Monday, November 13, 2006

The horror, the horror

I had long avoided viewing the most recent iteration of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996), having heard tales of a production out of control and a bizarre mess, which is what you deserve if you uncage the runaway egos of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in the same movie. But last week I found a copy of the director's cut (nominally John Frankenheimer) in a bargain bin and decided to slake my curiosity. I have to say I enjoyed every insane, outrageous camp minute of it.

The production had a checkered history. This was originally a project of the very talented (and now seemingly vanished) South African film maker Richard Stanley, whose cult horror movie Dust Devil (1992), shot in the Namib desert, is exceedingly fine. Stanley wrote the script and presumably on the strength of Dust Devil's powerful visuals and dark, twisted atmosphere, got the directing gig.

That lasted until, according to the gossip, he fell foul of Kilmer, who had a number of "suggestions" about the script (basically inflating his role). Stanley balked, was fired or walked, and was replaced by Frankenheimer, a fair choice to handle a rescue job and perhaps rein in the worst excesses of Brando and Kilmer. In a bizarre sequel to the production crisis, Stanley smuggled himself back on to the set in heavy disguise as one of the many grotesque animal/human extras; I'd love to know which one. I assume he was planning to write something about the whole mishmash, or perhaps planned some kind of revenge.

At any rate, the finished product bears all the scars of having been redacted by Marlon and Val. Brando as Moreau channels Charles Laughton, who played the role in the 1933 production. And doesn't he have fun. This is the lighter side of his Colonel Kurtz. He is first seen being carried on a sort of palanquin by grotesque hybrid creatures (his "children"), face daubed white, bishop's hat on his head, clad in a flowing djellaba, and doing the papal wave with barely suppressed glee. He wears a buckteeth prosthesis, the better to trick out his plummy English accent.

Sinister sidekick Dr Montgomery (Kilmer), who we have met earlier, is also clearly mad, although he keeps it cryptic at first, working himself up to the excesses he scripted for himself (in an interview on the DVD he explains that in his "mad scene", daubed white and wearing Brando's get-up, he recycled a performance of Kublai Khan that had been cut from another movie. I can just see Frankenheimer nodding resignedly, wondering what had possessed him to take the gig.

As the two eccentrics raise the stakes to demented levels, the fine English actor David Thewlis copes heroically with his luckless role as straight man. This frequently means trying to keep a straight face under severe provocation. Brando is hugely entertaining and outrageously inventive. Kilmer isn't.

Even Stan Winston, monster manufacturer extraordinary, is caught up in the madness. Dozens of phantasmagorical creatures creep, stomp, hobble and leap across the screen. Some look like refugees from Cats, others have tusks or simian variations, and yet others are designed to be just plain Texas Chainsaw Massacre ugly (particularly Moreau's immediate "family"). They are, though, bloody brilliant.

Fairuza Balk is Moreau's daughter, and does her best as she "reverts" to being, tadaah, another Lloyd Webber feline, Ron Perlman, he of the unfeasibly gargantuan jaw, makes a good fist of the Sayer of the Law, a Winston riff on the orangutan. And chop-schlocky star Mark Dacascos, dark good looks hidden under an off-kilter mug with appalling dentition, is oleaginous as Lo-Mai, Moreau's favourite aide-de-camp. Moreau has a tiny manikin at his side, a precursor of Mini-Me (he even has a miniature version of the grand piano Moreau plays in a totally gratuituous scene). Either he's the world's smallest actor, at about 18 inches, or a Winston tour-de-flaws.

The plot, which allows a perfunctory nod to the evils of totalitarian rule, is not worth recounting. It ends, suitably, in total chaos and destruction, Moreau is torn to pieces by his creations, Dr Montgomery (Kilmer) is shot dead -- and the director's cut adds a fusillade of additional bullets, perhaps at Val's request. Certainly he deserves it. The compound burns, and once again Apocalypse Now is evoked ...

A curiosity, well worth a look for cinema buffs. The musical score is a hammering monstrosity too.

Update: I've done a bit of poking about to see what R Stanley has been up to. No features since Moreau, but several acclaimed documentaries and some short films. The bit part in Moreau is described as "melting bulldog", which I don't recall seeing. He has also appeared, oddly, in Deadwood, as "Deep Throat" and in one of my scifi favourites, 12 Monkeys. He hails from Fish Hoek, Cape -- which is where I live now.


Blogger mentdijinn said...

What the heck is chop schlocky?
Mark is a world champion MARTIAL
ARTIST and deserves the respect that comes with that major accomplishment.

1:06 AM  
Blogger DavetheF said...

No disrespect intended to Dacascos's martial arts prowess; I am referring to the kind of movie he often appears in. The genre is disrespectfully dubbed "chopsocky" and in my experience, often schlock to boot.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Wyndham said...

Reputedly, Mike Myers watched the scene of Brando and his little friend and exclaimed: "I must have one!"

David Thewlis was in my local winebar the other night with Anna Friel. I stayed for another.

6:21 PM  
Blogger DavetheF said...

Very good, Wyndham. And you obviously frequent a better class of wine bar than I do. Thewlis seems a thoroughly decent sort and I suspect he has a wicked sense of humour. He'd have to ...

8:49 PM  

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