Bright Lights Film Journal

The Cinematic Islands of Dr. Moreau: Beasts, Monsters, and Mad Scientists

“There are monsters that are born with a form that is half-animal and half-human . . . which are produced by sodomists and atheists who join together, and break out of their bounds contrary to nature, with animals, and from this are born several monsters that are hideous and very scandalous to look at or speak about.”
– Ambroise Paré, Des monsters et prodigies

“It is clear that perceiving and understanding are not the same. For while animals have a share of the former, only a few have a share of the latter.”
– Aristotle, DeAnima, bk. III

“Whoever unnecessarily torments or roughly mishandles an animal will be punished by up to two years in prison, with a fine, or with both these penalties.”
– Provision 1 of the Law on Animal Protection issued by the Third Reich and signed by Adolf Hitler.

“The idiot stands at an intermediate stage between ape and man.”
– Carl Vogt

Published just two years after The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) was the second in H. G. Wells’ great science fiction quartet, along with The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. It validated his presence on the international literary scene. The real source of his success, however, was not necessarily in his incisive social commentary, but more likely in his resonance with the growing public interest and controversy concerning the possibilities and limits of science. By 1896, Britain was well into the Second Industrial Revolution, and it had developed a strong confidence in science’s ability to solve problems. Darwinism had proven to many that humans and animals were not finished, immutable products but were flexible subsets of a constantly evolving biosphere. With this realization came the dreams of eugenics, of perfecting humans and animals by way of the laboratory and the surgeon’s scalpel. This movement did not lack for opponents, however, and vivisection was one of the more commonly touted “horrors of science.” Darwin’s writing showed the continuum of human and animal existence, and thus some argued that consequently animals should not be subjected to experiments on moral grounds. Others suggested that since humans were different from animals, acts of kindness toward animals were what distinguished humans from animals. As Francis Power Cobbe argued, vivisection was not an act of “old barbarism,” such as the now outlawed bull-baiting perpetrated by the lowest rung of society, but a “new vice in the hotbeds of our highest culture,” and one carried out by educated men: “the smooth, cool man of science . . . stands by that torture trough.”1 Experiments that predated the later concept of psychosurgery (lobotomy) were performed in the late nineteenth century on animals in the most sadistic manner. For example, David Ferrier had experimented on the cortexes of animals:

A crowd of eager spectators attended the afternoon demonstrations. Goltz began by showing his dog to the audience, pointing to its deformed head and inserting his fingers into the holes in the skull. He explained that in five successive operations he had removed the greater part of the cerebral cortex on both sides. He then put his dog through the paces, demonstrating that it could run and jump, use its eyes to avoid objects, could hear (it cringed when a whip was snapped) and smell (it turned its head when Goltz had a physician in the audience blow cigar smoke at it).

It all seemed convincing until Ferrier began his demonstration. He signaled for an attendant to bring a large monkey, which was obviously paralyzed on one side, to the platform. The monkey dragged one leg, and its arm hung helplessly. Charcot was reported to have uttered loudly, ‘Why, it’s a patient’ . . . The animal was alert and healthy in all other respects, rapidly taking food with its good hand. A second monkey was then brought out. This animal seemed unimpaired until the attendant, at Ferrier’s signal, shot off a cap pistol. The second animal did not even flinch, while the first monkey, filled with terror, tried to escape but toppled onto the floor with one foot and one arm flailing grotesquely. Ferrier explained that a precise lesion in the “motor cortex” on one side of the brain had been made in the first monkey; while in the second animal, a discrete lesion had been made bilaterally in the part of the temporal lobes that Ferrier had started calling the “auditory centers.”2

Such experimentation on animals inevitably would lead to experiments on vulnerable people. David Ferrier established a laboratory at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield in the 1870s. Such experiments on the brains of patients who were unable to defend themselves were criticized as the “scientific torture of lunatics.”3 Middle-class women were also encouraged to ensure that no vivisector treated their own children since, “Will the man who has learnt to hear without pity the moan of a tortured dog or the cry of a cat in anguish care very much for the pains of our little ones?”4 Opponents in Britain today include the singer Morrissey, who has described Oxford as “The Shame of England” for the building of a biomedical research laboratory; MP Anne WIddecombe, patron of the “Voice for Ethical Research at Oxford”; and actress Joanna Lumley. Similarly, in nineteenth-century Britain they came from all walks of life, from Lord Shaftesbury, the campaigner against child chimney sweepers, and Cardinal Manning, to Labour movement leaders such as Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP, and striking dockers leader Tom Mann. So many women’s suffrage campaigners were involved that the Research Defense Society declared “the standard seemed to have been more or less captured by them.”5 The cause also produced the very controversial brown dog statue erected in the Latchmere recreation ground at the centre of a new Battersea municipal housing development. The inscription on the brown dog memorial read:

In memory of the brown terrier dog done to death in the laboratory of University College in February 1903, after having endured vivisection extending over more than two months and having been handed over from one vivisector to another till death came as a release. Also in memory of the 232 dogs vivisected at the same place during the year 1902. Men and women of England, how long shall these things be?6

The statue was the first of its kind in Britain. Hilda Kean relates that some students from University College, London physically attacked the statue two times, in November 1907 and March 1908. The council then decided to post a guard at the statue at an annual cost of 700 pounds. The brown dog statue also generated demonstrations of support in London. A new council elected in November 1909 decided to remove the statue, which took place under the cover of night on March 10, 1910 and officially smashed the statue so it could never be restored, prompting Kean to conclude that, “A denial of a past history to the movement suggests less importance or credibility than the work of scientists whose traditions are well known.7

And indeed supporters of vivisection not only maintained the crucial importance of the practice for medical science, but saw the exploitation and use of animals as bringing about a “fountain of youth” for human beings. The quest for eternal youth took a very dramatic turn in June 1889 when the renowned neurologist and physiologist Charles Edouard Brown-Séquard announced to the Société de Biologie that the testicular extracts of dogs and guinea pigs had remarkable anti-aging properties. The 72-year-old scientist feared that his physical and intellectual powers were waning. By using animals and himself as subjects, he discovered that injecting extracts made from the testicles of animals were rejuvenating. He said he felt 30 years younger. The British Medical Journal reported that “defecation and micturition were also discharged with greater ease.” While Brown-Séquard even claimed that the extract meant he had been able to “visit” his young, third wife. He marketed the testicular extracts as “sequarine – the medicine of the future.”8 Brown-Séquard’s “Organotherapy ” or “opotherapy,” the treatment of illness and disease with extracts made from animal glands, involved crushing the glands of guinea pigs, dogs or bulls, and then injecting the material directly under the skin or into the rectum of the patient. In the 1920s Russian-French physician Serge Voronoff became convinced that the “internal secretions” of testicles were responsible for much more than merely enhancing sexual performance; they in fact stimulated the entire body. Men “who are vigorous and energetic, with lively imagination, a capacity for work, and the power of resisting fatigue” had been blessed with “highly active testicles” while “decrepit old men are, in reality, eunuchs,” castrated by the “cruel law of nature.” What could possibly be more beneficial to mankind than reviving the energies and desires of old, decrepit, and senile men?9 As Joanna Bourke writes:

Brown-Séquard and Voronoff, as well as their numerous imitators, shared a scientific and moral vision of the world. Their vision was fundamentally optimistic: through the manipulation of the internal body, ‘the human’ could be transformed. They would live better and longer. They would be more content. Men would be more masculine; women, more feminine.

All as it should be, because “male vitality and prowess within systems of capitalist production was held in very high esteem.”10 Yet the guardians of animals referred to Brown-Séquard as the “most eminent experimenter in vivisection now living – one who . . . has probably inflicted more animal suffering than any other man in his time.” Voronoff was equally held in contempt as a man who engaged in the castration of animals – especially monkeys – on an industrial scale. Those who promised eternal youth were overlooking the “price of pain and death to the helpless dumb creatures . . . .and a man who would ill-treat a dumb animal would ill-use a human being.”11

With the publication of The Island of Dr. Moreau that featured the grafting of animals into men, Wells was able to tap into this combination of fear, uncertainly, promise, and fascination with the power of science, fears of degeneration, and the line between human and animal. Of course one cannot deny the simple lurid appeal of “freaks” in Victorian Britain, or as they were usually called, oddities, curiosities, marvels, prodigies, or wonders of nature that included “dwarves,” “midgets,” “giants,” “fat ladies,” “bearded ladies,” “monkey men,” “dog boys,” “boneless wonders,” and the like . The more “animalistic” and primitive the” human specimen” the better, as witnessed by the pathetic and tragic careers of such “freaks” as Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” and Ota Benga, a pygmy Bushman kept in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo.12 The name of Wells’ British doctor came from the French neurologist Jacques-Joseph Moreau, whose Morbid Psychology (1859) argued that overuse of the part of the brain controlling intellect could cause an atrophy of moral sensibility.13 Indeed, the Dr. Moreau portrayed in the novel typified the image of the cold, calculating surgeon who performed atrocities with objective distance and unsympathetic indifference to the feelings of his subjects. As he tells Prendick, “This store which men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them, – the mark of the beast from which they came! Pain, pain and pleasure – they are for us, only so long as we wriggle in the dust.”14 Still Wells is careful not to turn Moreau in a mere monster; he is not as his creatures. Rather, Wells labors to portray him as a man consumed by intellectual curiosity, a man who wishes to test at all costs the limits of what can and cannot be done:

You see, I went on with this research just the way it led me. That is the only way I ever heard of true research going. I asked a question, devised some method of obtaining an answer, and got a fresh question. Was this possible or that possible? You cannot imagine what this means to an investigator, what an intellectual passion grows upon him! You cannot imagine the strange, colorless delight of these intellectual desires! The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem! Sympathetic pain, – all I know of it I remember as a thing I used to suffer from years ago. I wanted – it was the thing I wanted – to find out the extreme limit to plasticity in a living shape.”15

This is perhaps the universal theme of science fiction, and certainly the prototype, of the “mad,” or maybe not so mad, scientist that populates the genre. Also, much to the chagrin of Wells, later film adaptations of Dr. Moreau placed it firmly in the horror genre as well.


Adrift in a dinghy, Edward Prendick, the single survivor from the ship Lady Vain, is rescued by a vessel carrying a profoundly unusual cargo, a menagerie of savage animals. Tended to recovery by their keeper, the mysterious Montgomery, who gives him dark medicine that tastes of blood, Prendick soon finds himself stranded on an uncharted island in the Pacific with his rescuer and the beasts. Here he meets Montgomery’s master, the sinister Dr. Moreau, a brilliant scientist whose notorious experiments in vivisection have caused him to abandon the civilized world. It soon becomes clear he has been developing these experiments with truly horrific results. Similar to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau features a man of science playing God and finding that his creations do not act as he would prefer. The themes of nature, law, religion, and society are expertly mixed against the backdrop of a mysterious Pacific island. Wells issues a warning to the unlearned reader that the manufacture of monsters, even quasi-human monsters, exists within the current possibilities of science and vivisection. Wells took care to base Moreau’s work on recognizable experimental procedures. Of course, when the novel first appeared it resonated with this controversy surrounding vivisection and fears about degeneration, but in recent years the issues raised by Dr. Moreau have come to the fore in the media, as the advancement of genetics, stem cell research (with the related debate about abortion), and cloning have begged the question of whether it is ever right for man to play God, and how far is too far in the manipulation of life? There is also a question of forcing a belief system on another set of “people” – deifying oneself in order to be protected from one’s own creations – and the degradation of said creations when they are left to their own devices, easily presenting a metaphor for European colonialism. Wells classically portrays how easily mankind can go astray. One has to wonder if his ideas are not already a reality in this regard. But then Wells’ prescience was extraordinary. He used the phrase “atomic bomb” before the First World War, anticipating the age of nuclear proliferation with such weapons in the hands of rogue nations and terrorists. He described airplanes attacking New York City skyscrapers, and foresaw our surveillance society with a mass entertainment and consumer culture.

Wells’ Victorian investigations into the nature of humanity and the barrier between men and animals have been adapted by Hollywood three times. A number of blatant, unacknowledged, low budget rip-offs were made as well, even a parody in one of the episodes of The Simpsons, and a short-lived TV series.16 The first version was entitled Island of Lost Souls (1933), starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. The film was remade twice. Both later versions used the title from the novel. The first was released in 1977 and stars Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau. The second was released in 1996 and features a flamboyant but declining Marlon Brando as the good doctor. Terror Is a Man (1959) is basically an uncredited remake of the novel from the Philippines directed by Gerry De Leon and produced by Eddie Romero, as is Twilight People (1973) with Romero as director and co-writer. Eddie Romero’s infamous Blood Island trilogy also deserves a mention here, but with an important caveat. Whereas Terror Is a Man and Twilight People “loosely ” follow Wells, and especially the film Island of Lost Souls (1933), Brides of Blood (1968), The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1969), and Beast of Blood (1970) have only the slightest patina of Dr. Moreau with heavy layers of drive-In horror schlock. Yet they remain of interest as popular derivatives of the story of Dr. Moreau with their themes of blood, sexuality, horror, the terror of the primitive “beast,” and out-of-control experiments conducted by “mad” scientists. Finally, two televised curiosities deserve mention as very loose takes on Dr. Moreau. An episode of The Simpsons entitled “The Island of Dr. Hibbert” (Treehouse of Horror XIII, original airdate Nov. 3, 2002) finds Homer appalled to learn that Springfield’s citizens have devolved into “manimals.” So “the personification of American over-consumption” quickly volunteers to help when he learns that their life now consists solely of continuous eating, sleeping, and mating, but has a sudden change of heart.17 Of equal curiosity (perhaps remembered only because it was invoked in The Simpsons parody) was Manimal, an American action/adventure/fantasy television series that ran from September 30 to December 17, 1983 on NBC, and then repeated on British television in 1984.18

The Island of Lost Souls, co-written and adapted by science fiction legend Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young and directed by Erle C. Kenton, tells the story with a dark primal undertone featuring an amazingly sadistic, slimy performance from Charles Laughton as Moreau. Wells hated this first film version because of its treatment of his ideas as a horror film and its emphasis on the more lurid aspects of the story to the detriment of its deeper philosophies, including turning Moreau into a sadist. Wells criticized the film “as a ‘mad scientist’ travesty of his satire of Victorian anxieties about degeneration and the cultural forces keeping us precariously ‘human.'”19 Wells may have disliked this first cinematic version of his novel, but nonetheless critics generally consider it to be the best of all the adaptations.20 When a shipwreck sets an ocean traveler, now called Edward Parker and played by Richard Arlen (What was wrong with Prendick? Too English sounding? Too suggestive?) adrift, he gets picked up by a freighter that is delivering animals and supplies to an isolated South Seas island. When Parker and the freighter’s cruel captain get into a fight over the latter’s treatment of M’ling, one of Moreau’s “creatures,” Parker ends up being heaved off the ship and stranded on the island. Moreau (Charles Laughton) takes him in and Parker then begins to learn why his host is so secretive about his work on the island. At first he hears strange noises at night that suggest the presence of unseen island natives. Later, when he tries to leave the house where he is staying, Parker runs into the “animal-men.” Saved from them by Moreau and his assistant Montgomery, Parker observes the island’s unusual social structure. Moreau, who packs a gun and a whip, cracks the whip, ordering an animal-man known as the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi in one of his great performances) to repeat the rule against violence and anything else that would deny their humanity:

Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?21

Once that happens, the animal-men return to the jungle. Moreau and Montgomery return with Parker to the main house. Here the doctor explains his hideous experiments. The operations were done on the animals in a place he refers to as the “House of Pain,” which the “animal-men” are forced to remember with a chanted formula:

His is the House of Pain. His is the Hand that makes. His is the Hand that wounds. His is the Hand that heals. His is the lighting flash. His is the deep, salt sea. His are the stars in the sky.22

