I don’t really remember much about John Frankenheimer’s 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau. My parents rented it the summer it came to VHS, and, presumably ignorant of how mature it was, allowed me to watch it with them (of course, my father was and is the kind of person who really only objected to profanity and sex, while violence was ignored most of the time; it’s telling that they allowed me to watch this movie, but Miss Congeniality was banned in our house years later due to Sandra Bullock’s “foul” mouth). Most of what I remember is that Fairuza Balk, who I knew from Return to Oz, was in it, as was some hideous wheezing monster named Marlon Brando, whom my mother tried unsuccessfully to convince me was once a handsome movie star. This was a movie that had hyena monsters and a horribly graphic scene of a beast person giving birth, but I don’t remember those elements at all while Brando’s white-painted face haunted me for years.
But we’re not here to talk about that movie; we’re here to talk about what that movie could have been, or, more accurately, about the documentary about the movie that could have been, had original director Richard Stanley not been fired from the project, and all the myriad ways that fate conspired to destroy his vision. In Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, director David Gregory delves into Stanley’s fascination with H.G. Wells’s novel from early childhood and his lifelong pursuit of giving the book a film adaptation that lived up to the story’s potential. Following the successes of his cyberpunk post-apocalypse horror flick Hardware and his sophomore follow up Dust Devil, Stanley found himself in talks with New Line about directing a film for them. Due to his lifelong love of Dr. Moreau, he successfully pitched the adaptation; it was all downhill from there.
Lost Soul covers a lot of ground, with interviews from sources as varied as Balk, Stanley, New Line founder and president Robert Shaye, Moreau animal behavioral consultant Peter Elliott, and actors Marco Hofschneider, Temuera Morrison, Neil Young (no, not that one), Fiona Mahl, and Rob Morrow (who took over for Val Kilmer in the Prendick role when Kilmer’s insistence on fewer shooting days meant that Kilmer was shifted into the role of Montgomery, initially filled by James Woods; Morrow would also eventually bow out and be replaced by David Thewlis). Beginning with Stanley’s upbringing as the child of a single mother who was fascinated by occultism both academically and personally and following through to Stanley’s current career (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty), the documentary details how Stanley, a young indie director whose pet project suddenly became a multi-million dollar picture when Brando expressed interest in the title role, was eventually fired from the production when he found himself in over his head and beset by problems. The literal hurricanes that destroyed many sets were nothing compared to the setback caused by Brando’s daughter’s suicide during pre-production, making it impossible to film significant portions of the film for several weeks. Worse still were the mind games that Kilmer used to undermine and belittle Stanley; the actor was going through a nasty divorce at the time, but that doesn’t begin to cover a fraction of the horror stories of intimidation tactics and threats the cast and crew recall from their time working on the film.
Stanley was ultimately fired as the result of many things that were outside of his control, and this story is a tragic one. It’s not the most engaging documentary I’ve seen, and lacks the warmth and nostalgia of, say, Best Worst Movie, which also tackled the making of a notoriously bad feature. Still, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of one of the biggest box office and critical flops of the 1990s, and it serves as a reminder of how an artist can be destroyed by concerns, commercial or otherwise, that are outside of his or her hands. Stanley was propelled far beyond what he was suited and prepared for too early in his career and his talent and drive weren’t enough to save him or Dr. Moreau.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond