Studio: Severin Films
Director: David Gregory
Writer: David Gregory
Producer: Carl Daft, David Gregory
Stars: Richard Stanley, Fairuza Balk, Rob Morrow, Edward R. Pressman, Robert Shaye, Tim Zinnemann, Bruce Fuller, Marco Hofschneider, Fiona Mahl, Graham Humphreys
Cast and crew recall the ill-fated production of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” under the film’s original director Richard Stanley.
Arriving after “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (review here), before “The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened” (review here), and narrowly edging out “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four” (review here) for wordiest subtitle, “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau” belongs to a wave of behind-the-scenes documentaries chronicling “what if?” movies that didn’t turn out as initially envisioned, if they came to be at all. In fact, of the four films featured in those four documentaries, only 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau” made it to the big screen, albeit in heavily Frankensteined form and without original director Richard Stanley at the helm.
“Lost Soul” additionally wins out as the only one of those documentaries with an honest-to-God anecdote about how the director resorted to witchcraft to thwart a cabal of Marlon Brando, Roman Polanski, and New Line Cinema conspiring to sack him from his own project. And the spell seemingly worked… for a brief period of time.
Hot on the heels of “Hardware” and “Dust Devil” in the early 1990s, Richard Stanley was prophesized to be the next big thing in fantastic filmdom, at least in the eyes of genre journalists and cult movie fans. Neither film gave the director any real standing in Hollywood or put coin in his pockets though, so getting his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” off the tarmac was nowhere close to being a slam dunk.
“Lost Soul” is the story of hooks, crooks, and hoops Richard Stanley turned to or jumped through to bring his longstanding dream to life. “Lost Soul” simultaneously tells the TMZ tale of how a force majeure superstorm of prima donna politics, arrogant antics, and broken black magic boomeranged back to poison that dream into an unbearable nightmare.
David Gregory’s documentary is impartially diplomatic when it comes to the question of whether Richard Stanley was a misunderstood genius in the making or a powder keg poised to explode from self-sabotage and inexperience. Actors and actresses such as Fairuza Balk warmly recall Stanley as passionately enthusiastic about the project as proposed. Audiences see this charming creative spark for themselves when Stanley, two decades removed from his vision’s unexpected strangulation, giddily gives the camera a drooling “look, look!” presentation of unused storyboards showcasing a mutant baby suckling a mutant nipple. Producers like Tim Zinnemann responsibly counterpoint sympathetic sentiments about unappreciated artistry. Their business-centric viewpoints suggest a socially awkward amateur swimming against a current destined to drain in a pool of paranoia and nervous breakdowns.
Stanley may at least be able to hindsight smirk knowing he is not the only person who suffered on that set. By all accounts save the extras who boozed, screwed, and filled hotel rooms with Hot Wheels on New Line’s overtime dime, making “The Island of Dr. Moreau” was a miserable experience all around.
Hollywood gossipmongers get a fix of the good stuff with “Lost Soul.” Any whispers you may have heard about the ill-fated production, from Marlon Brando’s irrational insistence on wearing an ice bucket atop his head to fired Richard Stanley returning to set disguised as a background beast man, are incredibly all true stories and “Lost Soul” tells them all. Stanley evens recalls Fairuza Balk threatening to cut out her heart with a sushi knife upon hearing of his curt dismissal, though Balk herself oddly doesn’t address this directly.
With Brando and replacement director John Frankenheimer now deceased, no punches are pulled by anyone’s frank recollections of Frankenheimer being a terrible taskmaster and Brando brandishing an ego that could eclipse the sun. Richard Stanley had retreated to the rainforest by the time both men arrived. Stanley disappears from the documentary at this point in the timeline too. That makes some sense, though his extended absence seems odd in a movie whose subtitle bears his name.
Val Kilmer, whose movies now open straight to a cardboard bin in grocery store checkout lanes, bears a bigger brunt of everyone’s unhappy memories. Kilmer reportedly used the peak of his post-“Batman Forever” box office power to test the limits of how insufferable he could be and still get away with it.
Brando played the same power game. But Stan Winston Studios effects artist Bruce Fuller encapsulates their competing streaks of nonsense behavior best. Fuller agrees both men meant to stir the pot, yet Brando’s “legendary contempt” for his craft manifested in good, if conceited, humor and he wasn’t mean about it. Kilmer was a “prep school bully” extinguishing cigarettes on a camera assistant’s sideburns just because he could.
Reviewing a documentary requires separating the story from its technical presentation. “The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau” part of “Lost Soul” has the story aspect in the bag. The filmmaking side of “Lost Soul” on the other hand, could stand to take sandpaper to its sides.
Not all of the talking head footage is cleanly shot. New Line Cinema honcho Robert Shaye, for instance, is interviewed practically in unintentional silhouette. With dozens of D.P. credits to his name, cinematographer Jim Kunz ought to know better than to have Shaye positioned in front of the blown out background of a wide daytime window next to a white wall.
Chyron credits could also stand to appear more often. Familiar faces like Fairuza Balk don’t require reintroduction. But remembering who is who among 20+ other interviewees can take a minute for memory to kick in. Particularly when there are two Tims, two Grahams, two people using nicknames, and you’re caught struggling to recall who was a producer and who was the production designer.
“Lost Soul” would further benefit from an expanded epilogue about the aftermath’s effect on Richard Stanley’s prematurely castrated career, as the standing summary is cut almost as short. Someone might counter that these quibbles above are akin to lamenting the taste of the bun when the quality of the burger is what matters more. If that is the only case with clout, then “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau” contains all the juicy meat anyone could want when it comes to exposing the madness that goes into making a movie.
Review Score: 85