The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) Retrospective

Ship’s engineer Andrew Braddock (York) and two other men are floating in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific following the wreck of the ship Lady Vain. One dies at sea. After seventeen days at sea, Braddock and the other man land on an island, where the other man accompanying Braddock is promptly killed by animals. Braddock is nursed back to health in the compound governed by the mysterious scientist “Dr. Moreau” (Lancaster). Besides Moreau, the inhabitants of the compound include Moreau’s associate, Montgomery (Davenport), a mercenary; Moreau’s mute, misshapen servant, M’Ling (Cravat); and a ravishing young woman named Maria (Carrera). Moreau warns Braddock not to leave the compound at night.

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Moreau welcomes Braddock as an honored guest and willingly shares his fine library, but there are some strange goings-on. One day Braddock witnesses Moreau and Montgomery manhandling a chained creature who is clearly not quite human, and the island is home to more than just this one recites the laws Moreau passed on to them. Moreau explains that they are, in fact, the hybrid products of his experiments upon various species of wild animal. Braddock is both shocked and curious. Moreau explains that he is injecting the animals with a serum containing human genetic material. At times, the human/animal hybrids still have their animal instincts and don’t quite behave like a human which sometimes enrages Moreau, feeling that his experiments haven’t worked successfully. That night, as Braddock is reeling from learning the truth, Maria goes to his room where they have sex. It is implied that this is intended by Moreau.

The following day, Braddock takes a rifle and leaves the compound, determined to see exactly how the hybrid creatures live. He enters a cave and finds several of them (all male). Just as he is surrounded by them and about to use the rifle to defend himself, Moreau appears and restores order. The Sayer of the Law (Richard Basehart) is the only one of Moreau’s experimental beasts who can speak; Moreau calls on him to utter the three laws (no going around on all fours, no eating of human flesh, no taking of other life) aloud to the other creatures. This reminds them that they must not attack Braddock.

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After the Bull-Man (Bob Ozman) kills a tiger, Moreau intends to take it to the “house of pain”, his laboratory, as punishment. The Bull-Man panics and runs. Braddock finds it in the jungle, badly injured, where it begs him to kill it rather than return it to the lab. Braddock shoots it, angering the man-beasts, as Braddock has broken the law of killing.

Convinced that Moreau is insane, Braddock prepares to leave the island with Maria. Moreau stops them and straps Braddock to the table in his lab. He then injects him with another serum so that he can hear Braddock describe the experience of becoming animalistic. Caged, Braddock struggles to maintain his humanity. When Montgomery objects to this treatment, Moreau shoots him in cold blood.

Outside the compound, the angry man-beasts turn on Moreau because by killing Montgomery, he has broken the very rule he expected them to follow. He is killed at the compound’s gate while trying to whip his attackers into submission. The man-beasts, now overpowered by their primitive natures, go on a rampage to try and break into the compound and destroy the house of pain as the Sayer of the Law states “There is no law.”

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Braddock, still struggling to remain human, Maria, M’Ling, and the still-coherent and benign beastfolk servant women stave them off and engineer an escape through the compound. Eventually, the man-beasts break-in and the compound is burned. In the chaos, the wild animals which Moreau kept for his experiments are turned loose and a battle ensues between them and the hybrids. Most of the man-beasts are killed by the animals or consumed by the fire, the Sayer of the Law’s throat torn out by a tiger, the Bear-Man tackled off a roof by a black panther, and the lion-man is mauled by a normal lion. During the final escape, M’Ling risks his life to save his companions from a lion and both fall into a pit trap.

Braddock and Maria manage to float away in the lifeboat that Braddock arrived in, but are followed by a Bear-Man (David Cass) who is one of the last man-beasts. After a battle with each other, Braddock kills the Bear-Man with a broken oar. Sometime later, they see a passing ship, and the serum has worn off, returning Braddock to his full human state as Maria looks on with catlike eyes.

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In December, however, producers Sandy Howard and Samuel Z. Arkoff descended upon the small island resort of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands with dozens of cast and crew members, tons of equipment, and a menagerie of wild animals. There, in the lush rainforest of the island community, a new $7.25 million adaptation of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU was filmed in its entirety. The period piece, set in 1911, stars Burt Lancaster in the title role. The young hero, enduring yet another name change to Andrew Braddock, is played by Michael York, and Richard Basehart steps into the role essayed by Bela Lugosi.

Although the producers, and director Don Taylor, insist that the picture is not a remake of the 1932 production, it does retain many of the elements of the earlier adaptation, including a female lead in the person of Barbara Carrera as Maria. An added twist in the new version finds Moreau, distraught that his creatures invariably revert to animals, attempting to conduct his humanizing experiments in reverse on Braddock.

