Review: Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – A gripping voyage into a visionary’s darkness

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FILM shoots are a shitstorm, regardless of how the end result is. Even for more modestly-budgeted productions, the sheer scale of time, money and sheer work-hours put into a film production eclipse many other forms of entertainment. With that in mind, it’s actually a minor miracle that most film shoots don’t descend into cannibalistic anarchy. Some films, like Apocalypse Now, are beaten into masterpieces by the fraught insanity of their production history; others, like 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, end up as lumpen, baffling shit.

Greenlit under New Line Cinema with Hardware hotshot Richard Stanley in the director’s chair, the film was a trainwreck before filming even began. After Stanley was unceremoniously kicked off the project, veteran John Frankenheimer arrived, by studio remit, to salvage a potential bomb on par with Heaven’s Gate. Rife with bizarre performances, schizophrenic direction and an incoherent script, it’s since become a cult classic, notorious for being the film that saw the legendary Marlon Brando go gloriously off the rails with an ice bucket on his head.

Enter Lost Soul, the Filmmaker’s Apocalypse that Dr. Moreau had always demanded – an engrossing journey into the heart of a visionary director’s personal darkness. David Gregory’s documentary charts the film’s disastrous making through talking head interviews, archival footage and candid behind-the-scenes footage, lensed largely through the recollection of Stanley himself, an eccentric worthy of a dedicated film in his own right.

To an extent, Lost Soul already is dedicated to Stanley – the first half revolves solely around him, as he recounts the many years spent working on the project that would become Dr. Moreau. Wearing his trademark wide-brimmed hat and a longcoat, Stanley cuts much the same figure as he did in his 90s heyday, just with a few extra pounds on top. His matter-of-fact recollections – delivered in a static, lugubrious monotone – are a stark contrast to the mercurial ramblings of Alejandro Jodorowsky in Jodorowsky’s Dune, but no less engaging for it.

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Stanley’s discussion of getting his warlock chum Skip (from Brighton) to conduct a blood ritual for good luck in his first meeting with Marlon Brando is bizarre enough, but this is only the beginning. It’s clear that Stanley is not the sort of vapid, fawning yes man that Hollywood executives would be able to pummel into shape, even in the throes of impressionable youth.

Gregory lends visual murkiness to Stanley’s tale of corporate subterfuge, matching the implications of witchcraft with composite shots of foreboding skies and Stanley’s own home. There is something ethereal here, that much is certain. Much like Jodorowsky, Stanley’s passion and ebullience for the project is evident, even twenty years after the fact. Several of the talking head interviewees – cast members Fairuza Balk and Marco Hofschneider among them – reiterate Stanley’s enthusiasm, praising him for his dedication and lambasting the corporate meddling that dogged him.

It increasingly becomes clear that there was a lack of communication between the producers at New Line (Edward Pressman excepted) and Stanley; the former didn’t trust this young upstart with no experience in Hollywood, while the latter clearly felt adrift within an unforgiving, overbearing system that offered him no substantial aid.

Though Hardware and Dust Devil both received a cult following, their budgets were microscopic in comparison to Moreau’s eventual cost. Perhaps Stanley really was out of his depth but, to the film’s credit, Gregory presents a relatively balanced argument that’s only a little skewed in Stanley’s favour, largely because we spend so much time with him.

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Not content with detailing the disastrous pre-production woes – including Brando’s daughter committing suicide, corporate meddling and meteorological catastrophe – Lost Souls shifts focus from Stanley around the halfway mark to analyse the actual production, helmed by veteran journeyman John Frankenheimer. Stanley’s original, apocalyptic vision (in keeping with the Kurtzian presence of Brando) is shown to have fallen apart at the seams, giving way to actor-director disputes and drug-fuelled crew debauchery.

Brando’s insane suggestions for Dr. Moreau are offered; his deathly white face paint and ice bucket are recalled with what can only be described as baffled laughter. Camcorder footage of the production crew’s partying is interspliced with the crew as they are now, looking sheepish and misty-eyed. For all its miseries, it seems that Dr. Moreau wasn’t all frowns.

Frankenheimer seems a distant presence in the documentary, with only his writer collaborator Ron Hutchinson vouching for him. Frankenheimer was a perplexing choice for Moreau and, if his conduct on-set was anything to go by, it’s also manifestly clear that he was the wrong man for these actors. His fraught relationship with Val Kilmer is legendary, but he was also (according to the film) disrespectful to the local people’s culture and openly criticised the crew. Rumours of Stanley’s infiltration into the set, dressed as a beast-person, is a moment of hilarious madness that only compounds a production of mythical fuck-upp-ery.

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Much is made of Kilmer’s disagreeable nature on set, but the fact he was going through a difficult divorce is left unsaid. David Thewlis is also strangely absent, both in mention and appearance – only a couple of set photos confirm his presence in Lost Soul, but original protagonist Rob Morrow is afforded plenty of interview time.

There’s a lot to consider in a film as hilariously botched as Dr Moreau, both behind and in front of the camera, but Gregory navigates the disparate threads of contention with style, opening a compassionate window on a director who was treated with astonishing harshness. It also reopens a window on a film that was justly treated with the contempt that it deserves.

Its badness is obvious and hysterical, but we’ll never truly know how that might have changed under Stanley’s direction. The storyboards and ideas that Stanley offers are certainly darker than the hilarious camp that eventually hit cinemas, but the beast-men prosthetics were there from the start and still fail to convince. Either way, “what could have been” is a powerful thought. Stanley’s uncompromising vision was brutally compromised, and Lost Soul serves as a stark, compelling warning to aspirant directors within the industry.

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