Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) was flying over the Pacific Ocean on a peace mission from the United Nations when his plane got into trouble and crashed into the water. Stranded on a life raft, his two fellow survivors started to fight and fell overboard, becoming food for the circling sharks, leaving Douglas alone and increasingly delirious. After he passed out, he was picked up by a passing ship, and awakes to find himself on board and being tended to by Montgomery (Val Kilmer), a man who describes himself as more of a vet than a doctor. They arrive at an island where some mysterious research work is being carried out, but Montgomery refuses to tell Douglas exactly what it is and warns him to stay within the confines of the big house on the island. However, Douglas' curiosity gets the better of him...
A film that became notorious for the confusion behind the scenes rather than any merit held by the finished product, The Island of Dr Moreau was scripted by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson. Stanley was the originator of the project and had been wanting to bring his take on the classic H.G. Wells story to the screen for a long time; alas, it all went horribly wrong for him when he was sacked after a day's work on location and veteran John Frankenheimer climbed aboard to oversee an increasingly troubled shoot. Legend has it that Stanley was so heartbroken that he went as far as donning beast makeup and secretly appearing as one of the Moreau's experiments, so attached was he to the film. But he would have been advised to leave it well alone considering how it all ended up.
After an excellent title sequence gets your hopes up, the film is initially coy about revealing the nature of Moreau's experiments, and even more reluctant to show us the doctor, as played by eccentric legend Marlon Brando. This is either because Brando simply couldn't be bothered filming more than the half hour he appears in during the second act, or the producers were so disturbed by his ludicrous performance and appearance that they cut his screen time right down; he still gets top billing, of course. As Moreau's right hand man, Kilmer gives the impression of a man whose tropical holiday has the inconvenience of being interrupted by having to act in a film. He's lazy throughout, even going as far as mocking the story by describing Fairuza Balk's character as a pussycat before Douglas is aware of her origins, and distracting another beast-person with a squeaky toy!
After Douglas has met the panther lady, he is locked in his room by Montgomery to prevent him snooping around. He manages to escape and does indeed snoop around, finding a laboratory where surgeons surround a grotesque beast woman who is giving birth to a human-like baby, a nightmarish scene that hints at the promising possibilities of Stanley's concept. Unlike the book, Moreau doesn't use surgery to create his unholy progeny, but now utilises genetics to transform animals into something resembling men and women. Also unlike the book, Moreau sports thick, white sunblock, oversized sunglasses and is seen wearing a bucket full of ice on his head at one point. Not only that, but he plays a piano with an identically-garbed mouse man playing a tiny piano on it. Brando never convinces as a scientific pioneer, and you feel it's a wonder they got as far with their experiments as they did, although the island's descent into chaos is less surprising.
The pessimistic point about this version of the tale is that humans, as Moreau hopes for his beast people, will evolve past their violent ways and become a higher form of life, and that this hope is a futile one. However, on this evidence it's a wonder that Moreau and company can make breakfast of a morning, never mind medically sculpt animals into humans. Thewlis does his best to add gravity to the situation, but faced with Brando and Kilmer (and Kilmer's Brando impersonation) and a group of actors struggling under immobile makeup he's fighting a losing battle. Balk looks ashen-faced throughout, but Temuera Morrison brings a spark of personality as an eager dogman. Nevertheless, the film has a strange fascination, not only due to its self-destructiveness but its downright insanity. It may be a hopeless muddle, but it's a muddle of near-hysterical derangement, and more provocative than many accepted "bad movies". Music by Gary Chang.