It’s on Netflix: Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau

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Dir. David Gregory, 2014

Richard Stanley made two significant, low-budget genre films in the early 1990s: Hardware, and Dust Devil, which is one of the best films I’ve seen (but see the restored version [also on Netflix]; in a preview of coming attractions,Miramax badly cut the film for its original release). There’s not much like it in film: it’s a fever dream of occult violence and historical ghosts of colonial horror. And then, as far as I knew, he disappeared. For some reason I saw the infamous 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau (“Brando, Frankenheimer? How bad can this be?”) a film which has remained a part of pop culture through South Park parodies and showing up in many “Marlon Brando was so crazy…” articles. But I was unaware that the film started as the film that was supposed to make Stanley a major filmmaking figure on the world stage.

Lost Soul by longtime behind the scenes horror documentarian David Gregory,  a film about the making of The Island of Dr. Moreau, is both an opportunity for Richard Stanley to revisit his ambitious unrealized film, and a document of the insanity behind the making of one of the most maligned films of all-time. It involves a promising young director in over his head who is replaced by a past his prime legend (Frankenheimer) who has to make the film up as he goes (and is just doing it only for the money), a young studio attempting to legitimize itself while hearing horror stories from thousands of miles away, witchcraft (yes, literal witchcraft), a diva actor on a power-trip (most articles tend to blame Brando for the failure of the film; this doc seems to place more of the blame on Val Kilmer), the womanizing smallest man on earth, an eccentric Marlon Brando who doesn’t care about acting anymore, and a drug fueled crew stuck in a remote Australian jungle. In short, this story has everything, even a few aspects I left off to not spoil the “that really happened?” surprise.

Gregory’s doc does a nice job enriching the material by going beyond the superficial on-set drama and making connections to other texts. Stanley was drawn to the project partially because his great-grandfather was said to be the inspiration for Moreau (who was also reportedly the inspiration for Colonel Kurtz, and stolen by Joseph Conrad), and the intersections between the novel Heart of Darkness and the documentary Hearts of Darkness, perhaps the best documentary of this sort about the disastrous filming of Apocalypse Now, allow for some fascinating moments where reality, fiction, and history seem to blend together. Stanley, who has always been drawn to the occult, adds a kind of spiritualist fate to the whole affair but that does lead to one problem: Stanley isn’t a great interview subject. His mix of fatalism and sarcasm diffuses a lot of the potential tension, though that’s understandable when you get your dream project taken from you and destroyed.

The major difficulty with making this sort of film is that Gregory would never get the cooperation of some of the major figures involved. And because of that the story feels like it’s missing a few parts, or that he didn’t have access to as much material as he probably would have liked.

At one point, Bob Shaye (the head of New Line) says that, “I was just hoping we could make something with a beginning, middle, and end.” The one thing I have learned the most working and studying films, is that it’s often a miracle just for something to get made. It’s made me more charitable towards movies; I don’t overlook their flaws, but I think the production aspect of films should be taken into consideration in the final project. Films are major, precarious undertakings, and if you watch this documentary and Hearts of Darkness, a few bad breaks can be the difference between making Apocalypse Now and being on top 100 lists, and making Dr. Moreau and being nominated for Razzies.

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