Lancaster & Taylor
Lancaster & Taylor

“Right around that point, Burt showed up in Cannes, and he tore the place apart just walking down the street the people went ape, because he’s an old star. and I guess they don’t get many old stars there anymore. That convinced us that we should use Burt. But even he had some hesitation, so I went and I talked to him. He said, “You got a problem with the script.” I said, “Yeah, but what picture have you done lately that didn’t?’ We did have a problem with the script, and we did a serious rewrite on it that…didn’t work, unfortunately. But Burt was very good, because he was secure with me: I took care of him, watched him. That’s my whole theory of directing: security. Give the actor security and, to a great degree, let him go. Sometimes you’re able to do that completely, like I did with Burt and sometimes you’re not-that’s when you get into trouble. Burt worked very hard.” – Don Taylor

Highlighting the film are Moreau’s grotesque “humanimals,” created by the makeup wizardry of John Chambers and Dan Striepeke, who had earlier worked together on the PLANET OF THE APES series and numerous other projects. Working from sketches and models, Chambers and his crew made casts of their actors’ faces and then elaborated upon their facial structures with clay. The clay was then used to make molds from which foam rubber appliances were made that were affixed to the skin and then blended to match the still-visible portions of the actors’ faces. In this manner, a boarman, bullman, hyenaman, lionman, bearman, and the wolfish Sayer of the Law were created. Human features derived from a goat, lynx, ram, badger, and baboon were also designed in mask form for less prominent roles. An orangutanman was developed, but when the producers objected on the basis that it might look like a PLANET OF THE APES rip-off, some more hair was added and it was redubbed a slothman.

The two men recognized that the makeup would lie somewhere between the Primal Man concept and the Planet of the Apes concept. The mechanics had already been licked in these previous films, but the concept would take some doing. They worked with Sandy Howard in developing the creatures. Although they studied the original film version of The Island of Dr Moreau, which was titled Island of Lost Souls (1933), they felt that they could offer much more than could have been done in 1933.

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Concept art created by Mike McCracken for the The Island of Dr. Moreau. Several paintings, drawings, maquettes were created for the designs of the creatures.. the “Humanimals” as they were called. The pre-production started in 1975 with John Chambers, Danny Striepeke and McCracken. Mike created pencil sketches of the characters first, drawings were then selected and from those selections he created more fully developed illustrations in oil and acrylic on canvas and on illustration board.

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After illustrations were selected McCracken sculpted numerous maquettes of those characters, from those maquette he then sculpted all of the prosthetics. A makeup test done in early 1976 of the Lionman, the Boarman and Hyenaman to show the producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and Sandy Howard how the makeup designs would look. They loved them and based on that successful makeup test a revised script was written to include more Humanimals.

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Striekpeke went to the Islands first, doing makeup on Burt Lancaster and Michael York and others. Chambers remained back at the lab with his crew preparing enough appliances. The requirements changed continually up until the last moment.

s-l1600 (1)2Surprisingly, the trouble with Dr. Moreau, according to director Don Taylor, was the makeups. “I inherited something that I couldn’t do anything about,” he says, “and that was the appliances that had been made chins, noses and foreheads for all these man-animals. The idea was that these animal men should have been grotesque half human and half beast. But they were all Disney, cuddly. You wanted to kiss ’em. I couldn’t make any grotesquerie out of em at all.” – Don Taylor

The first makeup on Michael York was created by Dan Striekpeke. He created a sunburnt, blistered, dehydrated look brought about from the shipwreck Michael survives. York becomes the first specimen that Dr. Moreau attempts to transform from human to animal, the norm being from animal to human.

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Chambers had created appliances so that he could subtly transform York into a wolf without the audience realizing it.  Chambers and his staff prepared as many as three separate makeup designs for each creature, varying in degree as to human and animal components. “For example,” Chambers explained, “at one point you see the bullman with little nubs where his horns start, and then later you see him with great big horns. But that presented a problem because you couldn’t identify him. I said to Don Taylor: ‘How are you going to identify them, unless you say, “Look, the bullman has changed.” You gonna put baseball numbers on them?’ So we had to throw out the intermediate steps, except in two or three cases. We showed Mling being dragged and taken back to the House of Pain to be rejuvenated, or whatever. And the same with the lionman. We take him from 70% lion and make him 15%. But you see him being taken away and then brought back out to the cart – you know it’s him. And they put a colored patch on his shoulder that was his baseball number.”

Rick Baker's Lion Man test makeup (Rejected)
Rick Baker’s Lion Man test makeup (Rejected)

Chambers did anticipate problems with the appliances and the moisture, particularly because some of the action required fighting scenes in the water. Special adhesives were used, and the problem never arose. Chambers was quite proud of the teeth he designed and created. They were veneer and tamped right in. Despite the fighting  with the actual animals, there were no broken real teeth, and the actors could talk with them, too.

Early Version of Boarman by Mike McCraken
Early Version of Boarman by Mike McCraken

One scene called for the Bullman to be attacked by a real Bengal tiger, and Striekpeke created a fiberglass helmet from a mold of Bob Ozman’s head. It was outfitted with straps and a protective covering. The production staff had been advised that when an animal attacks—provided he does become “wild’’ enough to do so—he could snap at a head or neck in an attempt to crush the skull. Because they were going to train the tiger to bite one of the Bullman’s horns off anyway, they felt every possible precaution should be exercised.

