Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau Movie Review
Written by ZigZag
Released by Severin Films
Directed by David Gregory
2014, 97 minutes, Not Rated
Blu-ray released on July 28th, 2015
Edward R. Pressman
Graham “Grace” Walker
Once upon a time, not too long ago in a land called Hollywood, an eccentric man named Richard Stanley received the opportunity of a lifetime. He was given permission to direct his longtime pet project, The Island of Dr. Moreau, based on the book by H.G. Wells. Stanley had long dreamed of this moment and could hardly contain his excitement of having this wish granted by Robert Shaye and the fine folks at New Line Cinema. Stanley had written a solid screenplay and helped design some truly elegant concept art for his grand vision of monsters and men, and his movie promised to be something special. His dream came with a price tag of eight million dollars and while that is not a lofty sum in Hollywood, it is more than he had been allotted when making his two previous films (Hardware and Dust Devil) combined. Stanley is a very talented man with a keen eye for the fantastic and knows how to stretch a dollar, but he is not exactly suited for working within the confines of the studio system.
The budget quickly ballooned when acting legend Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront) unexpectedly agreed to take the title role of Moreau. With Brando attached, the supporting lead suddenly became a more significant role and the super-famous Val Kilmer (Real Genius) was signed to the project. Everyone involved with the production knew this was a tremendous undertaking, as both stars were notoriously difficult to work with, but excitement levels remained high. The third lead was to be popular television actor Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure), and Fairuza Balk (The Craft) joined as the leading lady. With the cast firmly in place, production started in Australia, but within a matter of days filming was halted and Richard Stanley was unceremoniously fired. He was replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), who did not fare much better given the circumstances. What exactly happened has become the stuff of Hollywood legend and now, twenty years later, documentary filmmaker David Gregory tracks down the surreal facts of this epic tale in Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
In a series of newly-recorded interviews, the reclusive Richard Stanley performs a post-mortem on how his dream became a nightmare, largely through no fault of his own. The production faced disastrous weather, personal tragedies and the raging egos of two grown men who should have known how to behave when working with others. Stanley still feels the sting of how the project was callously taken away from him and his budding career in the industry quietly extinguished. His love for the material remains strong, however, as the director shares examples of how the story called to him from childhood as he researched the original novel. In one of the more fascinating tales, Stanley reveals that H.G. Wells was once a close associate of fellow novelist Joseph Conrad, until the latter wrote Heart of Darkness and Wells accused his friend of plagiarism. Conrad insisted the Kurtz character (ironically played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now) was not based on Moreau, but rather the famed African explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, great-grandfather of Richard Stanley.
In order to offer the most balanced account of what derailed this project, Lost Soul provides ample screen time to the people who worked on both sides of the camera. Everyone involved projects a sense of remorse for what could have been, but the quirky director does not escape some responsibility for the train wreck his film became. Producers, production designers and make-up artists, among other members of the crew, share their memories of how challenging the project was, but admit Stanley may have been in over his head. Robert Shaye defends the studio position, but comes off a bit petty when he offers the lame tale of how he first suspected Stanley may not be the right fit for the picture based off his observation of how the director preferred lots of sugar in his coffee. My favorite story from the set will not be spoiled here, but it involves Stanley’s unique solution to keeping tabs on how the production was faring without him.
Actors Rob Morrow, Fairuza Balk and Marco Hofsneider (Europa, Europa) confirm the crazy rumors of working with Kilmer and Brando, and provide a few specific stories that are highly entertaining. They also compare the work ethic of Stanley and Frankenheimer, and everyone agrees the latter was more abrasive and prone to screaming directions. Morrow looks back on the whole thing as if still in shock. He left the project after only four days of filming and suffered a bit of a career setback. Morrow was replaced by actor David Thewlis (Naked) and it is a little curious that Thewlis is all but a whisper in this documentary. His name is mentioned briefly when discussing Morrow’s exit, but nothing more is said of him. Also absent from any real attention is genre favorite Ron Perlman (Hellboy), who is only briefly glimpsed in the background of a production photograph. I understand that not everyone can participate in the documentary, but this feels as if these two were deliberately overlooked.
Richard Stanley may be dismissed by some as odd, but his vision is equal to that of fellow contemporary artists Alejandro Jodorowsky (Holy Mountain) and David Lynch (Eraserhead). What happened to Dr. Moreau is absolutely tragic from a creative standpoint and one can only imagine what stunning images might have been had Stanley simply been left alone with a small budget and creative control. Most everyone has recovered from the experience and moved on, but listening to the passion of Richard Stanley makes me long for him to get another shot in the director’s chair and share his magic with the world one more time.