One of the all-time greatest cinematic train wrecks is given blow-by-blow chronicling in “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.” The creation of the H.G. Wells’ story’s third official screen incarnation was beset by disasters even more bizarre than the delirious mess of a feature finally released in 1996, with stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer reportedly rivaling even Mother Nature as destructive on-set forces. Though not so imaginatively packaged as another recent unmaking-of docu, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” David Gregory’s pic can hardly help but fascinate with its mix of archival materials and surviving-collaborator testimonies. A hit at genre fests, the pic should do well in specialized cable sales and home formats.
Writer-helmer Stanley was a South African horror/sci-fi prodigy who’d attracted favorable fan notice with modestly budgeted thrillers “Hardware” (1990) and “Dust Devil” (1992). A fan of Wells’ tale since childhood, he was not yet 30 when New Line greenlit his proposed remake, following in the footsteps of 1932’s memorable (if not particularly faithful) Charles Laughton vehicle “Island of Lost Souls” and the middling Burt Lancaster/Michael York “Moreau” of 1977. He imagined an updated version at once more faithful to the original author’s vision and full of baroque new ideas for the mad doctor’s experimental humanoid “beasts” — glimpsed here in elaborate pre-production pitch illustrations and design sketches.
Already an ambitious project by the studio’s usual thrifty standards, the film saw its budget balloon when it attracted the notoriously difficult Brando, and a Kilmer just coming off his box office apex of “Batman Forever.” Kilmer’s script demands immediately cut loose James Woods, whose planned co-lead role was more or less absorbed into the bigger star’s part. Then, still before shooting had actually started, Brando’s daughter Cheyenne committed suicide, causing him to drop out of another film mid-shoot. His arrival on the set of “Moreau” delayed for an unguessable length, shooting began nonetheless on the picturesque but remote coastal location found near Cairns in northeastern Australia.
Executives were already fretting over whether fanboy Stanley could handle the big-budget, high-pressure endeavor this had become. Within just a few days, they decided he couldn’t, given his near-paralytic reaction to two disasters: first, a hurricane that flooded nearly all the sets; second, Hurricane Kilmer, whose “prep-school bully” behavior (as one witness puts it) seemed hellbent on undermining the young director’s confidence and authority. Having needed the studio’s deep pockets to attain the material’s rights in the first place, Stanley had no legal means of opposing being sacked from what had been his project from the start. To the dismay of sympathetic cast and crew members (notably actress Fairuza Balk, one of the principal interviewees here), he was simply fired, and then simply disappeared amid rumors of a possible personal vendetta and/or suicide watch.
Scrambling to save its investment, New Line was turned down by numerous replacement directors before settling on John Frankenheimer, a 65-year-old veteran who (being at a low career ebb) came cheap and was willing to sign up on extremely short notice. He also brought to the table a reputation for successfully “wrangling difficult actors.” After a couple of conciliatory first days on the job with a shaken crew, he revealed himself as “one of the last old-school screamers,” taking out his frustrations on lesser personnel while his two marquee stars continued to wreak havoc —their incessant changes on top of the director’s own rewrites (he confessed scant affinity for the fantasy material) leaving little left of Stanley’s imaginative concept.
In its place was a surreal, semi-self-parodying circus that many here call “the worst movie ever made,” though that description underserves what finally emerged from the struggle between Frankenheimer’s grizzled professionalism and the stars’ bemusedly contemptuous improv. Their “Moreau” is bad, but also undeniably, unpredictably entertaining. Alas, it was no guilty pleasure for Stanley, who it turned out had retreated to a nearby secluded retreat, eventually sneaking back onto the set undetected as an extra.
Thus he witnessed such craziness as Brando’s insistence on playing his role in “mime-white” pancake makeup; his childlike fascination with the 2’4” Nelson de la Rosa, a “mini-me” he indulged to the despair of German thesp Marco Hofschneider, whose painstakingly prepared-for role shrank to near-nothing as a consequence; and his apparent disdain toward Kilmer, whose expectations of working with the great Brando were squelched when the latter axed almost all their dialogue exchanges. Other actors spent onerous daily hours having beast makeup applied, only to frequently have it removed without a moment oncamera. The extra ranks, swelled by local beach hippies, found the few production weeks they’d planned on stretching to half a year, boredom turning their encampment into a long-running, all-expenses-paid bacchanal.
These anecdotes are related in most colorful fashion through a combination of archival materials (including much behind-the-scenes footage) and interviewees that also include actor Rob Morrow (who begged his agent to rescue him from this “complete insanity” after just four days), execs and tech/design principals. With Brando and Frankenheimer having passed on, the most conspicuous no-shows here are (unsurprisingly) Kilmer and third-billed David Thewlis. To heighten the drama, it’s suggested that the still-youthful Stanley was so traumatized he dropped out of the industry entirely. But in fact, he’s made several documentary features and omnibus segments since.
A veteran of DVD-extra documentaries (and co-founder of the specialty DVD imprint Blue Underground), Gregory might have done a bit more to differentiate this more extensive investigation from those earlier pics’ conventions. But the richness of the tale told here makes this competently packaged feature a keeper nonetheless.