Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley's Island Of Dr. Moreau

US | 2014 | Directed by David Gregory

Logline: A documentary on how a clash of vision, personalities, and weather ruined one man’s dream movie.

Everyone loves a good disaster, especially one out of Hollywood. Not necessarily a bad movie in itself, although in this case that part is very, very apt, but a disaster in the making of the movie, the process as nightmare. Four of the best documentaries that looked at troubled productions have been Jodorowsky’s Dune, Despite the Gods, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Dune was a potentially amazing movie that was never completed, Despite the Gods covered the making of Jennifer Lynch’s Hisss, which turned a snake goddess into a gobbling turkey, and Hearts of Darkness was Eleanor Coppola’s diary of the making of Apocalypse Now, a movie plagued by disaster, but a resulting masterpiece.

Richard Stanley’s endeavour to adapt H. G. Wells’ classic science fiction-horror tale of man playing god falls into the same territory as Jennifer Lynch’s doomed vision. Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau could have, would have, and should have been a modern horror classic. Stanley had almost all the rights elements; certainly a subversive screenplay, co-penned with Michael Herr (the ‘Nam book Dispatches and all the narration for Apocalypse Now) and Walon Green (The Wild Bunch), plus Stan Winston Studio onboard for all the creature designs and effects, and a fantastic sub-tropical location on the Queensland jungle coastline.

But Stanley also had Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in lead roles, Brando as the lunatic doctor and Kilmer as … Kilmer. Brando was still rubbing his enormous ego with utter contempt for the industry, and had been doing so ever since Apocalypse Now. Kilmer was entrenched in a bitter divorce and indulging his own egomania as he was at the (questionable) height of his career. These two megalomaniacs would conspire (but not together as they loathed each other) to bring the production to its hairy knees.

Poor Richard Stanley. An eccentric, mild-mannered maverick, he had already endured a distribution hell with his metaphysical horror-thriller Dust Devil. Now he was plunged into a sweaty, hideous fresh hell that no Panama hat or linen suit would protect him from. Hollywood eats its young, and in their eyes Stanley was as green as they come. Despite his best intentions, the huge production swiftly got out of control, and within a week of principal photography he was fired and replaced with tough old schooler John Frankenheimer. To Stanley’s credit, the production was a beast that no one was ever going to be able to tame, not even Frankenheimer.

This compelling documentary is packed full of fascinating incident and blackly hilarious anecdote, much of which is related by Stanley himself, now a semi-recluse on a witchy mountain retreat. Numerous members of the Australian crew offer tales of madness and excess, and these are tempered with the more academic recollections of Bob Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema, and Robert R. Pressman, the producer whom originally gave the thumbs up to Stanley’s proposed adaptation. But where is David Thewlis, who replaced Vic Morrow?

Some of the best memories and opinions on the production come from fabulous co-star Fairuza Balk, who loved working with Stanley on those precious few days, and like many who knew him, were confident he would have delivered a great movie had those elements not conspired against him. Balk manages to laugh off the fact that she’s part of one of the worst movies of the past twenty years. If only …


Lost Soul screens as part of Melbourne’s Monster Fest, Wednesday, November 26th, 9:30pm, Yah Yah’s, Collingwood AND Sydney’s Fantastic Planet Film Festival, Saturday, November 29th, 7pm, Dendy Cinemas Newtown.