Hearts of Partial Darkness
If there were any movies released in 1996 that I was less interested in watching than The Island of Dr. Moreau, I am hard-pressed to come up with one. It would have barely registered as anything more than a big-budget, late summer crap-fest that Hollywood is so fond of, had it not been for the visage of a bloated Marlon Brando in kabuki make-up hamming it up. I had seen Brando a couple of years previously in the interminably awful Don Juan Demarco, a film in which he literally wore an earpiece so he could have someone feed him his lines. Needless to say I was in no rush to watch him sleepwalk through a crappy pseudo sci-fi movie. Almost twenty years later, I have still never watched The Island of Dr. Moreau, but after viewing Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, I really want to check it out.
For Richard Stanley, making a film based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau was a passion project. In the mid-nineties, Stanley was an up and coming director who had two independent films under his belt (1990’s Hardware, and 1992’s Dust Devil), when New Line Cinemas decided to take a chance on his vision of Moreau. The film was developed for a couple of years, initially with Bruce Willis, Brando, and James Woods cast as the main leads. Because of various machinations and pure happenstance, Willis and Woods would be replaced by Rob Morrow and Val Kilmer. The casting of Kilmer would turn out to be one of the first mistakes in a long line to come.
Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that the film became a disaster. Stanley was fired after several weeks of production, primarily because he couldn’t keep the cast and crew in line or on task. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin), was brought in to try and keep the production on track, but even he was no match for the bizarre antics of Brando or the oversized ego of Kilmer. The shoot should have taken weeks but dragged on for months, and the finished product barely resembled Stanley’s original script.
Lost Soul is less about Richard Stanley, and more about how a project can quickly go from one person’s vision to an absolute disaster at the behest of ego and commercial necessity. Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau was never intended to be a huge film. The initial idea was a modest budget adaptation, but that quickly balloons when Marlon Brando starts being talked about as the star. After he agrees, the film just keeps ballooning until there is no possible way that it will be able to retain Stanley’s vision.
Stanley’s biggest problem it would seem was his inability to see all of these things coming. A more seasoned director might have been able to reign the production in before the cameras rolled, but by the time filming began Stanley had already lost control months before. The New Line executives already didn’t trust him (for mostly dubious reasons), and once news started coming from the set, they cut him from the film almost immediately.
David Gregory (director) and Douglas Buck (editor), do a very good job of cutting and editing the movie in such a way that the madness of the filming of Dr. Moreau is always front and center. Although Stanley wasn’t on set for long, performers, back-stage personnel, and New Line executives fill in the gaps with the lunacy that enveloped the set. Gregory has made a film that is thoroughly fascinating, and one that rivals even Hearts of Darkness in the sheer madness it covers. Hearts still wins in a head to head battle due to its wealth of on-set footage, but Lost Soul really is good enough to belong in the same category.
Lost Soul shows a very balanced view of a film that was beset with problems seemingly from the word go. By the end of the film, it’s harder to believe that The Island of Dr. Moreau ever got made, more so than it is to believe that it failed miserably commercially and critically. Lost Soul is a testament to one man’s vision running up against the machine that is Hollywood, and both parties losing in the end. If every film that fails could spawn a documentary this good, I doubt many people would complain about bad movies.
Until next time…