Greetings, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! Now, when it comes to mad scientists, certain names ring out more forcefully then others. It seems like you can’t swing a reanimated cat without hitting a reimagining or homage to Dr. Victor Frankenstein, while Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are never far from a retelling. Even that rascal the Invisible Man has gotten more than his share of the love. But today I’d like to talk about one of the absolute greats of mad science, a man who has never seemed to have gotten the attention he deserved and, at times, demanded.
I speak, of course, of Dr. Moreau.
Originating in H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (identified by its author in later years as a piece of “youthful blasphemy”), Dr. Moreau was at one point a noted London physiologist, until his vivisectionist practices – that is, experimenting on live animals – came to light and resulted in a public outcry against him, driving him from his practice and his native England. Setting up shop on an island in the south seas, Moreau would attract an assistant in the form of Montgomery, a man with similar scientific interests, and with Montgomery’s assistance Moreau begins experimenting on animals, trying to create men from beasts through surgery. This practice would continue unopposed, with Moreau setting himself up as god to his beast-men, until the marooned Edward Prendricks arrives on the island. Shortly thereafter, the beast-men begin to rebel against Moreau’s laws as their animal natures reassert themselves, ultimately killing Moreau and Montgomery. Prendricks would soon thereafter escape back to civilization, though finding himself changed by his time on the island – humanity, to him, now constantly appears to be struggling on the edge of reversion to animal nature.
Astonishingly, this grisly tale has only been filmed a handful of times. The first and, for my money, best adaptation was 1932’s THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, starring Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau and featuring a heavily made-up Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law, leader of the beast-men. Laughton plays Moreau as a charming, baby-faced sociopath in a white suit with a whip on his belt, and is the high point of what is genuinely a solid, well-done horror film. Ironically, H.G. Wells hated it for removing all the social commentary he’d filled the novel with and turning the story into a straight-up horror show.
Other than two Filipino films by director Eddie Romero (TERROR IS A MAN, 1959, and THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, 1973) which borrowed elements from the story of Dr. Moreau, the silver screen did not see the good doctor again until 1977, when Burt Lancaster stepped into the role. Lancaster’s Moreau is a more cold-blooded figure, murdering Montgomery for questioning his wisdom and trying to chemically revert Andrew Braddock (this version’s take on the Edward Prendricks character) into an animal.
Finally, in 1996, a film adaptation would come out incorporating the latest in genetic engineering and special effects technology…but mostly incorporating a morbidly obese, barely mobile Marlon Brando, slathered in sunscreen and draped in a muumuu (actually kind of resembling my girlfriend’s mother) as Dr. Moreau and Val Kilmer as the drug-addled Montgomery. The make-up effects used to bring the “manimals” to life is impressive enough, and Ron Perlman makes a suitably stentorian Sayer of the Law, but overall this film is a flop, and one to be passed over. What the hell is up with Moreau keeping what appears to be a flayed dwarf version of himself around?
And that’s it. For every 200 hundred Frankensteins and 150 Jekylls, we get three Moreaus. And that hardly seems fair to me. Moreau is at least as mad as Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll, possibly moreso, and lacking in the sympathy they engender. He’s a far more menacing figure in his sociopathy, more akin to the Invisible Man than Frankenstein or Jekyll in his disregard for ethics and morality. As medical science and biotechnology improves and expands, it is also perhaps more likely that we’ll need a refresher in avoiding Moreau’s hubris then we will that of Frankenstein.