Edward Parker (Arlen) is the sole survivor of a mysterious shipwreck. He awakens to find himself aboard a cargo ship called the Covena, nursed back to health by Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), who is overseeing the shipment of various animals to an uncharted island. He persuades Montgomery to send a cable to his fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) in Apia, letting her know he survived.
When they arrive at the island, Edward runs afoul of Captain Davies (Stanley Fields), the drunken, perpetually pissed-off captain of the Covena, who tosses the castaway overboard onto the launch belonging to Montgomerys employer, the reclusive surgeon Dr. Moreau (Laughton). Moreau protests but the Covena sails away.
On the island, Edward discovers that the apparent natives are all extremely bestial people, led by the wolflike Sayer of the Law (Lugosi). A beautiful woman named Lota (Kathleen Burke) takes an instant liking to the newcomer. Moreau finds the budding relationship between the two very interesting indeed. As Edward eventually discovers, the "natives" are actually various animals that Moreau has surgically evolved into humans. This includes Lota, but Moreau doesnt tell Edward that, because hes hoping Lota will mate with him, and produce offspring...
Meanwhile, the Covena docks in Apia without Edward. Ruth, having gotten her fiances cable Montgomery sent, confronts Captain Davies. When he finally confesses to Edwards location, giving the the latitude and longitude of Moreaus island. Ruth immediately hires Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst), a hard-drinking but far friendlier seaman, to take her to the island to retrieve her wayward boyfriend.
Neither of them suspect what horrors await them...
The film was banned in several countries and also heavily edited following its release, because much of its subject matter was deemed inappropriate. It remained unreleased on home video for years except for an edited copy released by Universal as part of The Classic Collection in the 90s, before the Criterion Collection finally released it uncut on DVD and Blu-Ray. Due to being acquired by MCA-TV in 1958, it is considered an honorary member of the Universal Horror canon.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Villainy: Dr. Moreau is far more cruel and sadistic than the malevolent scientist of the book.
- Adaptation Expansion: In the book the unnamed panther creature is just Dr. Moreau's latest experiment that he works on for most of the story. Here it's given a name and its own story.
- Adaptation Name Change:
- Edward Prendick is now Edward Parker.
- The schooner captain, named Davis in the novel, is (slightly) renamed as "Davies".
- The Alcoholic: Captain Donahue is a cheery and likable example. Captain Davies not so much.
- Artificial Animal People: As in the novel, the Beast-Men are created by surgically modifying animals into human form, and most of them are too animalistic to pass for human. In a departure from the source material, Moreau succeeds in making an almost entirely human Panther Woman, Lota. Moreau's motivations are also changed; not content to merely make humans out of animals, Moreau now wants to see if his creations can breed with humans.
- Attempted Rape: In a very daring move for a movie of this era, Moreau actually tries to arrange things so that Ruth is raped by Ouran. However she screams, and he's driven away by Edward and Donahue.
- Back-Alley Doctor: A shamefaced Montgomery admits that he was a doctor "once". The reason Moreau has a hold over him is that Montgomery was facing a jail term in England for "a professional indiscretion"—in context, almost certainly a back-alley illegal abortion.
- Beard of Evil: Moreau sports a positively (intentionally) Satanic one.
- Beast Man: Dr. Moreau's subjects.
- Broken Pedestal: The Beast-Men lose their belief in Dr. Moreau's "godhood" when he orders one them to kill Donahue, directly going against the law he has put in place. And since Donahue is a man like Moreau, they come to conclusion that "the Law is no more" and revolt against him.
- Canon Foreigner: Lota, Ruth and Donahue.
- Cat Girl: Lota comes from a feline animal (dialogue in the movie itself is not specific, but she is called "The Panther Woman" in the credits).
- Character as Himself: Top billing in the opening titles and the movie posters went to Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi and "the Panther Woman".
- The Commandments: The Beast-Men live by a set of rules they refer to as "The Law." Moreau eventually breaks it, whereupon they revolt.
- Covers Always Lie:
- Danger Deadpan: When Edward fiercely tells him, "Moreau, you don't deserve to live!" the good Doctor's only reaction is a bemused, "I beg your pardon?" Later during the Beast-Men's revolt, he seems completely unconcerned - "I'm going out to meet them," he says casually. It's not until the very, very end he finally loses his cool.
- Deserted Island: Moreau's island is emphatically not found on any modern sea charts.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: Lota dies in Edward's arms.
- Evilutionary Biologist: Moreso than in the novel.
- A God Am I: "Mr. Parker, do you know what it's like to feel like God?"
- The Grotesque: Many of the Beast-Men, being Moreau's freakish human-animal hybrids.
- Hoist by His Own Petard:
- Moreau gets killed in his own operating room, with his own surgical instruments.
- Lota attacks and kills Ouran in the same spot and the same way as he killed Donahue, though he manages to kill her as well.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: The monstrous animal creatures created by Doctor Moreau are depicted as sympathetic victims of Moreau's cruelty (albeit in many cases with beastly savage behavior, but due to instincts and no malice) showing Moreau as the real monster instead.
- Karmic Death: See Hoist by His Own Petard above.
- Little Bit Beastly: The Panther Woman. Other than her feline moves and spotted dress there's no way to tell she's not human until her claws show up.
- Mad Scientist: Dr. Moreau, who is making ghastly human-animal hybrids.
- Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Dr. Moreau has taken Lota, his sole female subject, as his daughter.
- Minion with an F in Evil: Montgomery, who clearly hates being stuck on the island as Dr. Moreau's unwilling assistant, and finally snaps after Moreau tries to arrange for Ruth to be raped.
- Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It rates a 5. While there's little onscreen violence, the acts of violence that are (mostly) implied are truly horrific. The entire plot revolves around a mad scientist who vivisects animals until they resemble humans, with the evil doctor being vivisected to death offscreen (the audience hears his screams of agony) by the creatures he created. Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) also tries to get Ouran (Hans Steinke) to rape and impregnate Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams), but he's foiled before the act can take place.
- Mood Whiplash: The Beast-Men revolt against Moreau and drag him off to his death, Lota dies killing Ouran, and, as the remaining characters row away from the island, Montgomery somberly tells them not to look back. Fade to black. Cue the positively jaunty credit music!
- Mutual Kill: Lota and Ouran kill each other.
- Nubile Savage: Lota, clad in nothing more than a short skirt and bikini top, introduced to Edward with the explicit hope that they mate.
- Ocean Madness: When first picked up, Edward is delirious and can only scream Ruth's name a lot.
- Ominous Fog: Moreau's island is hidden by a thick and spooky fog when Edward first arrives along with Moreau and his menagerie.
- Phallic Weapon: Moreau wears his revolver holstered at the front so that the barrel is somewhat tucked between his thighs, the butt jutting outwards from his groin. A reversed example of the trope, but a deliberate choice by Charles Laughton.
- Pig Man: One of the smallest of Moreau's creations.
- Rape as Drama: Moreau wants to crossbreed his creations with ordinary humans, and so after Edward refuses to sleep with Beast-Woman Lota, he decides to try it the other way around with a human female and a male Beast-Person. This of course means having Ouran attempt to rape Ruth in her bedroom.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: It is the incident with Ouran and Ruth, perpetrated at Moreau's instigation, that finally drives Montgomery to fully turn against his employer.
- Spared by the Adaptation:
- Montgomery survives, and even rows Edward and Ruth away from the island.
- Captain Davies. In the novel, he is found dead by Prendick in a lifeboat.
- Torches and Pitchforks: After abandoning the Law, the Beast-Men swarm their former master's home with torches at hand.
- Tropical Island Adventure
- Turned Against Their Masters: The animal creatures created by Doctor Moreau and kept under submission by means of fear and torture rise against him at the end.
- Walking Shirtless Scene: Several of the Beast-Men, but the beefy Ouran and Gola in particular.
- Whip It Good: Dr. Moreau enforces his authority with a whip. It proves to be useless when the Beast-Men revolt.
- Wicked Cultured: Moreau is one of the suavest and classiest mad scientists ever.
- You No Take Candle: The Beast-People, even educated ones like Lota and the Sayer of the Law, tend to talk like this.