Moreau then introduces Parker to his most successful experiment, a panther that now looks like an attractive human female. The panther-woman called Lota (Kathleen Burke) is in fact so human that Moreau hopes that she and Parker will mate, telling him that she is “pure polynesian.” The unexpected arrival of Parker’s respectable, and safely white, fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) – who, wondering what happened to him, tracks him to Moreau’s island – ends that idea in a hurry. In one scene she is sexually menaced by one of Moreau’s male creatures, arousing the old fears and stereotypes about miscegenation. Parker now realizes that he has to escape the island with Ruth but is unsure how to do so. His opportunity comes when Moreau is caught in an act of violence by the animal-men, thus breaking the “Law,” so they decide to revolt. Then in an anti-vivisection dream come true, they carry Moreau away to his own House of Pain, where he meets a grisly demise – they eviscerate him with his own surgical instruments. The film conveys a primal, eerie quality despite the black-and-white, studio-bound jungle sets. Laughton portrays a particularly evil Moreau, “who brings a vivid, sweaty amorality to his performance that’s truly disturbing. Lots of mad scientists in the movies played God, but few made it seem more morally repugnant than Laughton.”23 Although released in 1933, Laughton even sports the distinctive “toothbrush” mustache that became so identified with Adolf Hitler. Keith Williams observes that Laughton’s Moreau resembles a “whip-cracking, sexually ambiguous voyeur, who dresses for dinner in his fortified jungle compound and oozes the perverse psychology of colonialism.”24 The film was examined and refused a certificate three times by the British Board of Film Censors, in 1933, 1951, and 1957. While the reason for the initial ban is not clear, it is likely that the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of 1937, which forbade the portrayal of cruelty to animals in feature films released in Britain, played a significant factor in the BBFC’s subsequent rejections. The film eventually passed with an “X” certificate on July 9, 1958.25 Wally Westmore’s make-up for the “creatures” remains low-key compared to later versions, as does the onscreen violence, yet the original cinematic take on The Island of Dr. Moreau retains a definite “creepiness” that makes it a classic among early Hollywood horror movies, placing it a cut above the later remakes.26


The 1977 version directed by Don Taylor (whose other films included Escape from the Planet of the Apes, 1971; Damien: Omen II, 1978; and The Final Countdown, 1980) features Burt Lancaster as a cleaned-up, soapy, “kinder and gentler” Moreau and Michael York as the castaway shipwrecked English gent, now called Braddock. No matter what character he plays, Lancaster cannot escape being “nice,” so his Moreau lacks the sinister, sneering quality given the character by Laughton. Also Moreau now appears to be no longer a vivisectionist but a genetic engineer. (There seems to be a curious lack as to the precise time frame of the film. Braddock at one point gives his birthday as being in the 1880s, so the action has to be occurring in the early twentieth century.) The human gene had not been discovered when Wells wrote his novel, nor had DNA been identified when the first film appeared. While certainly genetic tinkering makes much better science than merely transplanting animal parts on other bodies, it destroys the darker, more sadistic parts of the original film. The original 1933 film had scenes – animal-men vivisecting Moreau, Moreau wanting to breed the hero with his panther-woman – that led to it being banned for 27 years in the UK, but now both of these parts are replayed without any impact. Indeed the original had unmistakable undertones of bestiality, of transgression between human and animal, but Barbara Carrera’s panther woman, Maria, is only vaguely feline, very human, just slightly exotic, with strong early hints that Braddock wants to take her away from Moreau. The 1930s-style white fiancée love interest drops out, but that does not help improve a plodding story line. Braddock, convinced that Moreau is insane, plans to flee the island with Maria. Moreau catches them, and in a change from previous versions, he plans to turn Braddock into an animal. Dr. Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) objects, Moreau kills him, breaking the rules, and the men-beast go tapioca. Moreau now injects Braddock with a liquid that turns him slowly into an animal – sort of a wolf-man . Braddock fights to maintain his humanity in the face of Moreau’s treachery, forcing himself to recall childhood memories. The animal-men attack Moreau’s compound and kill him, burning the whole thing down. In a final apocalyptic scene the men-beasts are killed by wild animals that Moreau had kept for his experiments, with the last image being the hanging body of Moreau against the backdrop of the burning compound. Braddock and Maria escape the island but only after much difficulty with one of the animal-men. They are later picked up by a passing ship. The serum starts losing its effect, returning Braddock to a complete human state. Maria, however, starts to revert back to a more feline state, devolving from Moreau’s creation. Thus the film ends. Although shot at St. Croix and Virgin Island locations, the original seemed more jungle-like. Even the make-up effects of John Chambers of Planet of the Apes fame disappoints. The made-up extras just seem to run around snarling and grunting to no purpose. Even Richard Basehart as the Sayer of the Law comes off as lame, resembling the Roddy McDowell’s chimp intellectual in Planet of the Apes. In short, Lancaster plays Moreau too nice, Michael York elocutes too much, and the film is just not scary enough, yet it also fails to deliver the philosophical insights Wells found missing in The Island of Lost Souls. It has the feel of a made-for-television movie playing it safe. In fact, the most memorable moment in the film may be the fight scene between a “Bullman” and a real tiger, where the big cat takes the top of the stuntman’s head in its jaws. The Fiberglass helmet he wore to hold his horns in place saved his skull from being bitten through a la Roy with a white tiger in the tragic Las Vegas accident that ended the popular Siegfried and Roy magic and tiger act.27 As Time Out London concluded in its review of the film:

[D]irector Don Taylor seems determined to iron out all the interesting emphases in favour of a visual and narrative style that reduces everything to the level of schoolboy adventure. The island becomes an antiseptic paradise, and Moreau (Lancaster) is no longer a white-suited colonial sadist but the standard misguided scientist. Only Michael York’s metamorphosis into a beast has any impact, and the film predictably fails to follow through even on that.28

The 1996 redo of The Island of Dr. Moreau, filmed on location near Cairns, Australia, was to be the third feature of South African-born filmmaker Richard Stanley. His first feature was Hardware (1990), a low-budget sci-fi movie about a mad-dog android loose in an apartment. In 1992 Stanley followed with Dust Devil, a story based on the myth of a Namibian serial killer. Both films later developed a cult following. Unfortunately his efforts on The Island of Dr. Moreau ended up a victim of creative disputes, leading to him being sacked after one to four (accounts vary) days of filming. He supposedly snuck back onto the set wearing a dog mask. The finished film bears little or no resemblance to the version he was actually set out to make, “using only about two words from the original script.”29 The veteran film director John Frankenheimer replaced Stanley as director, with the screenplay in the credits being attributed to Richard Stanley “with” Ron Hutchinson, a seasoned Irish screenwriter and hired gun script doctor who had worked with Frankenheimer previously in productions for television.30 Frankenheimer, best known for such classics as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), had worked most recently in television, winning Emmys for the productions Against the Wall (1993), The Burning Season (1994) Andersonville (1996), and George Wallace (1997).31 He had the misfortune of inheriting this unlucky horror/scientific romance adaptation of Wells’ 1896 novel on the hundredth anniversary of its publication.

