Here's a surprise - a late 1970s Samuel Z Arkoff production that doesn't feature giant ants or chickens but does feature some excellent acting, decent music, good makeup effects and efficient direction. Destined to live forever sandwiched between the shadows of its marvellous predecessor (Erle Kenton's 1932 ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) and the quite unbelievable 1996 Marlon Brando remake, Don Taylor's 1977 version of the H G Wells novel is actually perfectly respectable and, while it takes a few liberties with its source material, is never less than interesting to watch and deserves to be more than just the answer to the Trivial Pursuit question 'What was Burt Lancaster's only horror film?' (THE SWIMMER doesn't count although it probably should).
The screenplay, by Taylor associates John Herman Shaner and Al Ramrus (they did uncredited rewrites on the script to DAMIEN OMEN II for Taylor the following year after he took over the project from Mike Hodges), dispenses with any shenanigans aboard the Lady Vain and gets Michael York's character of Andrew Braddock to the island as soon as the credits are over. His shipwrecked companions are swiftly dispensed with and Braddock finds himself being looked after in the jungle compound of Dr Moreau (Lancaster).
Moreau, as every schoolboy knows, has been up to no good with the local animals, and also with a fair few he seems to have imported from all over the world in the very best jungle movie tradition. Also living in Moreau's house is Barbara Carrera's Maria, who is presumably another of Moreau's experiments although very little, if anything, is made of this other than a flash on some unnatural-looking eyes at the very end. Having exhausted his work turning pigs, bears and monkeys into rudimentary men, Moreau decides it would be useful to do it the other way round and turn Braddock into an animal so he can describe the process to Moreau before his speech degenerates into grunts. It all goes predictably pear-shaped and fiery at the end as the human animals rebel and Braddock and Maria escape.
Taylor's film does try to be different from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Burt Lancaster's interpretation of Moreau is radically different from Charles Laughton's but is no less fascinating. In fact, his low key softly spoken demeanour is possibly all the more terrifying because he seems such a nice and reasonable chap when we know what he's doing is actually obscene. It's a mis-step to downplay the panther woman (or whatever Maria might be) especially as Carrera is pretty good at evincing animal passion. Also in contrast to the Kenton picture, where much of the action took place at night, we get to see Moreau's experiments by the bright light of day and while the makeups aren't bad at all, one suspects they might have been scarier had they only been glimpsed in shadows. Even so, this is a surprisingly well made and cast film that elevates it well above similarly-themed 1970s fare such as the Schenk brothers' SUPERBEAST and Eddie Romero's TWILIGHT PEOPLE (both 1972).
101's Blu-ray release of THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU is excellent. You would never believe a late 1970s Sam Arkoff picture could look so lush and lovely. My ageing brain was convinced Ms Carrera has a nude scene when the film was shown in ITV in the early 1980s but if so then it's not present here. Sadly there are no extras, but if you want to see Don Taylor's version of the HG Wells story looking better than it ever has before then this is definitely worth a look.
101 Films released Don Taylor's 1977 version of THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU on Region B Blu-ray on 6th October 2014