The Island of Dr Moreau (1996)
Director: John Frankenheimer
Here is a picture of what Marlon Brando wears in one scene of this film.
Need I say more?
The Island of Dr Moreau is a very special bad film indeed. Most bad films are because they’re low budget, independent efforts and the lack of experience, talent and money are the main sources of their badness. Dr Moreau though, features some very talented people (Stan Smith on make-up, Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and Ron Perlman acting, Richard Stanley on the script) trying very hard to produce something with genuine artistic merit and instead winding up with a campy and confused mess for the ages. It’s like if you left all of history’s greatest artists in a room together with tools, brushes, paints and materials and then came back at the end of the day to find that all they’d managed to do was leave a single turd in the corner. It’s almost amazing that they’d get everything so wrong given all the opportunities available to them.
The Island of Dr Moreau, the book and to a lesser extent this film, is the story of a mad genius. A scientist who believes he can turn animals into men and possesses the intellect to do so, but not necessarily to question if he should do so. For whilst he tries to instil in his creations some morals and ethics they are ultimately torn apart by their own instincts and his experimental society devolves into an orgy of violence and destruction.
It’s kind of a fitting metaphor for this film.
Let’s start with the script which is just as much a creation of mad science as Moreau’s own beasts. This movie had no fewer than 5 full rewrites, three of which happened on set after filming had begun and each script emphasising different themes and ideas. The original screen writer, Richard Stanley who is responsible for a number of cult efforts including Hardware in 1990, worked on this film for over 4 years and it was a real labour of love of him and his first attempt to make a big Hollywood film. He was also slated to direct but was fired after just 4 days on set. His replacement, John Frankenheimer whose career stretches from classics like The Manchurian Candidate to crap like Reindeer Games, ordered not one but two re-writes whilst on set meaning that actors that had been brought on board because they liked Stanley’s work, such as Val Kilmer, were suddenly contracted to work on a script they loathed. It gets worse though, because Brando threw his not inconsiderable weight around to get his own re-writes done. In fact Brando seems to have an unusual amount of freedom and control over the production for an actor, even for a legend. For example, he controlled his own wardrobe which means that outfits like this…
…are entirely Brando’s choice. What’s more Brando’s midget side kick who wears the same clothes as him and at one point plays a miniature piano whilst Brando plays a real one, was also his idea entirely.
Yes, you read that right. And you may be thinking, ‘wasn’t a scene of a mad genius duetting with his midget clone on the piano played for laughs in Austin Powers?’ And you’d be right, they got it lock stock and barrel from this film where it is presented to us with gloriously awful sincerity. Just, can’t look away, mind-blowing amounts of what the fuck were they thinking?
The end result of all these re-writes is a Frankenstein’s monster of a script that pulls in different places. The Island of Dr Moreau is not an adventure or an action or even a horror movie. It’s largely a sci-fi movie, only one that contains exactly one scene of “science” being done. Moreau holds up a test tube and says something to the effect of “My god, the colour. It’s practically turned orange.” Then turns to his assistant and says “do you know what this means?” He doesn’t and the film never ever bothers to explain it. But science is all holding up beakers and test tubes and watching liquids change colour right? RIGHT?!
Being a sci-fi film of the old school the film is all about ideas and themes and exploring the implications of a scientific breakthrough. Problem with that being that every script had a different theme in mind and they all pull in different ways and contradict each other. Brando clearly wants to play the film as an environmental message. Now there is nothing in the original book to support that but we’ve got mad scientists dicking with animals so you can extrapolate that out to “human’s mess with nature too much” as a theme to explore. Problem is Brando’s idea of doing this is to turn Moreau into a hippy dippy love child that recites poetry and that characterisation is somewhat undercut by his magic disco medallion that gives everybody electric shocks. Oh and his outfits. Brando actually delivers a fairly good performance here, he’s more engaged and energetic in this role than anything he’d done in the previous decade. He’s clearly trying and sometimes, it nearly has the power to correct all the madness. However everything he does is undercut by the fact that he’s wearing an ice bucket on his head.
Similarly parts of the film seem to be about how man is inherently evil, or the nature of evil, or the nature of instinct. Whereas others are clearly to do with the morality of animal experimentation. And I’m not saying that a film can’t explore different themes but parts of the script that are about plot a clearly contradict plot b. For example, Moreau claims that he has found the devil in his microscope, cut it up and created creatures without evil. Except of course he has to control them with his magic disco medallion of electric reinforcement. Oh and a cocktail of drugs too, including, according to Val Kilmer’s character, uppers, downers, morphine, mescaline and a little magic mushroom. Because that’s a great plan Val. Give psychoactive drugs to the animals that you’re worried could regress into becoming violent and dangerous, I can foresee no possible drawbacks to that.
Which brings me onto Val Kilmer. Val famously took one look at the new script and tried to flee from this movie like he was a Japanese fisherman and it was Godzilla. The studio thought different and demanded he be in it as he was recently coming off the success of Batman and he was one of the biggest financial draws in the film. He eventually showed up to set two days late having clearly learned no lines nor done any research for his character.
Kilmer plays Moreau’s assistant as a frazzled a pot head that messes with the doctor’s experiments seemingly just for the sake of it. Nothing Kilmer’s character does makes any sense of has any logical motivation it’s just pure chaos. Now I have a theory why this is. I suspect that in the script Kilmer’s character had reasonable motivations and behaved like a somewhat sinister underling determined to usurp the doctor’s role and steal credit for himself. Instead what happened is that Kilmer showed up to the set blazed out of his gourd and just said and did what he liked forcing the crew to try and cobble together his behaviour into something usable no matter how little sense it made. The following conversation is something I am certain happened.
John Frankenheimer: Where the hell is Kilmer?
Runner: We found him sir. He was lying in the radio station set drinking a bottle of tequila and telling everyone he’s Batman. Then he put a flower in his mouth and stared at us. It was creepy.
John Frankenheimer: Oh for fuck’s sake. Does he have clothes on?
Runner: Sort of sir. He’s topless and wearing a sarong and cowboy boots.
John Frankenheimer: At least he has clothes on, that’s better than yesterday. Alright, film whatever he’s saying and we’ll cut it next to Thewlis looking concerned.
If that didn’t happen then it means that someone in the production team decided that having Kilmer wear a sarong and cowboy boots was somehow a good idea and I refuse to believe that the Universe I live in makes that little sense.
There’s a scene in the film where David Thewlis’s character (ostensibly our protagonist) has to steal some keys from a sleeping Kilmer. I am wiling to bet money that, that scene as originally written required Kilmer to be awake and they decided to film him whilst asleep because it was just easier that way.
Needless to say everything Val Kilmer does in this film is utterly delightful.
Most of the other actors seems to have realised fairly quickly that they were in a stinker too. Fairuza Balk actually tried to escape the production but was caught at the airport and sent back to the set. If your film is so bad actors try and flee the country you may not be making art but instead are committing some kind of war crime. David Thewlis seems to have adopted the strategy of doing and saying as little as possible in the hopes that nobody will ever notice he was in the film, which is a time honoured strategy for embarrassed actors trying to pick up a pay cheque everywhere but quite difficult to do when you are the “hero” (hah!) of the film.
Even Ron Perlman sucks, although in his defence his entire job is to drone monotonously.
This combination of terrible script, actor’s either not trying or in the case of Brando trying to do something that we mere mortals cannot comprehend, a hack director, a very hostile production and a subject matter that is already fairly weird produces some of the most incomprehensibly odd imagery I’ve seen since Zardos. The Island of Dr Moreau is a film of such staggeringly bad choices that I almost wonder if its some kind of Kaufmann-esque anti-film and the joke is on the audience.
The only thing in the film that works purely on its own terms is the make-up which is really great. Ron Perlmans’s goat man is particularly good but all round the animal-men look the business.