The Worst Film Ever Made: The Island of Dr. Moreau

A recently divorced Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando's pet midget and an entire island full of mutants. Welcome to the Island of Dr. Moreau.
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A recently divorced Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando's pet midget and an entire island full of mutants. Welcome to the Island of Dr. Moreau.

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What makes a truly dire film stand out from stinkers and turkeys is the budget. Plan Nine From Outer Space is not a bad movie, mainly because its failed intentions (to scare and horrify) are off-set by the humour created by its lack of dollar. A three-legged dog evokes pathos – and if you’re unhinged, hilarity. A really bad film has to at least, be a total waste of money.

Tom Green’s ‘8 Razzie winner’ Freddy Got Fingered (a personal favourite by the way) is seen by many of its legion of critics as a deeply terrible affair. But FGF is a folly, and the work of an idiot savant let loose with a major film crew and some Hollywood greats, and it possibly wanted to be put down at birth. It’s also a cult hit.

Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away is inexplicable and essentially there’s precisely nothing to be gained from watching it. Even a determined irony-hunter with nerves of steel, will fail to find anything remotely tangible to sate it. Swept Away is almost a non-film, more of a recording of some uninteresting things happening in order. If you can last more than 40 minutes of it, you need psychological help. However, Swept Away wasn’t a monumental disaster: it was more of a home movie produced by a couple and inflicted on… well… hundreds.

The Island Of Dr. Moreau however is an epic Hollywood fail. A whopping $40million budget, which for 1996 would have been awarded, only after some serious thought, the project sounded great on paper. The HG Wells novel – detailing Dr Moreau’s attempts to mutate animals into obedient humans – had been filmed twice before, the project also had Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer attached. However, just as Dr. Moreau’s weird science eventually proves flawed, so the making of this multi-million dollar, ego-ravaged howler was a complete and utter disaster, producing a film so enormously poor that virtually no pity can be spared on it. But it’s a fascinating tale, nonetheless.

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The two male leads Marlon Brando (Dr, Moreau) and Val Kilmer (who plays his deranged assistant Dr. Montgomery) were in ‘bad places’ before filming started. 72-year-old Brando’s daughter Cheyenne had just committed suicide and the Hollywood star was also alarmed by some French nuclear tests being conducted not far from a private island he owned. Kilmer had just been served divorce papers from Joanne Whalley Kilmer, and had unsuccessfully tried to wriggle out of the project, only to be told that he was on lockdown. The pair also hated each other and had argued like mad during a ‘get-to-know-you’ holiday in Ireland. Brando sniped that Kilmer was getting confused between his talent and the ‘size of his paycheck’. Kilmer was to spend the entire film mimicking Brando’s slurry patter both off – and, yes, ‘on’ – film.

The plot, which seems almost incidental here and certainly to many of the people involved, evolves around some strange events on a tropical island. Dr. Moreau and his assistant (Montgomery) have been conducting experiments to splice animal DNA with human in order to create a mutant. Thus, in doing so, Moreau creates a primitive form of civilized bi-pedal animal that he tries to socialise with human values; the Dr. controls them via an electrical shock device planted inside the critters’ skin. One push of his remote control and the animal is zapped should it flout Moreau’s ‘law’. A survivor from a plane crash Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) is washed ashore and it’s through his eyes that we see the man-beasts eventually rebel.

So, the two well-fed leads hated each other. Kilmer immediately tried to cut his role (originally that of Edward Douglas) down by 40 per cent before filming, in North Queensland, Australia, had even started so he could get back home. Val was a well-known troublemaker and the movie’s first director Richard Stanley was having a hard time dealing with the petulant star whose agent assured: ‘Well, you always lose the first two days of a Kilmer movie” when the star failed to turn up. Eventually, a deal was struck whereby Kilmer –  who inexplicably demanded that he wear odd pieces of attire – switched roles to play the drug-addicted assistant Montgomery. Such was the bad on-set karma Stanley was eventually removed by New Line when the studio saw the ‘dailies’ of Kilmer titting about, and the director was replaced by veteran John Frankenheimer. Not a great start.

Rob Morrow, the original Edward Douglas, then bailed, closely followed by the female lead Fairuza Balk who was ordered to return. British actor David Thewlis who later refused to attend the film’s premiere, such was the excruciating creative process, replaced Morrow. Thewlis was not happy with the incessant rewrites from the off, being conducted by drafted-in script guru Ron Hutchinson. Thewlis said: “We would get pages and pages every day, and you'd read them and think, ‘Well, these are shit as well.’” Thewlis then broke his leg on horseback days into the schedule; the irony being that no horse-riding scenes had even been written. Brando – who was immensely obese – couldn’t keep up with all the rewrites. So, wearing a radio ear-piece with which to record his constantly updated lines, Brando often accidentally tuned in to a police radio frequency. In once scene Thewlis claimed that Brando shouted: “There’s a robbery at Woolworth’s!”

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The 25-stone Brando’s ego was a big as his gut. No one, including the director, dared to question him. When Brando decided to wear an ice bucket as a hat, it stayed. On film. For no reason other than to keep him happy. Brando himself commented “I was just so bored, I didn't know what else to do.” Brando then demanded that a midget – whom he had taken a shine to during filming – appear in every one of his scenes including a bizarre piano episode where the two serenade each other on the ivories; later lampooned in Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me.

The film itself is dire. The ‘man beasts’ who live on a diet of wild mushrooms and are controlled by the concealed micro-chips, are two-legged monsters straight from Sue Ryder. Moreau’s butler is a dinner-jacketed wolf and the Hyena – who eventually gouges out his microchip to kick start a revolution against the Master and his ‘laws’ – wears Converse style baseball pumps. The ‘man beasts’ two of whom were Ron Perlman and allegedly the original director (who surreptitiously played a melting bulldog as a joke) sound and look risible.

Dr. Moreau sounds hilarious but only armed with these off-set tid-bits does the film start to charm. With all of the horror removed to reach a 13 rating, and with a clash of egos that reduces the entire operation to a highly-expensive, and deeply boring squabble, – the original director destroyed all of the original production notes just to annoy the new regime – it’s amazing to think that it was ever sent to a single cinema.

The acting reaches a nadir its hard to see beneath. Kilmer genuinely doesn’t bother. There are pregnant pauses, clueless facial expression and a definite tendency to utter Don Corleone-style mumbles. At the production’s conclusion, director Franhenheimer ordered his crew to “Get that bastard (Kilmer) off my set!”

Brando, dressed in a white cassock and at times seemingly covered in flour is transported around his island in a military-style pope mobile. One of the last roles he ever filmed, sees the man as a laughing stock as this skin-scratching debacle plays out for 93 long, tiresome minutes. His final scene sees Brando torn to shreds in a hammock, by a hyena wearing sneakers.

The film went onto to just about cover its budget. But it seems a whole lot more was lost in the process…