty of the murder and is executed. After cremation an enterprising hyena-type picks through the bone fragments and discovers the computer chip in the ashes. Upon realization he then digs out his own chip from his gut, and a revolution is soon afoot.
The next day Montgomery is providing inoculations to the island creatures, consisting of hormones to prevent alterations – you know, to keep them from becoming freaks. He also reveals that he has secretly added a cocktail of other elements: “Some methamphetamine, some morphine, ‘shrooms and other shit.” Ah, science is such a marvel. You may in fact feel as if you were having a reaction to “‘shrooms and shit” once you get a peek at a naked Majai in the jeep, complete with a tail.
It is then that they notice Hyena has not come for his fix, and a manhunt is underway . . . uh, well some kind of hunt anyway. Meanwhile Douglas has commissioned one of the more evolved family members to help him get a radio message out for his rescue, except Montgomery pops up to let them know it won’t work. He removed a circuit board from the transmitter – and has affixed it onto his head, for some damned reason.
It is around this time that we come to realize Monty may be dipping into his veterinary chemical reserves. He begins explaining things to Douglas, informing him that the fetching Aissa is also a hybrid, and she needs her shots as well. Aissa happens to overhear this exchange and that leads to . . . oh hell, who really cares?! There is no way in this fever-dream of a film that anything approaching drama can survive. Not without a hallucinogenic at the very least.
The tormented Aissa races to her father to get the lowdown on her condition. She is concerned because she has fangs coming in and her ears are changing, but Moreau placates her, telling her it is merely a slight chemical imbalance. Real comedy is to be had in this heart wrenching scene, because Aissa proclaims, “I want to be like you!”. The fact that she says this to Brando while wearing an ice bucket on his head is pure gold.
Grinding the plot along Hyena starts his uprising and eventually kills Moreau. As they take over more of the island Kilmer begins to completely unravel at the same time, and there is no way of knowing how much of his lunacy is acting. He arrives at the creature compound adorned exactly like Moreau, and while imitating Brando’s voice from earlier it strikes more of mockery than tribute. Speaking with Moreau’s mutated son he ends up delivering one of the worst closing lines. He says, “I want to go to dog heaven”, just before he is shot by a canine hybrid.
The rest is a laborious action piece as the society degenerates completely. This is aided by the creatures having somehow learned how to drive the vehicles around the island. It ends as a problematic mess, and attempts are made to draw lessons on how mankind is barely a step away from the savagery found in the jungle. Those attempts fail, by the way.
This fiasco was way too unhinged to give us a lame attempt at social allegory. Frankly bigger lessons could be learned that the way you cast your movie is far more likely to lead to bigger disasters.