It doesn't feel like the work of professional filmmakers. It's a Roger Corman movie, shot in the Philippines. I sort of liked it, but that's mostly because my sensibilities had been so bludgeoned during the first half that I was pleasantly surprised by any improvements at all.
It's another Island of Dr Moreau story. Eddie Romero had done well out of those. He'd ripped it off in the 1950s for the Philippines's first horror film, Terror is a Man
, which he then spun off into the Blood Island movies of the 1960s. Admittedly those weren't even remotely Moreau-ish, but they were at least set on the same island as the original. Now though it's the 1970s and he's in harness with Roger Corman, so once again he digs out his old favourite. Yet again of course there's no screen credit for H.G. Wells and hence presumably no copyright payments, but it's still Romero's most faithful stab at the material to date. There's even a panther woman!
The film's first half is shoddy. Nothing about it is good. I suppose the scenery is pretty, but even that's a problem when it comes to the scuba diving footage, regarding which I got the impression that the production team had just bought an underwater camera for the first time and wanted to show it off. As far as I can tell, we're supposed to believe that John Ashley is snorkelling on his own in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from land or a boat. (There's about to be a boat, but I don't think it belongs to him.) Maybe he teleported there? Two divers sneak up on him in the clearest, prettiest water you ever saw and take him unawares in a badly shot sequence involving a noose and a lack of clarity for the audience.
It's inept. What's more, for a while everything's like that. I wouldn't say that the first half of the film has weak points, because everything in it is at this level of incompetence.
1. The camerawork and staging is shoddy in any scene that involves a significant amount of physical movement. Sometimes the picture wobbles.
2. The cast are professional actors, but you'd be surprised to learn that and you'd probably want an explanation.
3. There are two completely bald characters, whom I briefly got confused.
4. The film's Moreau equivalent (Charles Macaulay) in his first scene looked dubbed, although maybe that was just bad soundtrack synchronisation.
5. The plotting is so slapdash that it gives the impression that you're watching an incomplete cut of the film. (Maybe I was? The lack of nudity is suspicious.) To give the most startling example, Macaulay's evil sidekick (Jan Merlin) is about to kill John Ashley near the end when suddenly the scene ends and Merlin quietly disappears from the movie. He's never killed and we never learn how Ashley survived.
6. The film has two pieces of music it likes and uses repeatedly. Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately for me, one of them is Neil Richardson's "Approaching Menace", i.e. the theme music of the BBC TV series Mastermind.
So I'm watching this... thing. I hesitate to call it a film. You'll be judging it on the level of fan videos, by which standard the most significant point is that the acting is never great but equally never horrible. I really liked the scene where Merlin is inviting Ashley to try to escape, by the way, in which the two actors are having such a good time together that it's as if they've dropped out of character. That was charming.
Then, after a considerable while, I started finding good points.
The underlying story is actually quite solid. Romero always used to be keen on that. Roger Corman would be asking him to make another exploitation cheapie and he'd be looking for the characters' emotional journeys. Here I thought there was good material in Macaulay's relationship with his daughter (Pat Woodell) and, right at the end, wife. It's quite well done. You've got to see past the production values, of course, but it would be wrong to say this film was empty. Mind you, Macaulay's absent from so much of the second half that I was surprised to see him pop up again, because I'd forgotten he was in it.
I also like Merlin's characterisation, which is as evil as Val Kilmer's in the equivalent role and could be seen as having homoerotic subtext in his desire for Ashley. He wants him. Admittedly this is because he wants to hunt and kill him, but he still wants him and in this he's in competition with both his boss and his boss's daughter.
Best of all, I really liked the Beast-Men. The film improves beyond measure when they're around, with make-up that's kind of brilliant in its literalism. A man will have a boar's head. A pretty girl looks human, but with antlers. The brown Silurian is a Goat-Man with horns. When it's good it's genuinely good, but these designs are bold enough to be memorable even when they're crude or silly, e.g. the Man-Bat with black bags glued to his arms. He's awesome. The film's almost worth watching just for him. I laughed when he tried to fly and just fell out of a tree, then was practically in hysterics when later he not only flew but started taking out Merlin's gunmen. It's like the Theatre of the Absurd. Samuel Beckett might have liked it.
The Beast-Men's characterisation is interesting too. They speak in animal noises, not human words, and they have exaggerated body language that fits their masks. I enjoyed watching them. I love their child-like natures, in the way humans talk to them, teach them and show that specific kind of patience you get with a parent and a child.
The Panther Woman is Pam Grier, by the way, but nearly unrecognisable.
It's an odd experience, this film. Its amateurishness makes its stronger points, when they eventually show up, look ten times as good. I enjoyed the detailed practicality of Macaulay's surgery, for instance. If I had a trepanning hobby, that's how I'd do it too. I'm also choosing to believe that Eddie Romero is better than this, since he's regarded as one of the best directors to come out of the Philippines and was named their National Artist in 2003. By this point he'd been directing for nearly 25 years. It's just that on the side of evil was Roger Corman and hence pressure of budget, time and artistic standards.
"You see, I'm going to kill you. I wouldn't want to owe you anything."