Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) d. David Gregory (USA)
Having heard enough disastrous reports about 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, I successfully avoided watching it for nearly a decade. After all, there were enough GOOD horror movies that I still hadn’t seen; why would I want to waste my time sitting through the bombs? But eventually my curiosity – or more accurately, my insufferable completism – led me to Blockbuster one sweltering summer day to experience the cinematic trainwreck firsthand. Below is my 2004 capsule review:
This infamous misfire of the classic H. G. Wells story succeeds only at being a freak show, and we’re not talking about Stan Winston’s notable man-beast makeup creations. As in the previous 1933 and 1977 screen versions, Marlon Brando’s Moreau is a man on a mission, intent on converting the various beasts on his sequestered island into human beings. But in this case, Brando himself seems equally driven to create the most bizarrely eccentric role of his storied career, pulling off the feat with outlandish aplomb. Garbed in flowing robes and white pancake makeup, his buck-toothed, British-accented aberration is the thespian equivalent of a car crash: grotesque, quirky, and repellent, yet one cannot bear to look away.
However, Brando astoundingly disappears halfway through the story, leaving the bewildered audience with only Val Kilmer’s stoned, sarcastic flunky and David Thewlis’ caustic plane-wreck survivor to carry us through the dark night. Fairuza Balk and Ron Perlman are moderately engaging as two of Moreau’s more successful experiments, and Kilmer occasionally amuses with a wicked Brando impersonation, but director John Frankenheimer’s fever-dream visuals and leaden pacing only accentuate the fact that there is ultimately no one here to root for. The whole venture slowly sinks under its own nihilistic weight and heavy-handed cautionary messages, with the viewer left equally exhausted and frustrated. On a lighter note, there is unintentional hindsight humor, watching Brando’s pint-sized companion (played by 2’4” Nelson de la Rosa) predate Austin Powers’ “Mini-Me” by several years.
What I didn’t know at the time, because I hadn’t bothered to dig any further (because... why would I?), was that Richard Stanley, the visionary director of Hardware and Dust Devil (the latter recently featured in Hidden Horror), was the person who had originally developed the project, brought it to producer Edward Pressman who in turn landed the deal at New Line Cinema. I also didn’t know that through a series of mishaps, Stanley had been subsequently dismissed as the director, and that replacement Frankenheimer came aboard to “save” the project, only to be faced with two temperamental stars and an ever-bloating budget. Over the past 10 years, as I became more versed in genre lore, I heard further fragments of the insane goings-on of this particular production, including rumors that Stanley had even snuck back onto the set as an extra to try to salvage the show from within. This story just kept getting more and more interesting....
Now, thanks to skilled documentarian David Gregory (Ban the Sadist Videos!) and Severin Films, the (mostly) full tale can finally be told, with dozens of talking heads reflecting back on those long bygone wackeroo days on location in Cairns, Australia. The result is a fascinating, head-shaking, heartbreaking exposé of rampant egos, questionable creative decisions, ambitious artistic visions, and the Hollywood machine turning one man’s dream into a nightmare for literally hundreds of relatively innocent bystanders.
Without disclosing too many of the many colorful anecdotes that make up Lost Soul's 97-minute running time, the chain of events goes a little something like this: Stanley, with only two modestly budgeted cult hits under his belt, is perhaps unprepared for the massive undertaking, and that’s without factoring in the ballooning wild card of Brando who is lured to play the mad doc. Stanley’s original casting choices of James Woods as Moreau’s assistant Montgomery and Bruce Willis as the shipwrecked protagonist Douglas fall through; Willis’ divorce from Demi Moore makes him unavailable to travel, which leads to Kilmer being cast in the role. But it appears that Kilmer isn’t wild about the long shooting schedule, and so the decision is made to recast him as Montgomery (fewer shooting days), thereby eliminating Woods from the equation. Northern Exposure’s Rob Morrow steps in as Douglas…
And then a hurricane hits. And Brando’s daughter commits suicide, meaning Moreau will not be at his own island for some time. And Kilmer refuses to take direction and is surly to the rest of the cast. And Morrow calls his agent in tears after four days, begging to be released from his contract because “this is insanity.” And that is just the beginning.
Gregory has assembled a goodly number of integral participants from the project, including Stanley, Morrow, Balk, Pressman, former New Line head honcho Bob Shaye, concept designer Graham Humphreys, executive producer Tim Zinneman, Bruce Fuller of Stan Winston Studios, production designer Graham Walker, beast people actors Marco Hofschneider (M’Ling), Fiona Mahl (Sow Lady), Neil Young (Boar Man), and David Hudson (Bison Man), and a number of crew members eager to dish on the madness, including the late Frankenheimer’s 1st AD James Sbardellati. Notably absent from the proceedings are Perlman and Thewlis, neither of whom apparently agreed to be interviewed. Kilmer’s absence is completely justifiable, unless he was planning to pull an enormous mea culpa, which just doesn’t sound like his style. If there is a villain of the piece, it’s Mr. Batman Forever himself, whose arrogance and inflated self-importance are mentioned repeatedly by nearly all concerned.
|Seriously. Fuck this guy.|
For his part, Stanley is shown to be an intelligent if bizarre figure and one can understand why the execs might have thought him incapable of marshaling such a huge enterprise. That said, the reason why he was not given a top-notch assistant director goes without mention. (One almost gets the impression that he had no assistant director at all, but that couldn’t be the case… could it?) Balk is the most empathetic, staunchly defending Stanley then and now, and it’s hard not to wish that all concerned had shown her integrity and steely spirit.
Severin’s Blu-ray packs a fair amount of extra dishes to accompany a very satisfying main course, with nearly an hour of additional interview footage from Stanley, and another 25 or so from Hofschneider, Sbardellati, Walker, Humphreys, and a five-minute audio interview with Barbara Steele, who was to play Moreau’s wife before her scene was cut from the completed picture!
There’s also a 15-minute tour through the film’s concept art with commentary from Stanley and Humphreys, a 6-minute archival interview with Frankenheimer where he is asked some semi-tough questions about the film and its less-than-enthusiastic reception, a short look at location scouting for the compound, and a curious little featurette of Stanley, Fuller, and Gregory at the 2014 Morbido Film Festival where Lost Soul was playing last November, with the makeup man latexing the director up to resemble one of Moreau’s creations, followed by footage of Stanley running about Mexico City in full regalia, pointed ears and all, and wrapping up with a Q&A session that won’t change anyone’s perception of Stanley as a true eccentric.
There’s also a 15-minute piece called “Boar Man Diary,” read by Young with us looking over the actor’s shoulder at the pages (that we can’t read). While the stories and recollections themselves are engaging (more dirt on Kilmer and Brando), couldn’t we at least have looked at his face while he was reading them? Was there a bet on to make it as truly visually uninteresting as possible?
All in all, this is an excellent release that should appeal to genre fans, as well as movie nuts in general. Well worth your time.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is available now from Severin Films and can be ordered HERE: