Creature Features

The Island of Dr. Moreau

area theaters

Island of Lost Souls

U Film Society, starts Friday

           EARLY ON IN H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, protagonist Edward Prendick notes that he has "frequented eccentric company." However, nothing in his privileged but ambiguous past could prepare him for what lurks on the uncharted South Seas isle where beasts are made into men. And, by extension, nothing could prepare movie audiences for the eccentric company of Charles Laughton in 1933's Island of Lost Souls, or Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in this month's The Island of Dr. Moreau. Taking the creative license of villainy to its utmost, these actors all stretch the task of "acting" beyond comfort.

           Overacting is just one of many opportunistic links between these two films, the most obvious being an interpretation contest regarding the still-prophetic H.G. Wells. (For the record, the earlier movie wins--it's more kitschy, if also sleepier.) More importantly, the two movies make a great opportunity to compare neo-Hollywood and old Hollywood. For example, so much has been done with rubber prostheses since the Star Wars cantina scene that the introduction of Dr. Moreau's beast-men in Moreau is practically humdrum (oh, I see, it's a boar that walks upright!). On the other hand, so little has been done to rein in eccentric actors over the years that Charles Laughton's decadent chuckles in Souls seem inspired compared to the lisping twitches Brando provides in Moreau.

           Wells's story was a simple parable about the thin barrier between civilization and savagery, and the risks of unregulated science. Edward is his surrogate moralist, witness to the horrors of Moreau's genetic manipulations, yet it's clear in the book that he's no goody-goody innocent. Having dabbled in "natural science," he selfishly avoids a career; and as a shipwreck survivor, he calmly participates in a last-man showdown and becomes the accidental victor. He's such a wimp that, once stuck on Moreau's island, he should go under the doctor's knife, just as a lesson in responsibility.

           Neither movie does is much interested in the Edward character, though. In Souls he's played by the reliably Yank-handsome but wooden Richard Arlen, who has trouble being shocked. And in Moreau he's played by the toothy David Thewlis, who complains more than he quivers, and by body language alone is nearly as creepy as the beasts he discovers. Both movies blow it on this score, finding little to mine in Edward's past, his victimhood, or his potential complicity. By extension, they are also nearly incoherent, following scripts that haven't left the napkin-sketch stage: A torch seen in one shot starts an inferno in the following one; a scary rebuff by a character in one scene is followed moments later by a ho-hum welcome. Even as the animal chaos builds everywhere around him, Edward basically mopes about Moreau's island.

           Island of Lost Souls remains interesting because it represents old Hollywood's indulgence in dreamy, even somewhat slummy romantic horror. Within a few years on either side of this Paramount movie, MGM had made Freaks and Universal was making the first Dracula and Frankenstein films. At the same time, Souls's cinematographer Karl Struss was responsible for the lush, moody atmospheres of Sunrise and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And best of all, blubbery Charles Laughton was hamming it up in comedies, dramas, and would-be horror exercises such as this one.

           Maybe the simplest comparison to be made is that Laughton, as Moreau, strides around cracking a long whip while Brando's Moreau sits imperiously in various thrones and sedan chairs, peering over his gut. No matter how fancy his technologically updated animal control devices, they're simply too passive compared to a good snap of the whip. And in roles such as this, Brando is merely phoning in an accent and a persona he first revealed in The Missouri Breaks--a simpering schemer willing to wear anything to steal a scene. With such a distracting wardrobe--head scarves, muumuu gowns, pasty anti-sunburn makeup--this Moreau is hardly any threat at all.

           Val Kilmer out-Brandoes Brando, putting a totally new spin on Montgomery, Dr. Moreau's haunted assistant. In both the book and Souls, Montgomery is somewhat reflective and more or less helpful to the doctor--he does have the potential to be heroic. But in Moreau, Kilmer is the bastard offspring of Method Acting (find your inner pain and externalize it) and the Me Decade (find your inner jerk and impose it upon everyone). He flits around, grits his teeth, flirts with Edward, and essentially does everything he can when merely "too much" will suffice. He's so happy with himself that he's bad in the job of being evil.

           Too often, movie remakes and new versions are compared to their ancestors and found wanting just because "classic" is supposedly better. In this contest, the familiar refrain is irrelevant: Because of all its high-tech, noisy attention to gruesome sadism, the overproduced, gadget-burdened Moreau sabotages itself without need of an archival yardstick. And Island of Lost Souls, awkward and cheesy as it is, is still only "classic" by default. It's grubby in an Ed Wood sort of way, but boasts great cinematography and Charles Laughton in a sick goatee acting casually perverse. Because it fails more strangely, it provides a creepier Island on which to host a nightmare or two.

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