At a preview screening for director John Frankenheimer’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, my girlfriend Sylvia mistakenly referred to it as "The Island of Jeanne Moreau." As it turns out, her error was somewhat prophetic as Marlon Brando (in the title role) out-divas all divas of recent memory by making his first appearance looking like Bea Arthur, with troweled-on pancake makeup and an elaborate extended veil.
Previously filmed in 1933 (as Island of Lost Souls) and in 1977, this graphic 1996 version of H.G. Wells’ tale about a mad scientist whose experiments in crossbreeding humans with animals goes terribly awry, was justly roasted by the critics.
Did they really need to make The Island of Dr. Moreau yet again? The answer, to any Bad Movie collector is, of course, yes. Imagine our delight when this version not only turned out to be quite different, but downright insane! One demented highlight (in a film just bursting with them!), has Brando playing classical music on a piano accompanied by a tiny creature (with a face like Ross Perot) on its own tiny piano.
David Thewlis plays a wayward scholar who is rescued at sea by Moreau’s assistant Val Kilmer and brought to the mad doctor’s island to discover the doctor’s unnatural "children." Fairuza Balk plays Brando’s half-cat daughter, but its Brando and Kilmer (found in one scene doing a killer Brando impersonation) who steal the show.
As Moreau, Brando is a waddling behemoth who spends most of his time dressing in ornate flowing caftans and matching do-rags. We never see this ballooned-up drag queen doing any actual research; with more costume changes than a Lana Turner movie, he’s obviously too busy choosing his next outfit.
Brando’s mincing fashion show and Truman Capote-like complaints about the jungle heat are equaled only by the sight of a drugged-out Kilmer, in femme lounge-wear and a white bandana that looks like it came from Joan Crawford’s closet.
Kilmer, (Hollywood’s new Shannon Doherty? Discuss.), obviously realizing how hopeless the whole project was decided to undermine the proceedings using the time-tested strategy of camp. His scenes with Thewlis have an unmistakably seductive element, where he consistently invades the latter’s "personal space" by conducting conversations an inch away from his nose.
All this homoerotic tension comes to naught as Kilmer just becomes crazier as the film trudges haplessly on. When finally there doesn’t seem to be a shred of scenery left standing, and perhaps finally sensing a complete loss of control, director Frankenheimer sics a mad dog on him, sadly ending Kilmer’s scenery-guzzling Brando impersonations for good. But until then, Bad Movie fans will find much to love in this deliriously, brainless cult film experience.