La Isla Del Doctor Moreau - The Island of Dr. Moreau - 1977 - foto008

Yes, of course. I’ve done simple martial arts kinds of things. But, as an example of what I said earlier, it was during the shooting of The Island of Doctor Moreau that my karate training truly became useful to me. Because I’d learned a few things about balance, eye contact and the importance of not showing fear, I was able to work with the big cats more effectively. It made me feel good when I knew that what I was doing, how I was controlling the tiger’s actions, would save or even make a shot. A human being can’t compete with that kind of tremendous power. And, that’s something that young people should realize about karate; there are real, human limitations. However, on the movie, it was knowing how to get the cat’s attention, by looking at him a certain way. I used a kiai on one shot to scare the cat and make him attack. Sometimes the attacks became real. It was my martial arts training that told me not to show fear. A good elbow strike, or back fist came in handy at those moments, too. – Bob Ozman/Bullman



However, York, taking “dramatic license,” wanted to do the part dramatically and physically rather than with appliances. Striekpeke did a beautiful job in creating an effective makeup using highlights and shadows and a little hair. The makeup, combined with York’s performance, achieved the effect very successfully.

The other actors who are seen (or not seen, actually) as the Remaining key mutated creatures all had to be expert stuntmen. The script called for a battleroyale between the new species and Wiwir four-footed counterparts lion, a tiger, a boar, a bull and a hyena. Most stuntmen refuse to work with exotic animals, so these were selected on the basis of their association with animal behavior training by Ralph and Toni Helfer, animal experts who own and operate Enchanted Village in Buena Park, California.

Bob Ozman, who plays the half-man, half-bull creature, owns a karate school and has always worked with animals, which made him a natural for the film. However, in comparing his acting stint to his other encounters with wild animals as a trainer, he comments, “I found it more of a challenge and much scarier than any of the outrageous and so-called dangerous stunts I’ve ever performed before.”

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The tiger did try to bite Bob Ozman, who was playing the Bullman, on the back of the neck, and another time a fang just grazed his eyes. Both times the helmet was the lifesaving factor. Striekpeke had to repair it after the first encounter, which is some indication of how severe the attack was. At other times, the tiger would slash at a hand, tearing off a foam-rubber glove.

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Makeup calls varied from three a.m. to four a.m. It took four hours per person to make them into a Humanimal, mainly because there were so many appliances involved. The Wardrobe Department helped a great deal with other parts of the costumes such as fur jackets. Although the makeup could probably have been completed in three and a half hours, Chambers and Striekpeke insisted on an allowance of at least four, and the cameras were never held up.

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In spite of his star status, actor Richard Basehart also had to respond to that incredibly early call, for his part was to play the leader of the humanimals, a wolf by birth, the “Sayer of the Low.” In the film, he attempts to maintain the human half of his follow creatures and to void the animal instincts that smolder within. As an example of the technical care lavished on the movie, Basehart wore special contact lenses to simulate wolf eyes, since he was frequently seen in close-up shots. He also had a hump built onto his back, because he stands too erect otherwise to represent one of the man-beasts.

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Reportedly, several endings were shot, including a couple of shockers in which Braddock, after escaping the island debacle with the now-pregnant Maria whom he loves, suddenly discovers that she is not what he thinks, but rather the pinnacle of Moreau’s unorthodox experimentation. In one ending, she begins to revert back to her former feline form, and in another, she gives birth, not to a child, but to a tiger kitten. Presumably, sneak preview responses will dictate which ending makes it into general release.

Don Taylor

Skip Steloff
John Temple-Smith

Al Ramrus
John Herman Shaner

Based on
The Island of Doctor Moreau
by H. G. Wells

Burt Lancaster as Dr. Paul Moreau
Michael York as Andrew Braddock
Nigel Davenport as Montgomery
Barbara Carrera as Maria
Richard Basehart as Sayer of the Law
Nick Cravat as M’Ling
The Great John L. as Boar-Man
Bob Ozman as Bull-Man
Fumio Demura as Hyena-Man
Gary Baxley as Lion-Man
John Gillespie as Tiger-Man
David Cass as Bear-Man

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Cinefantastique v05n02

2 thoughts on “The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) Retrospective

  1. A misfire I feel. Baseheart and Lancaster sure aren’t Lugosi and Laughton. Simply cannot believe they did not go with the shock ending of Carrera reverting. Everyone who sees it for the first time expects it, you don’t get it, and go “WTF?” Even the Marvel Comic book adaptation went with it. Surprised the legendary John Chambers was involved, as I found the animal men to be a tad underwhelming. Stick with Island of Lost Souls and pine for the Richard Stanley version we never got.

    Liked by 1 person

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