“What might have been” is always a compelling concept for a film, narrative or documentary, especially when pertaining to crazy-go-nuts ideas for movies that became less-than-stellar movies in the end. Already in the last year we’ve seen Jodorowsky’s Dune, the tale of how bonkers Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make the biggest, most visually stunning science fiction movie ever conceived in the years prior to Star Wars, and now another film has come out depicting another vision torn away from a director full of ideas. That film is Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, a title that doesn’t flow off the tongue nearly as well as the prior movie but one that has a leg up on the intrigue, because the decent into madness and eventual movie-bombdom actually happened during production. It’s somehow a sadder story than Jodorowsky’s, and a lot murkier.
For a bit of context to David Gregory’s documentary, punk wildman filmmaker Richard Stanley had written and directed the films Hardware and Dust Devil in the early ’90s and wanted to do a take on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, which the South African expat thought never got the proper treatment on film, despite the much-hailed Island of Lost Souls in 1932. He began work on a fresh and typically out-there update of the story and had visual aids drawn up to help with his pitch…because he didn’t have the rights to the material at all. He eventually got in touch with New Line Cinema which obtained the film rights and they began working to assemble a cast, which at one point was going to have Stanley’s dream team of Marlon Brando (who inexplicably got along really well with Stanley), Bruce Willis (who was eager to do something dark and weird), and James Woods (who took to the tone of Stanley’s script right away).
However that was not to be. From Stanley’s early film work and fascination with Wells’ novel, through the ever-careening debacle that was his attempt to direct the thing, to the inevitable takeover by Hollywood legend John Frankenheimer who had no passion for the project but needed to salvage something, the film tackles all of the sad and unfortunate turns that eventually lead to the turkey that the film was. Throughout, Gregory interviews Stanley, who is certainly an eccentric and unorthodox character, but is nevertheless a very sympathetic figure in the story and we get to see the pain behind his glassy eyes when he gets to the part of the story where the movie was taken away from him.
These are accompanied by interviews with other people involved like New Line exec Bob Shaye, actors Fairuza Balk, Rob Morrow, and Marco Hofschneider, and dozens of other behind-the-scenes figures who tell their accounts of the seemingly-cursed set, including some of the madness that arose from Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, both of whom made it their individual tasks (they hated each other, of course) to ruin the movie. These stories are equally amusing and troubling and really help illustrate just what a nightmare the whole process was. It all led to Stanley running into the Australian wilderness and only resurfacing months later…when he sneaked onto the set as an extra on what was meant to be his own film.
This isn’t as bubbly or as fanciful as Jodorowsky’s Dune, simply because the whole unfolding narrative was a lot less driven by the tenacity of a mad genius but by the crumbling of a mad genius’s hopes and dreams. It’s much sadder, but certainly no less compelling. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is a truly fascinating piece of work and one that should be viewed as a cautionary tale to anyone interested in the deal-making Hollywood system.