In Defense of Marlon Brando and 'The Island of Dr. Moreau'

Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau/Photo © New Line Cinema

I recently watched helplessly online as the announcement of yet another The Island of Dr. Moreau adaptation triggered a predictable snark-spiral at the expense of John Frankenheimer's notorious 1996 version -- specifically at Marlon Brando's Razzie-winning performance as the mad genius who converts a small island into a sanctuary for his twisted genetic experiments.

As tempting as it is to join in on the fun-making, there's a strong case to be made for the film's competence and adequacy, both on its own and as the successor to a long line of other Dr. Moreau films (the upcoming one will be the fourth, not counting a few errant shorts and rip-offs). Each has its flaws, but hark: There is something about the Moreau formula that is just unsinkable onscreen, despite what you may have heard.

To understand 1996 ice-bucket-hat Moreau, we first have to go back to 1932 when Charles Laughton set the standard for the character in "Island of Lost Souls." It's a performance that Brando would definitely have stored away in his memory -- he was eight years old when the movie came out, the perfect age to savor all those classic monster movies.

"Lost Souls" starts a bit slow, but eventually blooms into a lavish horror experience with impressive animal-hybrid makeup effects -- it's worth watching just for the glimpse of a man with one human leg and one goat hoof. Not to mention young Kathleen Burke, credited only as "The Panther Woman" (the actress participated in a national contest to get the role; she was previously a dental assistant in Chicago).

Laughton's Moreau comes across as all bluster, a rich eccentric with scientific pretensions. His rule over his kingdom seems tenuous from the start, and compared to later films there are hardly even any subjects in it -- although if you squint, you'll make out Bela Lugosi slumming it as the chief manimal ("The Sayer of the Law").

Burt Lancaster picked up the title role in 1977's "Island of Dr. Moreau" and got serious with it. His Moreau is a hard-bitten survivalist, stern and efficient, who just happens to be evil to the core. He's as lean and sun-leathered as a big game hunter, which makes him almost as physically intimidating as any of his monsters. One gets the impression that he could keep his little island colony going for quite some time, if it were not for the intrusion of outsiders.

Apparently there were no significant improvements in man-beast makeup over those four decades -- or perhaps it's just that most of the action takes place in broad daylight. Regardless, what the film lacks in mystique it makes up in ferocious animal stunts. If you delight in watching lions and tigers gnawing on underpaid stuntmen, this is the film for you. The '77 version also took advantage of relaxed censorship standards and ratcheted up the medical horror, deviating from H.G. Wells' story with scenes that show the good doctor performing hair-raising (literally) experiments on the protagonist, played by Michael York.

Aside from these earlier incarnations, one rare factor contributed to the now infamous Brando version:  a wave of elaborate re-imaginings of classic horror stories in theaters, kicked off by "Bram Stoker's Dracula" in 1992. Francis Ford Coppola took pains to subvert every tired stereotype surrounding Count Dracula, a figure whose horrifying grandeur had been cheapened through decades of sequels, remakes, and knock-offs. The sight of Gary Oldman in his Eiko Ishioka Dracula drag may have elicited giggles from some viewers, but few could resist Coppola's lurid new twist on the tale. The film was a critical and financial success. All of the renovated classics that followed -- "Frankenstein" (1994), "Mary Reilly" (1996), and "The Island of Doctor Moreau" that same year -- attempted to live up to its example, and failed.

Oldman's Dracula is the number one thing to keep in mind when watching "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Public snickers notwithstanding, Brando's is a bold departure from his predecessors, playing Moreau as a crumbling mastermind who's slipped so far from reality that his thoughts and actions barely seem human. In his flowing robes and his Kabuki sunscreen, he may as well be Dracula  -- all the details which set Brando up for mockery are actually quite appropriate for the character, even his obesity. By the time we meet him, he's practically already gone, a dying man in thrall to perversity and madness.

Critics were outraged by the performance, and also by Brando's very limited screen time. It's like the old joke: "The food here's terrible ... and such small portions!"  The reaction is understandable to an extent, but they really should have seen it coming. In the era of "Dracula" and "Seven" and "Scream," horror filmmakers were eager to subvert popular expectations. However, there's no denying that Brando's presence overwhelmed the film. Casting him in '96 was sort of like casting Lindsay Lohan today: People showed up for the freak show, for the self-parody (intentional or otherwise), and for the right to make fun afterward.

In Brando's case they got all three, but it's possible he had the last laugh. Among the three Dr. Moreaus, he is the most convincing as a figure whose capacities for both evil and genius have spiraled beyond human understanding. Watched back-to-back with the earlier films, there's a satisfying continuity between the three figures, each making a case for his own hellish world that speaks ominously to the times that produced it. In 1932, it was about exploring what separates man from God (as a result, the film was banned by the British censors). In post-war 1977, it was about mankind plumbing the animalistic depths of his own psyche. By 1996, genetic tinkering had become a reality -- Dolly the sheep was born the same year, to reviews nearly as bad as Brando's. It was also the hundredth anniversary of Wells original novel, a milestone that seemed to demand an update on the theme.

That most recent "Moreau" is difficult to defend, but it's also difficult to dislike. Now that gossip and speculation about Brando have died down, it's far easier to appreciate the film for the flawed, semi-precious gem that it is. Its production woes have become the stuff of legend, to the point that it's deliberately sought out for "bad movie night" screenings. And yet, unlike many camp classics, "Moreau" has a genuine heart, soul, and brain -- they just don't all happen to be working together. It's a shocking, amusing, mystifying (sometimes all in the same scene) cabinet of curiosities. Which, when you think about it, is a perfectly appropriate thing for a "Dr. Moreau" movie to be.

And unlike its two predecessors, it does not end with an unequivocally happy ending. That is the ironic legacy of H.G. Wells' novel. The more opportunities we have to learn from it, the closer we actually get to bringing it to life. Meanwhile, the screenwriters of Netflix's "Hemlock Grove" have a daunting task ahead of them in reclaiming this film property from the clutches of notoriety. They may make a film that's technically smoother than Frankenheimer's, but there will never be another Moreau as memorable as Marlon Brando's; in the world of evil geniuses, worldwide infamy is always counted among one's major accomplishments.