Review: ‘Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau’ (2014)


“Lost Soul” looks at John Frankenheimer’s “Island of Dr. Moreau” — a disastrous production that strayed from previous director Richard Stanley’s original vision.

Sometimes a Hollywood production comes along that’s so chaotic as to become legendary. The Island of Dr. Moreau“(1996) is a great, borderline tragic example. The production set high hopes and visions against constant social friction, inclement weather, death, paranoia and maybe even betrayal.

Richard Stanley’s Dream

Prior to this doomed production, South African film director and screenwriter was on the cutting edge (rather than the cutting room floor). Even in highschool, Stanley was a successful filmmaker. His 10-minute super-8 film, Rites of Passage, won the IAC International Student Film Trophy film award in 1984. In the mid-1980s he made music videos for the bands Fields of the Nephilim, Public Image Limited, and Renegade Soundwave. He also made a documentary about post-Soviet Afghanistan, called Voice of the Moon — although he fled the country mid-production, due to his cameraman being wounded.

Stanley’s big break (so to speak) came from his sci-fi robot monster movie, Hardware, in 1990, which featured cameos from Iggy Pop, Carl McCoy (Fields of the Nephilim) and Lemmy of Motörhead. Although the film wasn’t popular with all critics, its moderate success helped him launch his next big project — an accurate film depiction of H.G. Wells’ novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Stanley had first read the book as a child. In addition to producing comic book-style storyboard art, he was knowledgeable about the novel’s history. For example, in order to relate with with film legend Marlon Brando, the two discussed the conflict H.G. Wells had with Joseph Conrad — who was accused of stealing story elements from Island” Also, Richard Stanley is a descendant of Henry Morton Stanley himself — the controversial Welsh journalist and explorer of Africa, said to have inspired Joseph Conrad’s infamous Kurtz character. Obviously, Marlon Brando played a version of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, so it was a case of history tying together.

In other words, Richard Stanley was arguably the  filmmaker to make The Island of Dr. Moreau. What he envisioned was weird, gritty, nightmarish and “real.” It was to be like a horror movie, only without horror movie rules.  Although passion doesn’t always mean excellence, there’s every reason to think his film could have been something greater. Alas, his vision wasn’t meant to be.

How Things Went Wrong

Marlon Brando in Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) via Severin Films

When The Island of Dr. Moreau was greenlit by New Line Cinema, no one there knew quite what to expect. However, New Line was considered cutting edge at the time, so occasionally throwing the dice was beneficial if anything to their image. Still, they were troubled by some things about Stanley’s approach to film making. For one thing, he was very hesitant to attend studio meetings, and spent considerable time off to himself. Quite understandably, they feared he didn’t have a vision, or didn’t know how to convey it on film. Meanwhile, dangerous weather would stall production, which was already tricky, location-wise (being filmed in the Cairns rain forest of Australia).

If that’s not enough, Marlon Brando’s daughter Cheyenne had committed suicide, causing Brando to retreat to his private island for a while — with no indication of when or if he would return. Then, a PA was bit by a poisonous spider, tensions snowballed and actors were generally making things difficult.

The Kilmer Factor

When Bruce Willis dropped out as a star, and was replaced by Val Kilmer, which proved negative overall. What was the problem? According to Lost Soul, Kilmer would arrive late on set, changed dialogue, and simply behaved like a bully. One story from Lost Soul involves Kilmer, a lit cigarette and someone’s sideburns!

Also, because Kilmer demanded 40% less days on set, he was offered James Woods’ previous role. This meant Woods was out, so Kilmer’s previous role now went to Rob Morrow of Northern Exposure fame. However, only two days into filming, Rob Morrow tearfully pleaded with New Line to be let go. That’s how bad things were!

Richard Stanley Removed

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Things were getting worse for Stanley, too. Behind his back, New Line had offered the project to Roman Polanski, which Stanley wasn’t happy to learn. As a result, he became more sullen and withdrawn. To up the weirdness factor, Richard Stanley believed (and probably still believes) in voodoo spells, and is said to have cast some during production. People feared the man was having a breakdown, basically. Amidst the chaos, he was eventually replaced by John Frankenheimer. Still, that didn’t entirely alleviate tension.

People at New Line feared Stanley would sabotage the production, which wasn’t entirely unfounded. Shortly after being fired (and by his own admission), Stanley had destroyed production related documents! No doubt this factored into the frequent script rewrites! It’s said that Stanley in fact did hang out on set, incognito as one of Stan Winston’s creatures.

Despite the chaos, and Marlon Brando’s own quirky behavior, Frankenheimer ultimately got the movie finished — just barely! At one point, one of its stars, Fairuza Balk, tried to leave production. In protest of the craziness, and in solidarity with Stanley, she had a limo drive her over 1,500 away from set. However, the studio threatened to ruin her career, so she had to drive all the way back!

The Legend of Dr. Moreau

Obviously, this wasn’t an easy film to make, and arguably a case of truly wasted potential. Still, considering all the craziness that went on, for the film to be even vaguely good is pretty amazing. This is why, if you watch it, you should give it the benefit of the doubt (perhaps more than the average film).

If nothing else, Dr. Moreau’s minature assistant (played by Nelson de la Rosa) was the likely inspiration for the Austin Powers character Mini-Me. That’s something, isn’t it?

Next: Halloween: Laurie is worse than her brother!

What do you think? Does this tale add to the film’s watchability and mystique, or does it just add to the mess? Let us know in the comments!