"The Island Of Dr. Moreau," an undistinguished new movie version of the venerable H.G. Wells thriller, may recommend itself primarily to kids who want to amuse each other imitating the growls, snarls and moans vocalized by the mad doctor's monstrous victims. I can't recall the last horror picture which placed much naive emphasis on performers in monster masks baring false fangs and crying, "Grrrr!" They set up such a racket that it's a wonder anyone on Moreau's island gets a moment's sleep.
Moreau, a medical outcast who plays God on a remote Pacific atoll, subjecting the fuana to traumatic experiments in the hybidization and alteration of species, was impersonated with skin-crawling effectiveness by Charles Laughton in the 1933 version, "The Island of Lost Souls." Burt Lancaster doen't lack physical authority or experience in playing fanatics, but his Moreau isn't remotely as creepy.
The same complaint may be leveled at the movie, now at area theaters. "Island of Lost Souls," which was photographed by the great Karl Struss, currently the subject of a retrospective photo exhibit at the Corcoran, had a haunting atmosphere, at once sinister and voluptuous. Its fascination derived partly from eratic undercurrents that "The Island of Dr. Moreau" doesn't even attempt to duplicate, but the older film also had a more ominious, hypnotic visual texture. The remake, photographed by a gifted British cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, in pretty forest and beach setings on St. Croix, may be too sunny and idyllic for the good of the premise.
Laughton's Moreau hoped to affect a love match between the hero, a cast-away played by Richard Arlen, and his most played by Richard Arlen, and his most successful experiment, a panther-woman played by Kathleen Burke. This misalliance seemed poignant as well as hideous, because the heroine demonstrated an ardor for the the hero that was never her biological origins were revealed to him.
As the castway who is horrified to learn of Moreau's unethical practice, Michael York is matched not with a cat-woman but an ingenue entrusted with a pet lynx - Barbara Carerra in the role of Lancaster's ward. An exquisitely formed but the inexpressive decorative object in the tradition of Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon, Carerra seems unable to emote, so who cares if her impulses are feminine or feline?
"Star Wars," with its collection of funny monsters, may have contributed to undermining some of the would-bescary effects in "The Island of Dr. Moreau," where the mutants are meant to inspire stark fear. Both the makeup and the pantomine leave much to be desired, particularly the pantomine, which suggests overtones from the wrong Charles Laughton vehicle. When director Don Taylor cues the monsters, everyone seems to go into a bad Quasimodo routine.
Lancaster looks unintentionally funny brandishing a bullwhip at his pathetic outpatients or ordering them to act less like savage beasts. One really doesn't look forward to the prospect of Lancaster in a succession of mad-tyrant impersonations in the twilight of his career. It's even more distressing to see Nick Cravat, his splendid acrobatic sidekick from the glory daysof "The Crimson Pirate" and "The Flame and the Arrow" turn up in one of the Quasimodo disguises.
For the record, "Island of Lost Souls" as judged horrendous enough to be banned in England and distorted enough to be denounced by H. G. Wells himself. This neutralized remake is unlikely to be noticed, let alone deplored.