In the wake of the disastrous release of Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR, it’s almost prescient on the part of Netflix that LOST SOUL arrived when it did. Given all the recent reports, Trank should fully understand what director Richard Stanley went through trying to get THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU to the screen. Both men had success with smaller films, which led to a much larger directing job, that came with a huge budget; they both clashed with actors and a studio; they were both rumored not to come out of their shelter (a tent for Trank, a tree for Stanley, believe it or not); they both were removed at some point from production; and their movies came out and bombed. Maybe 20 years from now we’ll get a doc on the FANTASTIC FOUR mess, but in the interim, we have LOST SOUL, which is fantastic to watch; especially if you’re a huge fan of the Moreau story, as I am.
The doc starts out telling us what an up-and-comer Stanley was in the early 90s. Coming off the low budget flicks HARDWARE and DUST DEVIL, he’d built some cache and wanted to use it to make a Moreau film. Stanley’s passion for the project is evident, as he holds a first edition of H.G. Wells’ novel that he’d fallen in love with at the age of 4 or 5. It’s also apparent that Stanley is insane. He sports a number of wild, gore-filled drawings of his ideas for the film which would never make it into a Hollywood film. Many of them are based on the 12 Stations of the Cross; one exhibits a penis being bitten off and another a character being cooked and fed to a man. Stanley is a crazed visionary, as the rest of the document will bring to light.
Having secured a famous producer and a studio in New Line, Stanley seemed off and running on his dream project. But things start to fall apart almost from the outset. It’s funny to hear studio head Robert Shaye discuss his lack of passion for the project, Stanley (whom he considered a weirdo for asking for four sugars in a coffee during their one meeting), and Marlon Brando. Brando had raised Hell on New Line’s DON JUAN DEMARCO, and would cause problems galore on MOREAU. But that was down the line. First, Stanley had to meet him, and so he enlisted Dr. Edward J. Featherstone, or Skip, to help. Skip was a witch doctor of sorts, and did some magic to ensure the meeting went well. It did. Stanley recounts all this with a straight face.
That magic would not last long. With Brando added, the budget balloons. Names come and go on the project. Bruce Willis is interested, then he’s not. Rob Morrow signs on, but then calls his agent and begs him to get him off this insane island. Val Kilmer signs on, but then wants to switch parts. Big time New Line power broker Michael De Luca gives Kilmer anything he wants. Brando’s daughter is murdered, pushing his arrival way back. Three days into filming, New Line fires Stanley.
Insane as all that sounds, things get crazier once Stanley is off the film. He escapes the handles who are to bring him to the airport, and lives in a field, off the fat of the land. Known for getting tough projects in on time and at budget, legendary director John Frankenheimer takes the reins. The script changes daily, and sometimes hourly. Brando proves every bit as difficult as his reputation suggests. Taking a cue from him, Kilmer becomes even more difficult. There’s a rumor that Frankenheimer once stated, “If I were making THE LIFE OF VAL KILMER, I wouldn’t hire Val Kilmer to star in it.”
The craziest part of the tale is yet to come though, as Stanley sneaks back onto the set. He gets a dog-man costume, and joins in setting afire Moreau’s camp. Stanley seems conflicted by the experience, which should have been cathartic but brings him from writer/director to dog. That would humble any man.
It’s a miracle they completed THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. I went to see it on opening night, not knowing any of this backstory. You can imagine how appalled I was at the final product; born of a complete disaster, the flick was a complete disaster on every level. Like Richard Stanley, I’ve had an affinity for Moreau’s tale since an early age, and the resultant film was absolutely awful. Had I been a little more in the know about the production, I’d have run from the box office. Which is exactly what everyone else did. The flick tanked, and disappeared immediately.
The real shame is that Stanley didn’t get to bring his vision to the screen. He clearly had support. Fangoria’s Mike Gingold had high hopes based on Stanley’s previously work. Fairuza Balk speaks glowingly about the director, and tried to get off the film once he was cast aside. Producer Edward R. Pressman believes he would have made a solid film for five to eight million dollars, the original budget. Special makeup effects artist Bruce Fuller went all out bringing Stanley’s vision to film, and one quote from him, in defense of Stanley, is particularly sad: “Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer were there to mess with the film as much as possible.” I still don’t know that Richard Stanley would have made a good Moreau film, but I have no doubt it would have been better than what New Line released. And certainly more interesting. If Stanley got to incorporate any number of his wild ideas, the film would still be talked about to this day among the horror community. And not for the dreadful reason people chat it up.
In my review of THE LAST HORROR FILM, I mentioned how the backstory of why a flick is a disaster is often more interesting than the flick itself. If we ever get to hear about what happened with Josh Trank and FANTASTIC FOUR, it will probably be a tale of intrigue. As for Richard Stanley and his doomed vision of Moreau; LOST SOUL portrays the wild soul of a director, the soullessness of the Hollywood machine, and a film with a broken, twisted soul. It’s a fascinating watch that serves both as a cautionary tale and as a view of a fifteen car pile up.