This version featured Marlon Brando as the mad scientist Moreau conducting DNA experiments on a remote Pacific island. As Frankenheimer remembers, “No one seemed to know what kind of film they wanted: science fiction, a parody, a tale of horror, a condemnation of science misused? I re-read the original story and it seemed very clear that H.G. Wells had written a moral fable and so a moral fable is what I decided to make.”32 Few films have received such ridicule as this Island of Dr. Moreau. As one reviewer put it, “The 1977 version is pretty bad, but next to the 1996 version, it’s Citizen Kane.” It received six Razzie nominations, including Worst Picture.33 In addition to the firing of Stanley, there is other good behind-the-scenes gossip, mostly to do with costar Val Kilmer and the “star” Marlon Brando, who actually owned a Polynesian island known as Tetiaroa. On the set Kilmer apparently insisted everyone refer to him as “Mister Kilmer.” Working relations between Brando and Kilmer did not seem to go smoothly. Brando told Kilmer, “You confuse the size of your talent with the size of your paycheck.”34 Despite rumors to the contrary, Frankenheimer claims that his relationship with Brando was “amicable.” Kilmer on the other hand was “difficult yes. He was emotionally disturbed over certain personal problems – divorce and other matters – and he was unreliable at times.”35 As for both their acting performances in the film, talent seems little in evidence, although Brando did beat out Kilmer for the Worst Supporting Actor Razzie.36 He expended little energy in his scenes. Kilmer at best goes through the motions. It had been just a year since Brando’s daughter Cheyenne’s suicide, with his brilliant and tumultuous acting career now drawing to an end, as the Washington Post observed upon his death in 2004: “Morbidly obese and depressed after the deaths of family and friends, he spent the last decade more as a symbol of media curiosity than as an actor looking for the next challenge. He largely resigned himself to insubstantial parts in panned films such as ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau'”37 The film has rightly assumed cult status as a thoroughly muddled version of the H.G. Wells classic, but it is also one of the most intriguing, with memorable, even hilarious moments. In addition, the film featured some early pioneering CGI work along with make-up and special effects by the legendary Stan Winston of Terminator fame. But even this wizardry did not assuage critics such as Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle: “The mangy half-human, half-animal characters created by makeup whiz Stan Winston and the visual effects by Digital Domain make the film come across like a blaring Beasts-R-US infomercial. The main beast, a hyena-swine hybrid, sounds an awful like the ‘Star Wars’ Wookie.”38

The opening credits show a blood-red sky that morphs into an eye. The title appears and then breaks apart. This is intercut with images of cells under a slide, blood flowing through veins. While the credits roll, we see a lot of the same images over and over again. Finally, we see a tiny raft on the ocean. A voice says “Our plane crashed in the endless southern Pacific.” Gradually, the camera zooms in on the raft, while the narrator explains how two other survivors on the raft started a fight for the last of the water. Soon we’re close enough to see the men fighting and then falling into the sea. “They fought like beasts, not men,” observes the narrator. Cut to a shot of a shark moving ominously nearby. Now we see the narrator, Edward Douglas, the castaway’s new name, played by actor David Thewlis, who either plays the character as being very disoriented, or who was in fact disoriented. Douglas, now a UN representative, is picked up by a ship and placed on a bed, being examined by Moreau’s associate Montgomery. In one of the better lines, Douglas asks, “Are you a doctor?” to which Montgomery responds, “Well, I’m more of a vet.” In the novel Wells portrays Montgomery as having a shady past, even hints of homosexuality. Montgomery is played by Val Kilmer, who hams it up through most of the movie: “We can’t grade him on the Embarrassed Actor Scale, because he doesn’t seem to be embarrassed. He looks like he’s in a bad movie and loving it. If only we could say the same thing. Incidentally, thus far the movie has been fairly faithful to the novel.”39 We learn that Montgomery’s real function consists of trying to keep a lid on the beast people using the music of Jimi Hendrix, psychedelic mushrooms, sedatives, and a handy remote-controlled implant that sends them into spasms – an updated “House of Pain” – when they began to get too rambunctious. He tells Douglas that Dr. Moreau had been driven out of the United States by animal rights activists to this remote island in the Pacific, where he has worked for seventeen years implanting human genes into animals. This version of Moreau has won the Nobel Prize, and when Douglas asks Montgomery what he won it for, he responds sarcastically with, “He invented Velcro.”

At the center of this bizarre kingdom is Brando as Moreau who, as Gary Morris writes, “is a waddling behemoth who spends most of his time dressing in ornate, flowing caftans and matching do-rags and playing duets with a sort of homunculus figure who wears identical outfits.”40 Dr. Evil and “mini-Me”? Gerald Pratley counters with, “whatever one thinks of Brando’s peculiar creation of Moreau (a cross between Gilbert and Sullivan and Orson Welles), it can at least be said that we’ve never seen the ‘mad scientist’ portrayed in this manner before.”41 “No one was willing to say anything,” recalled Stanley,” which is why Brando wears an ice bucket on his head in one scene,” saying it was Moreau’s latest invention to keep cool.42 Brando’ s Moreau does little actual research in the film other than occasionally staring into a microscope, but his bizarre performance does manage to capture the inner lunacy of Moreau. His house is full of “Beast People.” They are his children, and he is the father. Of course, he has a beautiful “daughter” Aissa – a cat human hybrid, Montgomery calls her a “real pussy cat” but again she looks very human – played by Fairuza Balk. She catches at once the eye of the island’s new guest/prisoner, but she’s got the same problem as the other beast people: the poor thing is reverting to her animal origins. In fact, Douglas has been taken in order to provide DNA that will save her from this devolution. As for his opinion of Moreau, Douglas is clear, “Has it occurred to you that you may have totally lost your mind!” To which Moreau responds calmly, “Judge not, Mr. Douglas, that ye be not judged . . . and let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” Brando’s mincing, flower-child Moreau comes off better as a strange amalgam of Charles Laughton and Truman Capote.


The subtexts are by now familiar, and some go back to Wells himself and to the other films: Moreau as God or misguided scientist conducting his research for the greater “good” of humanity, the beast people as spiritually incomplete human beings who will inevitably revert to their animal roots, pain inflicted on the creatures leading to revolt, treating all living things with equal consideration, and the moral ambiguity of gene-splicing and the creation of new life forms. While all the film versions have a racial element, this Island of Dr. Moreau particularly can be read as a racial or colonial parable, with Moreau the ultimate “White Man,” right down to his pancake make-up that he says protects him from the tropical sun, a sort of bizarre reimagining of the tropical pith helmet that covered the fragile brains of Europeans in hot climates. While not as flamboyant as Brando, Burt Lancaster sports the white owner’s “Planter’s Hat,” a symbol of authority, a tropical white suit, as well as pistol and bullwhip, sort of resembling a tropical Indiana Jones. Brando’s Moreau capriciously toys with and dominates the “beast people” – people of color – whose very existence he can end with a push of a button, at least until they get wise and pull out the implants. His “plantation” or “compound” even has its “house niggers,” a slightly better-treated group of three sons and one daughter who are permitted to personally attend him.43 And attend him they do, with gestures that have double meanings, such as providing after-dinner entertainment by quoting words from William Butler Yeats that will turn out to be very prophetic – “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” And in one scene, Brando cries out in mock terror as Aissa massages his fat shoulders too hard – not knowing her strength. So the island of Dr. Moreau serves as a third world country being exploited by the first world with the inevitable revolt by those who are sick of being exploited – an old story.

The theme is compounded in the film by the obvious similarities to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), with Brando playing both Kurtz and Moreau being the most blatant, although Frankenheimer told Brando that he “was not going to put up with any Apocalypse Now nonsense . . . .”44 Kurtz runs a rogue, illegal military operation in Cambodia surrounded by devoted native followers who think him a god. Coppola pretentiously played up this angle by using literary references to Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough and legends about the man-god who must be killed by his followers. He placed a copy of the book in Kurtz’s room.45 Moreau conducts rogue scientific experiments that create devoted followers, creatures he can exploit and who think of him as being the “father.” Both think they are right in what they do. The island of Dr. Moreau housed a former U.S. military installation, so he utilizes the buildings and equipment left behind. Montgomery drives a U.S. Army jeep, and the hulks of U.S. aircraft dot the compound. Val Kilmer basically plays the Dennis Hopper character to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now – a drugged-out, spaced-out sycophant of Moreau. Edward Douglas, like Captain Willard with Kurtz, sees Moreau as brilliant but evil and insane, and they respectively see Hopper’s journalist and Kilmer’s Montgomery as just plain insane. Both, of course, end with the death of Kurtz and Moreau and a fiery apocalypse. One scene in particular captures this comparison between the two films. Brando as Moreau enters the compound of the creatures riding in a Humvee wearing white pancake make-up, dark sunglasses, a giant straw hat, and clad in a diaphanous white dress/garment. Waving, gesturing, and accepting the homage of the thronging multitudes of his creations, Moreau resembles quite intentionally the Pope in his “Pope-Mobile” traversing St. Peter’s Square. The whole thing seems reminiscent of the river gunboat first entering Kurtz’s bloody, bizarre compound as it parts the way through the small craft containing the wildly painted savage “creatures” that Kurtz has mobilized, as well as the heads and bodies of their victims dangling from trees. Both scenes portray an eerie, hallucinatory atmosphere.

But the camp subtexts really dominate the film – and certainly gave reviewers a field day. As Gary Morris writes:

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 equaled 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.46

The alluring nature of Douglas comes out earlier when he does not want to get off the ship that brought him to the island. Montgomery then explains that, “Captain Kanari has taken quite a shine to you if you know what I mean. It’s really best if you come with me.” Most reviewers and viewers cared little for the acting or characterizations, but there were exceptions:

Go rent it! WAY better than the negative reviews . . . Brando was admittedly ‘weird’ – but hey, give the guy his due, he was supposed to be a weird, crazed scientist. What were they expecting, the Maytag Repairman? . . . Kilmer was deliciously evil, can’t say enough good about Val Kilmer . . . . Balk was just awesome . . . when she dances to that utterly hypnotic and awesome Balinese music . . . Thewlis was right spot on with his interpretation of an innocent ‘sane’ observer who barely made it off this mad-house of an island without totally losing his own sanity – Well acted, Bravo!47

Interesting, because actor David Thewlis vowed never to watch the finished product, because it was such a negative experience. He even skipped its opening premiere.48 The same blogger thought that the creepiness of the whole weird “mad-science-gone-amok” theme has true educational value:

I thought the movie was well-stocked with thought provoking comments on the morality of scientific experimentation . . . .I truly believe this movie should be seen and actively discussed by students at high school or college level – not just in science prep classes, but philosophy and social science courses as well. I don’t care what the naysayers have to say, this was by no means an empty or shallow movie.49

Aissa and Moreau have been killed as the creatures now revert to their animal state, pull out their implants, and revolt in righteous, crazed anger. Montgomery attempts to assume the “father” mantle, and even the dress, of Moreau, reigning briefly over a sexual orgy before they kill him too. Hyena-Man tries to assume the role of “number one God” by shooting his competition, but he ends up dying in a flaming building, just before a cataclysmic explosion wipes out most of Moreau’s creatures. As Douglas makes his escape by boat he says he will return with some scientific help for the survivors, but the Sayer of the Law (Ron Perlman) bids him adieu with the following words, “No more scientists, we must be what we must be – Maybe four is better.” While bobbing in the ocean, Thewlis then does a voice-over for a series of newsreel clips showing his fellow human beings acting cruelly and “beastly,” uttering the ominous last words of the film – “I go in fear.” This is even more pessimistic than Prendick’s last words in the novel, “And so, in hope and solitude, my story ends.”50 Frankenheimer, not unexpectedly, came away from the production satisfied that “we ended up with . . . a pretty faithful interpretation of what Wells was saying . . . .Everyone knows the story has been filmed before . . . but it only goes to show the timelessness of H. G. Wells’ observations on scientists and society that his book can be adapted to different era and still be profoundly perceptive and relevant to the period in which it is being told.”51

Edification is something not sought for in Terror Is a Man and Twilight People, two Filipino riffs on Dr. Moreau. Robert Horton for writes: “If you’re looking for the finest in horror flicks from the Philippines – and who isn’t – start your search right here A blatant low-budget rip-off of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Terror Is a Man is nevertheless an unexpectedly evocative little creeper on its own terms.”52 This time a shipwrecked American William Fitzgerald (Richard Derr) washes up on the shore of “Blood Island,” where he meets a “mad scientist” Dr. Charles Girard (Francis Lederer) engaged in a cruel experiment: turning a panther into a human being. “Why wait for evolution to advance a whole new species?,” he tells the incredulous, disoriented American. This time the good doctor has a wife (Greta Thyssen), the obligatory 1950s blond bombshell with an hourglass figure, who does not appreciate her husband’s dedication to his work, and of course she becomes the object of attraction for both the stranded American and the panther-man. The film also features another marquee of the fifties, a pre-credit note that a bell will sound before a particularly gruesome scene, so the faint of heart in the audience can close their eyes. As usual the scene is a dud – a surgical incision without any blood. Lederer’s Moreau remains much more calm, and disturbingly ultrarational, with far more gravitas than the other cinematic Moreaus, particularly Brando’s over-the-top performance. The biggest difference besides its low budget between Terror Is a Man and the other versions of the story – from The Island of the Lost Souls to the 1977 and 1996 remakes, as well as The Twilight People – has to do with the creature, which is just one panther being transformed surgically into a humanlike animal. Yet this one creature does enough killing to cause all the natives on the island to flee for their lives. In many ways the film harks back to Frankenstein as much as The Island of Dr. Moreau. Credit goes to two of the Philippines’ most resourceful terror-movie schlockmeisters, director Gerry De Leon and producer Eddie Romero, for making a moody yet thoughtful cult horror classic. In the mid-1960s the film was retitled Blood Creature, enjoying a successful run in the United States that inspired Romero to churn out a trilogy of Blood Island features.


Romero was also responsible for The Twilight People, released in 1973. Even though the scientist turns people into animals instead of turning animals into people, it remains “the most overt crib yet” with all the essential elements of the story of Dr. Moreau present.53 John Ashley stars as scuba diver Matt Ferrell, who gets kidnapped – literally “hooked” like a fish – underwater. He is then taken to a remote Island by Steinman (Jan Merrill), playing the role of Montgomery, where a mad Dr. Gordon (Charles MacCauley) – this time also a former Nazi – is turning people into mutant beings with the intention of making perfect beings to fight humanity’s tendency to destroy the environment, no less. Humans as currently constituted are simply not adaptable enough to survive in the new deadly environment they have created. (Premonitions of global warming perhaps, with the disappearance of some species of frogs as a warning?) He has already created an ape-man (with mutton chops like Elvis Presley); an antelope, or perhaps, goat-man, who lopes and defends himself with powerful kicks; a wolf-woman, who incongruously has the hots for the antelope-man; a bat-man who can fly; and a panther-woman with a very bad disposition, played by Pam Grier. The actors playing the human-beast hybrids look pretty silly trying to act “animalistic.” Very quickly the dubbed animal noises become distracting. Also, one can actually see the wires supporting bat-man’s soaring, when he isn’t hanging upside down in a tree. Dr. Gordon has a beautiful daughter, Neva (Pat Woodell), who acts as his assistant, appearing to be quite normally human in this case. Of course, soon she helps our captured hero release the animal-humans from an underground cave where they are held in cages. Along the way the ape-man decides he wants to rape Neva, but the other “manimals” manage to pull him off. After a thoroughly confused chase, everything comes down to a badly staged ending in a cave where the evil doctor is killed by a former botched experiment who used to be his wife. So now we know what happened to Neva’s mother. As Chris Hartley put it in The Video Graveyard, “This is inept stuff and is only of interest to see Pam Grier (in an early role as) as Alyesa – the Panther Woman – then again even that might not be interesting enough to sit through this piece of crap.”54

As mentioned earlier, there is nothing specifically related to Dr. Moreau in the Blood Island movies that Romero did in the late sixties, but two of them did feature a mad scientist operating a secret lab on an isolated, tropical island, Brides of Blood (1968) and The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968). The first film draws more heavily on the theme of fears about atomic radiation. A scientist and his gorgeous wife, along with a Peace Corps volunteer (John Ashley), arrive on Blood Island. The scientist, Dr. Henderson (Kent Taylor), wants to examine the animals and plants to determine if any of the nearby atomic tests have caused any mutations. He determines that the radiation is so high that butterflies grow to immense proportions. It turns out that Esteban Powers, a refined gentleman who owns a mansion on the island, has been exposed to radiation, turning him into a bloated, raging, horny, murderous beast that so terrorizes the islanders that they sacrifice virgins to him. In the end, the monster gets burned to a crisp as a grass hut goes up in flames. The financial success of the film led to the making of The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, which is frequently described as a remake of Terror Is a Man. Both involve a mad scientist making monsters who break out and terrorize the natives on the island. There is one scene lifted directly from the earlier film, but as Scott Aslin writes, “That’s as far as the similarities extend, however. The nature of the two monsters is completely different, as are the personalities of the two scientists, their relationships to the natives of blood Island, and the means by which the two outsider heroes find their way into the story in the first place. Most fundamentally, Terror Is a Man could legitimately be described as a very loose remake of Island of Lost Souls, whereas here is only the faintest whiff of Dr. Moreau in The Mad Doctor of Blood Island.55 Now the scientist responsible for creating a creature that dismembers young girls from the village is Dr. Lorca (Ronald Remy) who works in an isolated compound deep in the jungle. As it turns out, a patient of Dr. Lorca’s, Don Ramon Lopez, suffered from leukemia, so the doctor injected him with chlorophyll from a plant grown only on the island (irradiated perhaps?). The treatment proved successful, but with a nasty side effect. Dr. Lorca created a monster as the chlorophyll got into Lopez’s brain, causing “chlorophyll poisoning.” In an attempt to reverse the damage, Lorca experiments on men from the village in his secret laboratory. In the now long line of Moreaus, “Ronald Remy . . . is a sorry excuse for a mad scientist. Not even a hugely exaggerated limp and a pair of goofy-ass sunglasses like the ones Kim Jong Il favors can bring much life to his performance!”56

