The 1996 adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau wasn't supposed to be a blockbuster. It was initially planned as a weird, R-rated horror/fantasy with a mid-level budget and talented-but-affordable actors. The film began as the passion project of director Richard Stanley, an up-and-coming young director who had a couple of reasonably well-regarded low-budget horror films (Hardware, Dust Devil) under his belt. Wells' novel had fascinated Stanley since childhood, and he was excited to finally have the opportunity to bring it to the big screen and offer his own dark take on the material. Then, New Line Cinema decided that the film needed to be a big-budget affair with big stars, and things started falling apart.
David Gregory's documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau offers a detailed account of the film's journey from promising B-movie to disastrous spectacle, and the experience often feels like watching a train wreck in slow motion. We know the film is going to fall apart (those of us watching the documentary have probably seen it), but somehow Gregory wrings a considerable amount of drama out of the proceedings. It's an unflinching but undeniably entertaining account of how a pretty good young filmmaker found himself locked in a no-win situation.
There are a lot of people to blame for the grotesque beast of a movie that The Island of Dr. Moreau became, but the problems began with New Line deciding that Marlon Brando ought to star as the title character. Brando had developed a reputation as a notoriously difficult actor to work with by that point (he had recently given the folks at New Line fits with his behavior on Don Juan DeMarco), but the notion of having the prestigious actor play the part still tempted the suits. The decision would turn out to be a disastrous one, though I won't spoil the juicy details of Brando's cheerfully exasperating on-set antics.
Stanley was clearly equipped to make a mid-budget horror film, but perhaps not quite ready for the challenges of making a large-scale studio movie. The first few days of shooting were a struggle, partially due to Stanley's inexperience, partially due to star Val Kilmer's uncooperative behavior (almost every participant in the documentary seems to have nothing but contempt for the Batman Forever star) and partially due to unforeseen weather issues (incidents that inspire memories of Terry Gilliam's struggles in Man of La Mancha). Before long, Stanley was removed from the project and replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer. New Line seemed confident that an old pro like Frankenheimer would sort things out, but the film's problems were only beginning.
Though some of the biggest stars involved in The Island of Dr. Moreau don't participate in this documentary (Brando died in 2004, while Kilmer, David Thewlis and Ron Perlman evidently passed on the opportunity to tell their side of the story), the film still manages to provide a fairly thorough and balanced view of things. The producers who felt that Stanley was too inexperienced for the job have their say, a variety of actors take different positions on the matter (Stanley's most passionate defender is Fairuza Balk, who is moved to tears when recalling the roughest moments of the shoot) and Stanley makes a persuasive case that he would have been just fine if the studio had let him make the movie he wanted to make.
It's rare that a documentary offers a genuinely no-holds-barred look at the making of a film, so it's both surprising and refreshing to hear how candid everyone is. A wide variety of terrible behavior is outlined in memorable detail, and there's a particularly entertaining stretch towards the end in which German actor Marco Hoschneider (Europa Europa) details bizarre confrontations he had with Brando, Kilmer and Nelson de la Rosa (a very short man with a very colorful personality). Stanley is absent for the bulk of the film's second half, but still has a small part to play: he snuck back onto the set and disguised himself as an extra, granting himself an opportunity to survey the wreckage of his creation.
I'm not quite convinced that The Island of Dr. Moreau was ever going to be a masterpiece, but it could have been an interesting film. The images we see of Stanley's early storyboards promise a purposefully gruesome take on the material, but there's precious little of the tale he had in mind left in the clunky finished product. Frankenheimer would recover from the affair (going on to direct the excellent Ronin just two years later), but the experience effectively killed Stanley's career and motivation to direct feature films. The most fascinating thing about this documentary is the way it mirrors the tale of Dr. Moreau, telling the story of a wildly imaginative man who is eventually destroyed by his own creation. In a sense, this is one of the better adaptations of Wells' tale.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 2015