Andrew Braddock (Michael York) was an engineer aboard a ship when a storm blew up and broke the vessel in its fury, leaving him and two other men as the survivors. Now adrift in a small lifeboat, they are beginning to die - indeed, one does expire and is pushed overboard, but soon an island is spotted and they begin to row towards it. Once ashore, they cannot see any sign of life, so Braddock leaves his companion behind to seek water; however, no sooner than he heads off than something mysterious looms out of the forest and drags the man away, leaving Braddock alone. Though not quite alone as he is now in the domain of Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster), a dedicated scientist of unorthodox experiments...
Before 1977, the most celebrated version of H.G. Wells' famous anti-vivisection novel The Island of Dr. Moreau was from 1932, one of the most notorious horror movies from a decade where the genre blossomed in popularity and established many of the conventions we take for granted today. In that case, there were as many fans as detractors, the latter condemning the work as perverted for its concentration on Moreau getting the hero to try and sleep with his masterpiece, the panther woman, but over forty years later that was decided to be a step too far, and thus a last minute twist that would have made sense of the whole movie was dropped, though you can discern it in one fleeting shot.
It was odd, for though the production was edited by the bosses at A.I.P. to tone it down, this incarnation was a lusty melodrama even if it did take liberties with the source to spin off in its own direction as Moreau grows frustrated with his now-genetic experiments on the imported animals he has on his isle and opts to try out his investigations on Braddock instead. York was known for his handsomely leonine features, so it's not much of a stretch to see him as a beast man, but it confused the film's theme about the animals being raised to the status of human only to discover that was not all it was cracked up to be. Richard Basehart laboured under extensive wolfman makeup as the Sayer of the Law who increasingly pathetically points out "Are we not men?", a question ringing hollow before long.
There were but two other cast members who had speaking roles as the others, including Lancaster's old acrobatic partner Nick Cravat as Moreau's, er, manservant, were buried under the prosthetics and hair thanks to John Chambers' talent with the rubber and glue, he of Planet of the Apes fame - you could see much of the makeup here was close to that blockbuster in style and application. Anyway, the other stars were Nigel Davenport as Montgomery, Moreau's cheery but menacing right hand man who notes with amusement what his boss is getting up to, and Barbara Carrera as Maria, the character who seems to be a lot more significant than she turns out to be thanks to the aforementioned re-editing, leaving her a disappointment.
The location shooting on The Virgin Islands lent the movie the air of a proper tropical island, but somehow the sinister manner in which the jungle closed in on the 1932 cast was far more effective than what amounted to a far too tasteful telling of material that cried out to be as unsettling and skin-crawling as it could possibly get. The 1996 remake became notorious for different reasons, those being what was happening behind the scenes, but in spite of its craziness even that did not match Charles Laughton smacking his lips and whipping his path through his vile research. Though in some ways that was preferable to a reserved take on Wells, sure there were sequences where the situation erupted into violence, but you never had the feeling the actors were really getting to grips with their roles, with only York making a decent fist of it and Lancaster surprisingly stolid when he should have been wound up by director Don Taylor and let go to rampage through the plot. What you were left with were some excellent animal stunt scenes and a sense of opportunities missed. Music by Laurence Rosenthal.