Beast of Blood (1970) is a direct sequel to The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, starting exactly where that film left off. The pre-credit sequence sets out the basic plot outline. Hiding on a ship leaving Blood Island, the chlorophyll-infused, green-blooded monster rises once again to massacre the entire ship’s crew. After an explosion destroys the ship, only Dr. Bill Foster (John Ashley again) survives. He vows to find Dr. Lorca and stop his insane experiments. Foster makes his way to the island, but so has the beast. Reporter Myra Russell (Celeste Yarnell) provides Ashley’s romantic interest this time around. In the effort to hunt down Dr. Lorca, people are speared, shot, and stabbed in an orgy of blood. Eddie Garcia now takes over the role of Dr. Lorca from Ronald Remy in the previous film. Since the character was last seen in a roaring fire, Lorca has now returned with an eye patch and half his face burnt to a crusty mass. “Beast of Blood (shown on television as Beast of the Dead) is a worthy ending to this schlock trilogy (‘the twisted Club Med of drive-in horror flicks’ – Jim Arena), and its reputation is further strengthened by an unforgettable ad campaign that included illustrations of the title monster holding his severed head above his body!”57

In a “Simpsons-esque tableau,” one episode of the highly popular television cartoon series that originally aired on Nov. 3, 2002 featured a parody of The Island of Dr. Moreau, where the family, and indeed the entire town, is transformed by Dr. Hibbert into “slovenly, marauding manimals and prowley, voracious invertibroads . . . .Walrus Homer, Feline Marge, Eagle Lisa, Spider Bart, Anteater Maggie . . . .” McFarlane Toys even produced an entire line of figures based on this episode.58 Homer, initially appalled, says “You guys are nuts! All you can do is eat and sleep and mate and roll around in your own filth and mate and eat,” but then sees some obvious advantages, “Where do I sign up?” The battle between the human and the animal continues: “Comic Book Guy (Half-goat): Hear me! Accursed brethren! I understand some of you are still wearing tattered pants. Please throw them on the bonfire, and embrace your animal essence. Chief Wiggum (Half-Pig): Okay, but I’m keeping my tattered vest. I still have my dignity . . . .” Marge with her trademark laugh comments, “The House of Pain? I guess this is where you pay the bill.”59 There is even a scene where helicopters carrying giant donuts fly over clones of Homer to the accompaniment of Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries in a take on Apocalypse Now. When Homer initially confronts the mutated population of the island of Dr. Hibbert, he makes a reference to the 1980s NBC TV series Manimal, about a scientist who can transform himself into the animal of his choice.60 Manimal debuted as a 90-minute pilot that aired on September 30, 1983. The series featured Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), as a shape-shifting scientist who can turn himself into a snake, a hawk, or a black panther, and uses this uncanny ability to fight crime and evil. At the opening of every episode, actor William Conrad, of Cannon fame, ponderously recited the following story:

Dr. Jonathan Chase . . . wealthy, young, handsome. A man with the brightest of futures. A man with the darkest of pasts. From Africa’s deepest recesses, to the rarefied peaks of Tibet, heir to his father’s legacy and the world’s darkest mysteries. Jonathan Chase, master of the secrets that divide man from animal, animal from man . . . Manimal!61

Dr. Chase could supposedly transform himself into any animal, but as an economy measure he basically became either a hawk or black panther, occasionally a snake, against the same backdrop. When he did morph into a bull, dolphin, or horse, these transformations occurred offscreen. In a technical link with the later, 1996 The Island of Dr. Moreau, special effects whiz Stan Winston also designed and created these transformations.62 The episodes are standard television action/adventure product, with several of the episodes having a Cold War theme. In one, “Night of the Scorpion,” a man dies from a truth serum administered by Russian agents.63 In the original pilot, it is revealed that Dr. Chase had training in an “African technique” that enables him to change into the shapes of different animals.64 So his subsequent crime-fighting “shape-shifting” has more in common with the “black magic” practiced by that classic shape-shifter Dracula than the misguided science of Dr. Moreau. Still, Manimal presents an interesting ’80s TV interpretation of the man-animal amalgam theme originally presented by Wells.

The Island of Dr. Moreau sets out, to a remorseless and almost overwhelming degree, the tenuousness of human identity, and the provisional and multiple nature of species identity in general,” writes Kelly Hurley in The Gothic Body.65 For the Victorian reader of the novel the idea that there might be unknown lines of descent connecting species to common ancestors ultimately served to humanize animals. Wells tapped into the horror and empathy generated by vivisection in his creation of a story in which the main emotional weight is carried by the animals rather than the men. His story had the potential to persuade others that the vivisectionists were like Moreau in their indifference to the pain of animals, even if he seems to have clearly crossed the line with his experiments in man-animal hybrids. But in the cinematic islands of Dr. Moreau this theme seems archaic, if not altogether insignificant. Yet the themes of devolution, degeneration, and the creation of the “abhuman” still resonant. Hurley defines the “abhuman,” a term borrowed from supernaturalist author William Hope Hodgson, as “a not-quite-human subject characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other. The prefix ‘ab-‘ signals a movement away from a site or condition, and thus a loss. But a movement away from is also a movement towards – towards a site or condition as yet unspecified – and thus entails both a threat and a promise.”66 The Gothic literature of the fin-de-siecle produced “an astonishing range of morphic possibilities . . . slug-men, snake-women, ape-men, beast-people, octopus-seal-men, beetle-women, dog-men, fungus-people.”67 John Reider observes, “Although Moreau’s subjects are animals, his inquiry into the plasticity of living forms certainly implies a related inquiry into the natural world and the proper sphere of the human.” Wells himself proclaims that The Island of Dr. Moreau is about the processes of civilization – the formulation of “artificial man, the highly plastic creature of tradition, suggestions, and reasoned thought.” In this context, according to Wells, “what we call morality becomes the Padding of suggested emotional habits necessary to keep the round Paleolithic savage in the square hold of the civilized state.”68 Most interpretations of Moreau have interpreted the formation of the beast people as a metaphor for the conflict between “natural man . . . the culminating ape . . . and the demands of civilization.”69 All the cinematic adaptations show the consequences of the reversion to the original animal status as well as sharing the novel’s conclusion, to a greater or lesser extent, that human civilization itself is a sham and mask for degeneration into bestiality. The trite warning about human beings not messing around with nature along with the standard theme of suffering animals – “beasts” – trying to understand their mixed animal/human emotions and impulses is something that goes all the way back to Frankenstein. This can at times mask the more subversive political implications of the futuristic and tragic cinematic visions of Wells’ masterpiece. For as we have already mentioned, the novel and films of The Island of Dr. Moreau can also be read as a satire and metaphor on the colonial or imperial enterprise.


In Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, John Reider observes that The Island of Dr. Moreau:

is not so much a distorted, metaphorical representation of colonialism as it is a literalization of the racist ideological fantasy that guides much colonial practice: We know very well that non-whites are human beings, but we behave under the assumption that they are grotesque parodies of humankind. Moreau’s practice actually unfolds the ideological terms in reverse. He knows very well that his experimental subjects are not humans, but by laboriously transforming them into grotesque parodies of humankind, he arrives – without any apparent intention of doing so – at the role of colonial master.70

Mark S. Roberts carries this idea even further, arguing that the long-standing debasement of animals in the western tradition as “beasts” has led to the exploitation of any group or individual deemed “animalistic”:

Other than humane societies, some animal lovers, and animal rights activists, practically no one questions the inherent right of the master over his pet, the experimenter over his rats, or the “hungry man” over his Salisbury steak TV dinner. Given the right social conditions, the same license can easily be transferred to physician over patient; experimenter over subject; and in the end, to powerful institutions over their largely powerless populations.71

Which leads him to conclude that, “Colonialism, like racism, Nazism, and oppressive movements in general, has many well-documented causes, but animalization was clearly a factor in its development and proliferation.”72 It seems that Brando’s Dr. Moreau has met Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Nazism goes even further with the creation of “sub-beasts” of humans not worthy of life, while cruelty to animals shall be punished by the law.73

Although the theme of colonialism can be traced through all the cinematic versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau, there remain some differences in emphasis. The Island of Lost Souls, along with the bloody, silly, campy, Romero rip-offs, takes and uses horror and the terror of the beast implicitly. The Romero remakes go the furthest in the depiction of the “abhuman,” the “Thing-ness of matter . . . Slimy substances – excreta, sexual fluids, saliva, mucus – seep from the borders of the body, calling attention to the body’s gross materiality . . . the body’s sliminess signals human entrapment within the realm of matter,”74 within the realm of the animal, the beast. And what better image exists of the sadistic colonial task master than the white-suited, whip-cracking, and gun-packing Charles Laughton? The tropical Philippine locations used for filming as well as the use of Filipino extras enhance the colonial feel of the Romero films. The two Dr. Moreaus most strongly emphasize the colonial metaphor without abandoning the fear of the “abhuman.” This is particularly brought out in the conclusion of the two films, whereas in the 1977 version we see Burt Lancaster dangling from a rope in front of his flaming compound after the revolt of his creations, a clear Vietnam metaphor. In the 1996 version, which suggests comparisons with Apocalypse Now, the “abhumans” truly go out of control in third-world fashion. Recalling the wild, murderous, drugged Sierra Leone RUF “child soldiers” in Blood Diamond (2006) or the Kat infused Somali “skinnies” in Black Hawk Down (2002), the beasts on their trip to animal regression commandeer military-style vehicles and take up AK-47s, RPGs, and firebombs. When was the last time hyenas drove jeeps and blew people away with machine guns? Perhaps when Hollywood movie chaotic action sequences will trump any subtle discussions about genetic engineering, cloning, stem-cell research, and all the moral, ethical, and practical questions these developments raise. Message films always insist every moment is a moral flash point. But as with so many message films, the attention of the audience goes to Brando’s garb, Kilmer’s smirks, the romantic interest between “panther-woman” and Douglas, and very loud explosions.75 At least the 1932 version got banned in Britain for explicit scenes, and the Romero films promised, and delivered, just cheap thrills and gore, with no message attached.

The difference between animals and humans has always been controversial, with attempts to attribute the behavior of animals to human emotions dismissed as anthropomorphism. Mickey Mouse, after all, is just a tiny, meddlesome, scavenging rodent. People dismiss anthropomorphism as “a form of self-centered narcissism,” on the part of human beings. Despite the Darwinian tradition that directly links humans and animals, “the view that anthropomorphism of any kind is incompatible with modern science lingers.”76 But recently the scientific community has started to rethink the human/animal divide. Gay Bradshaw, an animal psychologist, argues that the “differencing model” of human identity “doesn’t just mistakenly characterize the natural world as something for humans to rule and exploit; it also inhibits scientific understanding.” Why do we have to be so careful about attributing intelligence to animals? A vast array of new research suggests that animals can think and feel, and even are self-aware. “If we start looking at animals as people,” Bradshaw says, “we might think twice about eating that next hamburger or building that next dam . . . .”77 Was Dr. Moreau so mad in wanting to cross the divide between human and animals even if not successful? Did he want to play God? Has the reality of science left Wells’ story behind, or does it still resonate as a warning against scientific hubris? The conflict between science and religion goes all the way back to the “original scientist” Galileo, who was forced to recant his beliefs by the Catholic inquisition and then ordered imprisoned. He at least avoided the fate of Giordano Bruno, who was considered a truly “mad scientist,” ranting about Adam and Eve on Mars and the infinity of the universe, and got burned at the stake. In 1992, after more than ten years of review, Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo’s condemnation for believing that the earth moves about the sun resulted from a “tragic mutual incomprehension,” and became a symbol for the church’s “supposed rejection of scientific progress.”78 The Catholic Church may move in slow and mysterious ways, but it did finally admit guilt and error in this case. Yet the Pope made it clear that he still did not fully trust scientists and they needed watching:

John Paul said it was important to understand the matter in case of future conflicts between religion and science . . . he mentioned biology and “biogenetics,” evidently referring to genetic engineering, and said: ‘Many recent scientific discoveries and their possible applications affect man more directly than ever before . . . to the point of seeming to threaten the very basis of what is human.’79

The mapping of the human genome, potential genetic discrimination, the revival of extinct species, cloning, the harvesting of human organs, DNA-based online dating, and genomics in general have not yet altered humanity’s view of the world analogous to Darwin’s work. This is not to say that some young scientist or researcher won’t arise and use the data to reach new, radical, and controversial insights into the nature of life with appropriate real, practical applications.80 It has not happened yet, but when it does, might not the scientist be termed mad?

Wells’ original novel and the subsequent cinematic Islands of Dr. Moreau present perceptive, insightful, disturbing, shocking, mocking, and entertaining observations on the nature of science, the scientist, human society and values, the colonial project, the animal-human connection, and the transgressions and dissolving of connections between them all . The films get continually refashioned, from the black-and-white shadowy horror of The Island of Lost Souls; through the hokum of Terror Is a Man, The Twilight People, and the Blood Island trilogy; to the trite, boring 1977 Dr. Moreau; the 1983 television curiosity Manimal; the self-mockery of Marlon Brando in 1996; and finally the singular parody of The Simpsons – all carrying special relevance for the era in which they were produced. The “message” sometimes ends up garbled, confused, commercialized, corrupted, stupefied, trivialized, banalized, or just forgotten, but the “mad scientist,” just like his monsters, keeps coming back, but in different forms. After all, with Brando’s Dr. Moreau, “we’ve never seen the ‘mad scientist’ portrayed in this manner before,”81 and probably never again with as much lunacy. And nobody was as “morally repugnant” or looked better at playing God than Charles Laughton,82 or was as unctuous as Burt Lancaster, or as frighteningly “sane” as Francis Lederer. But we certainly have not seen the last of the cinematic islands of Dr. Moreau. Which of course begs the question, “Where are we going to go next with the ‘Mad Scientist’ (Dr. Moreau) scenario?” that Wells first portrayed in 1896.

  1. Hilda Kean, “The Mood of Militancy,” BBC History Magazine, December 2007, p. 38. Also see Hilda Kean, Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1880 in Britain since 1880,London: Reaktion Books, 2000; Lori Williamson, Power and Protest: Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Society, London: Rivers Oran Press, 2005;and Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate, The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, London: Harvard University Press, 1987. []
  2. Elliot S. Vallenstein, Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical treatments for Mental Illness, New York: Basic Books, 1986, pp. 86, 88. []
  3. Kean, “The Mood of Militancy” p. 38. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid., pp. 37-38. []
  6. Ibid., p. 38. Also see Peter Mason, The Brown Dog Affair: The Story of a Monument that Divided a Nation, London: Two Stevens, 1997. []
  7. Kean, “The Mood of Militancy,” p. 38. []
  8. Joanna Bourke, “Taking the Ape Cure,” BBC History Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 4, April 2009, p. 36. []
  9. Ibid., pp. 36-37. Also see David Hamilton, The Monkey Gland Affair, London: Chatto and Windus, 1986; and Chandak Sengoopta, The Most Secret Quintessence of Life: Sex, Glands, and Hormones, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. []
  10. Bourke, p. 38. []
  11. Ibid. []
  12. York Membery, “I Researched the Life of the Yorkshire Giant,” BBC History Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 4, March 2009, pp. 40-41; Mark S. Roberts, The Mark of the Beast, Animality and Human Oppression, West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2008, pp. 29-30, 49-51. []
  13. For a detailed discussion of Morbid Psychology and Jacque-Joseph Moreau’s thought, see George Frederick Drinka, The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady, and the Victorians. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. []
  14. H. G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, New York: Filiquarian Publishing, 1896 (2007), p. 105. []
  15. Ibid. []
  16. Keith Williams, H. G. Wells: Modernity and the Movies, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007. Williams suggests that Wells’ early fiction anticipates the “cinematization” of culture, both in his narrative technique and in his description of the technology of cinema. In 1898 Joseph Conrad called Wells the “Realist of the Fantastic.” Williams convincingly accounts for “the fuller creativity involved in Wells’ response to, and investigation of, one of the shaping forces of modernity . . .” and then he “examines how his interaction with cinema’s wider context makes him a principal pioneer in the media-determined parameters of modern subjectivity.” Pp. 1, 4. []
  17. Ibid. Note 27, p. 236. []
  18. Wikipedia, “Manimal,”, p. 1. Accessed June 22, 2009. []
  19. Williams, p.165. []
  20. “Island of Lost Souls,”, p. 2. Accessed August 13, 2008. []
  21. Wells, pp. 81-82. []
  22. Ibid., p. 82 -83. []
  23. Mark Deming, “Island of Lost Souls: Critic’s Reviews,” MSN Movies, “Island of Lost Souls: Critic’s Reviews,”. Accessed June 10, 2009. []
  24. Williams, pp. 165-166. []
  25. “Island of Lost Souls,”, p.2. Accessed 8/13/09. []
  26. For a discussion of how the film fits in with the larger genre of Hollywood horror films, see Robert Spodoni, Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and Origins of the Horror Genre, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007; and Adam Lowenstein, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. []
  27. Cover DVD Package “Fun Facts,” The Island of Dr. Moreau, Santa Monica, California, MGM Home Entertainment, 2001. []
  28. Review, Time Out London, p. 1, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,”. Accessed June 10, 2009. []
  29. IMBD, “Biography for Richard Stanley,”. 5/23/2008. []
  30. Hutchinson described his experience as a “hired gun” scriptwriter thusly: “I’ve been all around the world in closed hotel rooms from Libya to Morocco, to Mexico hammering out new scripts with ulcer ridden, catatonic producers ever present. The most memorable experience was some years back when they flew me to the Kalahari Desert to assist with The Flight of the Phoenix. The pressure is immense . . . but somehow you hammer it out. I enjoy the challenge and fun of it.” Quoted in David G. Anderson, Utah Shakespearean Festival, “Ron Hutchinson – A Celebration,”. Accessed June 15, 2009. []
  31. “John Frankenheimer (1930-2002),”. Accessed June 10, 2009. []
  32. Gerald Pratley, The Films of Frankenheimer: Forty Years in Film, Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1998, p.266. []
  33. Jason Macisaac, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,”, p. 2. Accessed August 13, 2008. Stefan Kanfer, Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, New York: Knopf, 2008, p. 298. []
  34. Ibid. []
  35. Pratley, p. 266. []
  36. Kanfer, p. 298. []
  37. Adam Bernstein, The Washington Post, July 2, 2004, “Actor Marlon Brando, 80, Dies,”, p. 7. Accessed June 24, 2009. In the same obituary, critic Hal Hinson was quoted: “Brando is never less than a miraculously magnetic camera subject; just to have him in front of the lens is, in most cases, enough.” Biographies of Marlon Brando abound. The most recent, readable, and even-handed is the one by Kanfer. []
  38. Peter Stack, “Review of The Island of Dr. Moreau,” August 23, 1996, San Francisco Chronicle. Accessed March 26, 2008. []
  39. MacIsaac, p. 2. []
  40. Gary Morris, “The Island of Dr. Moreau: Half-Human, Half Garbage Disposal”, p. 2. Accessed August 13, 2008. []
  41. Pratley, p. 266. []
  42. Kanfer, p. 298. []
  43. Ibid., p. 2. []
  44. Pratley, p. 266. []
  45. Kanfer, pp. 278-79. []
  46. Morris, p. 2. []
  47. User Comments The Island of Dr. Moreau,” IMDB, September 3, 2001, Eric-1226 from Seattle, Washington,, p. 5. Accessed May 23, 2008. []
  48. Ibid., p. 4. []
  49. Ibid., p. 5. []
  50. Wells, p. 184. []
  51. Pratley, p. 266. []
  52. Robert Horton, , Amazon.Com, Review of Terror is a Man (1959) DVD. Accessed August 13, 2008. []
  53. Scott Aslin, “The Twilight People/Island of the Twilight People/Beasts (1973),” 2003-2009, p. 1. Accessed June 16, 2009. []
  54. Chris Hartley, May 1, 2004, The Video Graveyard, “Review of The Twilight People,”. Accessed August 13, 2008. For a short biography of Eddie Romero, see Pepper Marcelo, AOL. Hometown, “Eddie Romero: A Genius in Philippine Cinema,” Accessed August 13, 2008. For further discussion of Philippine horror films of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, see Alan Jones, The Rough Guide to Horror Movies, New York and London: Rough Guides, 2005. []
  55. Scott Aslin, (1969), p. 1, 2003-2009, “The Mad Doctor of Blood Island/Blood Doctor/Tomb of the Living Dead (1969). Accessed June 11, 2009. []
  56. Ibid., p. 2. []
  57. George R. Reis, Review, “Beast of Blood (1970), p. 2. Accessed June 11, 2009. []
  58. “The Simpsons Boxed Set – The Island of Dr. Hibbert,” p. 2. Accessed Accessed June 22, 2009. []
  59. “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XIII Episode,”, p. 2. Accessed June 22, 2009. []
  60. Ibid., p. 5. []
  61. Manimal, p. 1 []
  62. Ibid., pp. 2, 4. []
  63. Ibid, p. 2. []
  64. Ibid. []
  65. Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body, Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin-De-Siecle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 102. For further discussion of the “Aesthetics of Descent” and decadence, see Nicholas Day, Modernism Romance and the Fin-de Siecle: Popular Fiction and British Culture, 1880-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky, Eds., Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; and Susan J. Navarette, The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siecle Culture of Decadence, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998. []
  66. Hurley, p. 4. []
  67. Ibid. []
  68. John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, p. 105. []
  69. Ibid. []
  70. Ibid, pp. 106-07. []
  71. Roberts, p. 44. []
  72. Ibid., p. 51. []
  73. Ibid., pp. 105-13. []
  74. Hurley, p. 34. []
  75. For a further discussion of the demise of the Hollywood message film, see Owen Gleiberman, “Fighting the Power,” Entertainment Weekly, November 17, 2006, pp. 75-77 and Rebecca Winters Keegan, “Can a Film Change the World?” Time, March 27, 2008, pp. 60-61. []
  76. Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, Thinking with Animals, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Quoted in Bennett Gordon, “Our Furry, Feeling Friends,” Utne Reader, May- June, 2007, p. 14. []
  77. Gordon, p. 14. []
  78. AP (Vatican City), “Pope Gives Absolution to Astronomer Galileo,” Lawton (Oklahoma) Constitution, November 1, 1992, p. 4A. Philip J. Hilts, Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1981, p. B3 mentions that Rev. William Wallace, a Dominican priest, “serves on a Catholic Church commission that is reviewing Galileo’s heresy conviction and which is expected to acquit him.” []
  79. Ibid. []
  80. H. Allen Orr, “The Genetic Adventure,” New York Review of Books, March 20, 2008, pp. 32-34, Sally McGrane, “Online Dating and Genetics”: A New Company Is Offering DNA Tests to Help Predict Which Couples Will Hit It Off,” Time, June 29, 2009, p. 47. []
  81. Pratley, p. 266. []
  82. Deming, p. 2. []