Thursday, October 22, 2015

Visiting and Revisiting: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) Pt. 2

This is Part II of a two-part article in which my friend Rik Tod Johnson (The Cinema 4 Pylon) and I discuss the 1977 film version of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. To read Part I on Rik’s website, click here.

Rik: Besides the character of Montgomery, whom you mentioned in passing [in Part I] (and who I feel is still played very strongly by Nigel Davenport), there are a couple of other major characters in the film we haven’t touched on. First, there is the Sayer of the Law, who serves as quite literally what is imparted in his name. In this version, Richard Basehart, whom I knew very well from television on Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, plays the Sayer. When I first saw the Sayer of the Law in this version of Moreau, I never made the connection that it was the captain of the Seaview wearing a mask, even though upon reflection, his basic features can be made out underneath the makeup. Because I was never enamored of Basehart as an actor (I always thought he was kind of stiff), I likewise never really connected with his performance here. I did spend time teaching my brothers to recite The Law after I saw the film, as I coached them into performing scenes from the film so we could run around as Beast-Men, but it really wasn’t because of him.

Aaron: Of the three films, Richard Basehart struck me as the most forgettable Sayer of the Law. That may be a combination of both acting and makeup, as I found the look to be fairly nondescript. It’s basically a ring of white hair around his face and a vaguely canine nose that from many angles looks merely like a larger-than-average schnozz. Obviously this is to give the Sayer of the Law a distinct appearance, apart from the humanimals but yet not quite human, and yet it lacks anything distinctive. He could just be another shipwrecked soul. Bela Lugosi’s Sayer of the Law was also less distinctively animal than some of the other beasts in Island of Lost Souls, wearing what was essentially fur glued to his face, but Lugosi has that voice, and those eyes! He’s a captivating presence even when he’s not speaking, and seems otherworldly at all times. Richard Basehart basically let the makeup convey the animalistic side of the character, while remaining fairly human in his actual performance.

Rik: Lugosi has always seemed like the perfect choice for the Sayer to me. His performance resonates with me the most (as I expect it would with a majority of humanity). The casting of Ron Perlman in the 1996 version seems like the most obvious one to make, especially given his success in playing characters saddled with extreme makeup effects. And Perlman is a very strong actor. The problem for me is I cannot recall his performance at all when I think back to the film. For that matter, I have a hard time recalling anything except Brando and his little person pal. And that ice bucket. Oh, that ice bucket…

Aaron: Yeah, Perlman had a great look to him in the film, and he was fine with what they gave him to do, but that film is such a mess that it’s hard to pick anything out aside from Brando and his increasingly bizarre character choices.  

Rik: I would love to remember his performance, but I simply can’t. I saw the film last when it came out in the theatre, and I think, apart from seeing scenes in the Stanley documentary, have largely expunged it from my mind.

The last major character we haven’t tackled is the one I would most love to, and that is Maria, played by a lovely, fragile-looking Barbara Carrera. In my memory, I continue to think of Carrera as a Bond girl of that period, but she wasn't in a Bond flick until the non-Broccoli Never Say Never Again in 1983, where she played Fatima to Connery's returning super-spy. I fell in love the instant I saw her on the cover of that Moreau novelization. She basically represents the puma in the novel who will ultimately battle Moreau to the death, and Lota the Panther Woman in the 1933 version who is at the center of all the bestiality hubbub regarding that infamous take on the tale.

Here, her character is sweet but really rather dull, almost like she is being used only for scenery (much like the cover photo that drew me to her) and/or to throw us off the scent a bit. I had always assumed just from her appearance on the island that Moreau had experimented on her. She also walks around holding an ocelot much of the time, which says to me they were at least trying to make us believe she is more than what she appears. The final scene on the boat, when a passing ship discovers them, is very strange. When we first see the lifeboat (the Lady Vain, the one in which Braddock first arrived, so that now he leaves the island the same way), we only see Maria, her face obscured by her hair. When Braddock, now changed fully back to his human form, crawls out from under his blanket, her back is to us. It is pretty clear to me that they are at least hinting that she has transformed into something else. Braddock gets distracted by the noise of the ship's horn trying to get their attention, and we see only one shot of Maria's face, and she looks unlike she does anywhere else in the film. Yes, she is crying, but her eyes seem very odd and her face seems puffier. Then the film is over.

It makes me wonder if there was an alternate ending filmed where we see her eyes are yellow as she begins to transform. Honestly, I thought she was starting to change into a cat when I went to the film that first time. And it stuck in my head that she was, and every time I see it since, I always get riled up about the ending. But there are two very good reasons for my belief that she is some sort of ocelot or panther woman: the original movie poster. The top third of the frame is definitely a female who goes through the process of switching into a ferocious panther. Since this does not appear anywhere in the film, it leads me to believe it may have been filmed and then cut (I can't imagine why you would go to the expense and then trash it, unless it was really terrible).

The second comes from the novelization, which as I mentioned is based on the original screenplay. This is the final paragraph of the book: "Maria spoke no words. She only opened her mouth, revealing two fangs, two puma-like, animal fangs."

What is your take on Maria and the case of the missing panther-woman, Aaron?

Aaron: I think anyone with any sort of familiarity with this story would recognize Maria as a panther-woman from the very outset, when she first arrives on film. Certainly the ocelot she’s constantly carrying with her would be another clue, for those not yet in the know.

