Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau

Dir: David Gregory

Severin Films, USA, 2014

Starring: Richard Stanley, Fairuza Balk, Robert Shaye

Val Kilmer lovers beware – this is a considerably anti-Kilmer doc. Richard Stanley fans on the other hand: rejoice!

There seems to be something that is inherently fascinating with tumultuous film productions that are, by and large, plagued by Murphy’s Law reigning supreme and go on to temporarily (or in this case, permanently) tarnish affable folks’ careers. Whether it be simply a case of rubbernecking at other people’s torrid misfortunes or because the reality of a film’s production has ironically usurped the supposed drama of the actual story the film is supposed to be telling, such mired production histories are often terrific fodder for feature-length documentaries.

Fact has indeed proven stranger than (or at least equal to) fiction on several infamous occasions with The Burden of Dreams (1982), Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) and Lost in La Mancha (2002) each documenting the turbulent productions of: Fitzcarraldo (1982), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Terry Gilliam’s as of 2015 unfinished pet-project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, respectively. And now, at long last, David Gregory has given us the verbosely titled (but self-explanatory) Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau to add to that list of making-of documentaries for movies that were as difficult (and as fun) as attempting a set of no-armed press-ups from underneath an ambulance to make.

For those who are unfamiliar with the extraordinarily mental and somewhat bittersweet story that Lost Soul tells, the focal point is the South-African born director Richard Stanley (a rather mysterious-looking fellow rarely seen without his trademark long, black hair and a dark, wide-brimmed hat) who was once considered to be the torchbearer for British genre filmmaking in the early ‘90s if ever there was one. By 1992 he had written and directed two ultra-stylish and quite brilliant low-budget horror films: the post-apocalyptic killer-bot themed Hardware (1990) and the lyrical, supernatural serial-killer movie Dust Devil (1992). Those films would prove to be his calling cards and soon enough Stanley was on his way to Hollywood to go forth with his own four-years-in-the-making and ultimately ill-fated pet-project: an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.

For a time, as the story goes,The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) was set to become a landmark horror feature that had everything going for it: a superb shooting location on the northern tip of Australia, a near-perfect cast (Marlon Brando, Bruce Willis, James Woods, et al.) that also promised a sizable box-office draw, multi-million dollar backing from New Line Cinema, Stan Winston’s team on creature-effects duty and, most of all, an eager twenty-something director looking to cut his teeth in Hollywood and finally reap the recognition he justly deserved.

Sadly, this wasn’t to be. As pre-production continued, elements of the film began to crumble. Storms tore through the newly constructed sets, personal problems and untimely tragedies for the cast would ensue delays in filming and prompt numerous cast changes. But as far as Stanley’s ultimately ephemeral filmmaking career was concerned, Val Kilmer happened.

val

After a mere three days of filming, Stanley was fired at the behest of sweaty-palmed studio executives and a megalomaniacal Kilmer following his success in the titular role of Batman Forever (1995) (you know, the one in which the batsuit was, at long last, given nipples…). What Kilmer clearly understood is that he was brought onto the project for his marquee name and he could therefore effectively call the shots. So he did, just like a first-class balloon-knot, which essentially turned Stanley into something of a persona non grata as far as Hollywood was concerned.

What followed was further farce. Replacement director, John Frankenheimer – an often reliable but at the time regarded as something of a ‘has-been’ Veteran filmmaker – would have the entire script re-written resulting in a complete and utter bastardisation of Wells’ classic source material (just in time for its 100th anniversary, no less) and no glimmer of Stanley’s once-promising ideas. The film was eventually released and became what many consider, counting those involved, to be one of the worst films of all time. Nowadays, The Island of Dr. Moreau is largely remembered for the unintentional comedy stemming from Marlon Brando fashioning his own ‘Mini-Me’ out of diminutive actor Nelson de la Rosa (aka Ratman [1988]) long before Dr. Evil did it. Brando also saw it he would redefine the ‘phoned-in’ performance by wearing an ear-piece through which his assistant would prompt his slurred speech, all while wearing an impromptu ice-bucket on his head. But what has so far been described of this hopeless film and its production is merely the tip of the iceberg.

As a documentary that recounts a bizarre story of Hollywood gone batshit (as well as a testimonial of sorts for one of genre cinema’s most unique auteurs), Lost Soul is a terrific example and is bolstered by the fact that Stanley himself is such an effective raconteur that the considerable lack of archive footage from the production is almost overlooked. Also featured is a terrific range of actors, producers, special-effects technicians, various crew members, extras and even New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye, who each chip in with their own wacky anecdotes from the production that the documentary never ceases to amaze and/or dumbfound. Kilmer’s absence is unsurprising considering the grilling he receives from certain people, but David Thewlis’ absence is a little less so considering he was one of the film’s key players and least ‘controversial’ members of the production. It would have been nice to see how these actors recall their personal experiences, but the documentary doesn’t suffer too much without their input – just as it copes without Brando, Frankenheimer and de la Rosa who have of course passed on (and who like Kilmer, would have probably avoided any part in Lost Soul like it was the Bubonic plague).

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Aesthetically, Lost Soul resembles an extremely well-executed DVD featurette: it is basically a series of talking heads intercut with bits of archive footage and is not quite as extensive or as personal as Hearts of Darkness or The Burden of Dreams in terms of onset footage or intimate production notes. But the insanity of the story itself is so fascinating and insightful of the perils of the Hollywood machine at its cruellest that any kind of documentation of the story would have always been no less than fascinating, no matter what the delivery system may be.

Note: Though Lost Soul has had a very limited run in cinemas, it is currently streaming on Netflix!

– Liam Hathaway

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