It gets better in the last half-hour, though.
I don't know... maybe I'm just Moreau-ed out? If you're not already familiar with Dr Moreau and H.G. Wells, I could imagine this seeming compelling and sinister. After all, these are powerful ideas. Nevertheless to me the film's first hour seemed staid. The Beast-Men took forever to acquire any kind of presence in the film instead of just being furry extras, while none of the lead actors are memorable.
1. I liked best Nigel Davenport's Montgomery, actually. He's not crazed or evil, unlike Val Kilmer (or the character he was playing, ho ho), but it's still crystal clear that this is not a nice guy. You'll feel you know him immediately. He also clearly differentiates himself from all the other Montgomeries I've seen.
2. Burt Lancaster is a fairly forgettable Dr Moreau, although at least for once he resembles Wells's description of the character. I'm not calling him bad, mind you. On the contrary, Lancaster was regarded as one of the best actors of his generation and had won an Oscar in 1960. He's subtle and convincing in his choices as Moreau... but unfortunately as far as I was concerned, he was another dull character in a dull film. Mind you, he's up against ripe hams in Laughton and Brando.
3. Barbara Carrera is anonymous as the Panther Girl. I was startled to find that she was also Fatima Blush in Never Say Never Again because in that she had a personality, although that was six years later and playing a bad girl.
4. My least favourite though was Michael York as the hero. He's a narrow-minded neo-Victorian prig without the excuse of convincing me that he actually was from that era. (The dialogue is bending over backwards to establish that this is the start of the 20th century, but the rest of the film didn't sell that for a moment. It's 1977.) At times York had me cheering for the baddies. Dr Moreau will explain what he's trying to achieve and York's reply will be something like, "But why do you do this? What possible reason?" That's a weird attitude to take to a revolutionary scientific breakthrough. Argue with the morality, yes. This kind of scene though just makes York look retarded.
That first hour just sits there, really. Did I care? No. Was I scared? No. Moreau's neither good nor evil, but instead a sane, well-spoken chap who seems reasonable enough and just wants to get on with his work. He's probably a psychopath, if you look at his ethical boundaries, but for day-to-day purposes he's a nice guy. York would have had no trouble with him if he'd just gone around saying "yes, doctor".
In fairness though, there are good bits. "His is the House of Pain."
It gets better towards the end, though. Dr Moreau does something extreme that you won't see even in other Dr Moreau films, after which things keep getting loopier. There's a kind of grandeur in York's deranged attempt to create God. "He is not dead!" The legal discussions among the Beast-Men are powerful, since these are semi-sentient monsters that are nevertheless calling themselves men and trying to create a world with a moral code. You've got to love the scene when they accuse Dr Moreau of failing to live up to his own laws.
Another cool thing is the animals. The film goes a long way with the motif of humans vs. animals, eventually making the metaphor literal by letting loose wild animals and having them fight with people on-camera. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I realise that's a stuntman and I know he's wearing a helmet, but you wouldn't get me wrestling that tiger. It got his head in its mouth!
Then there's the ending. It brings the story full circle, with a boat, three people and... actually, they didn't give us much of a struggle at the beginning of the film, did they? However the best thing is that they never tell us that Panther Girl is a Panther Girl. They leave us to infer it from her manner at the end of the film and the inconsistencies in what people had been telling us of her backstory. (Dr Moreau says she was eleven when he brought her to the island, but that's when he's lying about everything and she says she's never lived anywhere else.) We then put together two plus two and get "whoops, no serum" and an evil ending. I love this. I love it when films expect me to show some intelligence. I'd been expecting them to do a heavy-handed "twist"... but on the other hand, this is so subtle that some viewers missed it. There are reviewers out there who think Carrera was a random girl who fell in love with Michael York and just happened to have been living with Beast-Men on the island of Dr Moreau.
Mind you, she's not remotely panther-like. Instead she's a Victorian doll, like Eliza Doolittle.
I didn't like this film, but it's not a write-off. I'd probably enjoy it better on a rewatch. I admire the fact that it's daring to be subtle with this lurid material, which suggests that that first hour might play better if watched in that light. The characters are understated and slightly charmless, but that fits too. By all means watch this... but not until you've seen the 1932 original
a bunch of times. I'd also advise not watching any other Dr Moreau movies for at least a few months beforehand, or else you might find yourself comparing it with something more fun. That includes the 2004 straight-to-video one from Full Moon Entertainment