See Val Kilmer feed psychedelic mushrooms to the crazed beast-people! See Aissa’s forbidden jungle dance! See the terrible white monster who lumbers across the sets in pancake makeup and Bea Arthur’s old caftans!
At the preview screening, somebody referred to this film as “The Island of Jeanne Moreau,” perhaps imagining it might have benefited from the presence of a diva like Moreau. As it happens, the comment was unnecessary – Marlon Brando, who makes his first appearance looking like Bea Arthur, with troweled-on pancake makeup and an elaborate extended veil, out-divas all the divas of recent memory. Fans of low camp will find much to love in this brainless potboiler; others are hereby warned.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is based on the hoary (1896) H.G. Wells novel about a scientist who, like Dr. Frankenstein, exhibits standard mad scientist hubris by conducting gene-splicing experiments that result in a community of half-human, half-beast creatures. Brando plays the Nobel Prize-winning Moreau, assisted by mesmerizing hunk Val Kilmer as Montgomery, a former neurosurgeon turned drugged-out jailer for the beast people. In a gratuitous swipe at groups like PETA, we’re told that Moreau was driven out of the United States by “animal rights activists” to an obscure South Pacific island to conduct his research.
The film opens with what appears to be the rescue of shipwrecked Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) near Moreau’s island. His savior, Montgomery, exhibits bizarre behavior from the outset, brutally killing a rabbit in front of him and then locking him in his room. We learn that Montgomery’s real function is to try to keep a lid on the beast people – using psychedelic mushrooms, sedatives, and a handy remote-controlled implant that sends them into spasms when they begin to act according to their increasingly violent natures. And Douglas has been kidnapped, not saved, in order to provide DNA that will save a woman from being taken over by her beast-self.[PIC: Brando]At the center of this fragile kingdom is Brando as Moreau, a waddling behemoth who spends most of his time dressing in ornate, flowing caftans and matching do-rags and playing piano duets with a sort of homunculus figure who wears identical outfits. We never see this ballooned-up drag queen doing any actual research; with more costume changes than a Lana Turner movie, he’s obviously too busy choosing his gowns. He has little interaction with the other characters, even the beast-people “children” he keeps in his house as servants. He has a beautiful “daughter” Aissa (Fairuza Balk) who catches the fancy of the island’s new guest, but she’s plagued by the same problem as the other beast-people; the poor dear is reverting to her animal origins.
It’s possible to ignore the creaky plot here and toy with the subtexts, of which there are plenty. More interesting than the obvious religious angle – Moreau as God, the beast-people as spiritually inchoate humanity – The Island of Dr. Moreau can be read as a racial parable, with Moreau the ultimate White Man (right down to that pancake) capriciously creating and dominating a little fiefdom of “people of color,” whose existence he can easily end with a push of the button. Moreau’s “plantation” even has its “house niggers,” a slightly better-treated group of three “sons” and one “daughter” who are permitted to personally attend him. And attend him they do – in one scene, he squeals with mock horror when Aissa massages his fat shoulders too hard. Moreau’s island also doubles as a Third World country being exploited by the First World – with the inevitable revolt by those who are sick of being so used.
Subtext allows subversion, and Moreau is certainly subverted, if not trashed, by its camp subtext. The apparently extreme tensions between three killer egos – Brando, Kilmer, and director John Frankenheimer – are evident in the performances. The two actors, in spite of having almost no screen time together, seem to be desperately vying for the camp crown. Brando’s mincing fashion show and Truman Capote-like complaints about the jungle heat are equalled by the sight of a drugged-out Kilmer in femme lounge-wear and white bandana that looks like it came from Joan Crawford’s closet. Kilmer’s scenes with David Thewlis have an unmistakably seductive element, with Kilmer constantly invading the latter’s “personal space” by conducting conversations an inch away from his nose. Kilmer – as fantastically alluring and extremely fuckable as the young Brando – obviously realized how hopeless this project was and, like Brando, decided to consciously undermine it using the time-tested strategy of camp.
Attempts to update the story with references to Jimi Hendrix and mushrooms and animal activism and gene-splicing only serve to emphasize how archaic the story is. On the other hand, Brando’s “big-gal” savoir faire in showing off the jungle’s haute couture could launch him on a new career as a model for Calvin Klein. We hear he’s looking for the “unusual.”