Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau covers the making of the disaster that was 1996’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. In movie circles, the story of how the movie went off the rails is probably more well-known than the plot of the actual movie. Richard Stanley, fresh off some weird, well-made horror movies, is given the chance to direct a movie of his favourite book, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Ill-preparedness, prima donna actors, divorces, suicides, hurricanes, anti-social behaviour, and floods all combine to get Stanley kicked off the project and replaced. Lost Soul covers that story from Richard Stanley’s point of view along with actors and crew who worked on the movie, and the studio who hired Stanley to do it.
The two documentaries that Lost Soul reminds me of the most were Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune and Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness in that it is also a movie about an idealistic filmmaker with grand ideas and how those grand ideas all fall to shit in a jungle. Also, Marlon Brando is in two of them and his behaviour has not improved from 1979 to 1996.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is an incredible movie because while you’re watching it you start to get excited at Jodorowsky’s ideas and his infectious enthusiasm. It’s only in the hours after you’ve finished watching the movie that you realise that Jodorowsky’s Dune could never have been made. Jodorowsky just has that cult leader-style charm where his ideas all sound like works of genius while he has you there, under his spell. Lost Soul spends some time with Stanley outlining his version for The Island of Doctor Moreau, and while the ideas seem very interesting and have the makings of a cool, little genre movie, there is nothing about Stanley that makes you think that the movie was ever going to be made. He doesn’t give you the kind of confidence in his abilities that Jodorowsky does at all. From the moment he appears it’s clear this guy is not cut out for Hollywood and that his ideas aren’t going fly with a big studio. He’s introduced dressed head to toe in black with a wide-brimmed felt hat on and rings on pretty much every finger. Around his neck are necklaces that only be described as talismans and he talks with an airy, lost voice as though always asking strangers in a supermarket if they can help him find his parents. Even the studio heads who hired him to make the movie seem to have realised from minute one that he was not going to last. Robert Shaye, the head of New Line at the time says he knew something was wrong because Stanley took four sugars in his tea (something that Stanley has gone on record denying.) Of course, a lot of this could be hindsight talking. It would be easy after the disaster of Doctor Moreau to lay all the blame at Stanley’s feet and to do that you need to make it seem as though it was inevitable, even if you’re the guy who hired him.
The movie plays with this a little as you’re shown quite a lot of the behind the scenes players of the movie and each one has very clearly chosen a side between Stanley and the studio. I found myself from the start thinking that Stanley, while a bit odd, was just a bit of a posh English bloke who might have had bad luck getting a film made. And then he brought witchcraft into it. Once he started talking about getting a ‘warlock chappy’ involved in trying to get the movie made, my original sympathetic stance began to vanish and I found myself relishing the Schadenfreude of the whole thing. But again, this stance slipped too. Once you start hearing about the behaviour of Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, it’s hard not to sympathise with poor Richard Stanley, a man out of his depth in the middle of nowhere getting bullied by movie stars.
After the halfway point of Lost Soul, Stanley is removed from the project and John Frankenheimer is brought in. The making of the movie once Stanley is gone could be a movie all of its own. We see Frankenheimer, and his old school crew, trying to rein in the chaos while the extras and crew go haywire with tonnes of free time and great wages being paid to them for sitting around in animal costumes. This portion of the movie kicked in right as my interest in Stanley began to wane and kept me hooked right up until the end and Stanley’s disguised return, something that up until seeing this movie I had thought was a movie urban legend. Because Frankenheimer died in 2002, his story is told by his DP, a no-nonsense guy who just wants to get the work done and get the hell out of Australia. It’s such a stark contrast to hear about the movie from Stanley as a dream project full of creativity and passion, and the DP/studio who just want a movie, any movie, made so they can put the whole thing to bed.
At the top, I mentioned Hearts of Darkness, another movie about a fraught production in the middle of nowhere with prima-donna actors, natural disasters and the like. The big difference here though is that while Hearts of Darkness ends with Apocalypse Now winning the Palme d’Or and vindicating Francis Ford Coppola, Lost Souls ends with The Island of Doctor Moreau being considered one of the worst movies of all time and Richard Stanley living a life of isolation in France. However, at least now Doctor Moreau has its weird and ridiculous story told in this entertaining and oftentimes hilarious documentary. And poor Richard Stanley has a chance to tell his side of the story, even if his side involves a lot more black magic than most movie productions.
Featured Image: Severin Films