And so I find it odd that the film tries to be coy about it at all. Possibly that was a move meant to keep some of the stricter censors off of the film’s scent, because when Michael York and Barbara Carrera first have sex, my initial thought was ‘wow, so the film actually went there’. If the film had been more upfront in stating that she was actually a cat, I doubt those love scenes would have been included. But then, why continue that coyness even to the end? It’s obvious as soon as the two of them are adrift on the life raft, just from the character’s positions alone, that something is wrong with Maria, and yet the film keeps holding off on showing us what we already know, only to let the shoe drop with a literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it insert shot of Maria with a slightly lumpy face. It’s strangely anticlimactic, giving the ending a weird shapeless feel, and leaves so little an impression that even the film’s Wikipedia page neglects to include this information in the otherwise rather detailed synopsis.

Rik: Not much respect has been paid to the film in its releases on video. I had a VHS copy for many years, which I replaced with the MGM Presents Midnite Movies DVD when it came out in 2001. The only special feature is the original theatrical trailer. It would have been really nice to have a commentary to confirm some of my suspicions about the Maria character. I just found out that it was released earlier this year on an all-regions Blu-Ray disc, but there are no extra features that I can find, apart from a widescreen 1:85:1 frame, which I already have on my DVD version. I doubt we will get many answers about it anytime soon, if ever.

While I loved the makeup of the humanimals when it came out, time has not been kind. They seem rather immovable and too inorganic to me. While I like his work, it is not surprisingly to learn that John Chambers, who won an Oscar for the original Planet of the Apes, was the creator of the makeup effects. Tom Burman is credited with the makeup design. I know Burman from many horror and fantasy films he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s (though he now wastes his talent on things like Grey’s Anatomy… still, steady work is nice). How do you feel about the makeup work?

Aaron: Well, I’ll say that it makes sense now that I know the makeup effects artist worked on Planet of the Apes, because the designs and execution here have a similar rubber-mask feel, and are not expressive at all. Everyone’s expressions are constantly fixed, and when characters speak the mouth remains almost motionless but the nose portion of the mask will wobble up and down unrealistically. That said, I don’t think they look horrible in their design. They do look a bit like mythical beasts, and not so much like what I imagine transmogrified man-animals would look like, but they are distinctive enough that I could see being impressed by them if I had seen this at the age you had seen it.

We keep going back to it, but if you look at some of the beasts in Island of Lost Souls, they look like what you’d imagine when you think of someone cutting up animals and piecing them together like jigsaw puzzles. Some characters will have features that look vaguely catlike, and then a segment of their face will be clearly avian. It’s truly nightmarish, and another example of why that film stands head and shoulders over the rest of the films made. Compare that with this version of the film, where many of the non-featured humanimals seem to just have lumpy, furry faces, like maybe their having an allergic reaction to something. Outside of the main creatures, I don’t think you can look at most of the humanimals in this version and deduce what animal they used to be. They all have very similar physiognomies.

Rik: Something of which you may not be aware, Aaron, and I really wasn’t at the time, but the character of M’Ling, the Beast-Man servant, is played by Nick Cravat. Growing up watching The Crimson Pirate (and another swashbuckler featuring Lancaster called The Flame and the Arrow), I knew Cravat as Burt’s right hand guy, a generally mute character with whom Lancaster would perform acrobatics in the film. They were best friends since childhood and real life, and performed in the circus together for years before Lancaster broke through in Hollywood. His appearance with Lancaster in Moreau was the last of their nine film appearances together. I also knew Cravat from a small role in Disney’s Davy Crockett film. I never picked up on Cravat even watching the credits, probably because I really didn’t know his name at the time, just his face, which is absolutely obscured by makeup (though once again, it is easy to make out his basic features if you know what he looks like in real life).

Aaron: I’m not familiar enough with Nick Cravat to have picked him out of a lineup, but I think you’re glossing over what may be his most pertinent bit of work history prior to this: Cravat was apparently the Gremlin in the original Nightmare at 20,000 Feet episode of The Twilight Zone.

I feel bad for not mentioning M’Ling before now, because he is quite a sympathetic character who also has some important bits of business to do. But the character seems underutilized in this film, showing up every once in awhile, and disappearing for so long that when he helps Braddock and Maria escape at the end I had kind of forgotten him. The character gets no real chance to develop on his own.


Rik: My final take on the film is that I still enjoy it after all this time, though it pales in comparison to Island of Lost Souls. Lancaster's performance holds up for me, as do those of Davenport and York. But in the end, the film feels today like a Hallmark production (the ones regularly aired on NBC and CBS in the '70s, not the current TV network), or like a Reader's Digest condensed version of the tale, where they have scrubbed some of the more inflammatory material to make it palatable to the general public. For production value alone and the latent memories I have of it, this version still warrants a 6/9 on my scale, which is "good". But I would prefer people watch Island of Lost Souls if they want to see a really incredible version of this story (whether or not they end up loving it as we do).

Aaron: That’s a good point about this feeling like a condensed or sanitized version of the story, which also strikes me as a bit bizarre, because my favorite parts of this film, dealing with Braddock’s transformation and Moreau’s downfall at the hands of his creations, strive towards something that could be genuinely challenging. This movie hints at something more inflammatory than some of the other moments in the other versions, and yet the film seems to pull back from those ideas before completely committing to them. If it had gone farther in those directions, and actually addressed any of the philosophical implications of what it means to be human, or whether we can ever conquer our own natures, this could have been a classic for the ages. Reading this back, I feel like I come across as too harsh on the film, which is not as bad as I maybe make it out to be. As it is, I think my rating would be slightly lower than yours. I’d give it a 5/9 on the same scale you use, which in my eyes means it was worth seeing, but I didn’t completely like it.

No comments: