There are countless tales of movies that never quite saw the light of day; absolutely fascinating stories of seemingly cursed productions where nothing goes right and everything goes down in flames before getting a chance to reach the big screen. Sci-fi is a genre in particular that seems to see more than its fair share of doomed projects, likely because of overly ambitious creators and the effects-heavy production that can cause budgets to spiral and studios to get nervous about continuing to fund such large scale, sometimes risky – from a box office point of view – productions.
Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – based on the classic sci-fi novel of the same name, written by HG Wells and first published in 1896 – was a production undone by ambition, nerves, egos and an awful lot of genuinely bad luck. I remember the excitement around Stanley’s proposed vision during pre-production back in the early 90s and was eagerly awaiting the finished film. However, it wasn’t long before things started going wrong and everything seemed to fall apart; the finished film, arriving in 1996 – 100 years after the publication of the source material – bore no resemblance to the densely layered, thoughtful sci-fi horror that Stanley intended to create.
This is the story of what happened to Stanley’s vision. It’s utterly fascinating; young director Richard Stanley, fresh from two well regarded but very small scale genre movies – 1990’s 2000AD-plagiarising Hardware and 1992 horror Dust Devil – started to shop around concept art and pitches for his dream project, an adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau. With the genuinely compelling, disturbing imagery to sell his vision with, Stanley caught the attention of legendary producer Edward R. Pressman, who then partnered with New Line Cinema – no strangers to genre fare themselves, having been largely known as ‘The House That Freddy Built’ after their success with the Nightmare on Elm Street films in the 80s and 90s – to secure financing and produce the movie.
With the location scouted, effects work being created by Stan Winston Studios for the army of genetically engineered animal/human hybrid creatures and the main cast in place – including Marlon Brando as the eponymous Moreau – filming began in the rainforest near Cairns in Australia. Just a week into filming, however, various production issues – including a disastrous series of events that saw the expensive film sets washed into the sea, amongst other catastrophes – led to Stanley being fired from the film. Rather than shut down production entirely, New Line opted to bring in veteran Hollywood director John Frankenheimer, who then had his own difficulties with the movie, though he was at least able to complete his version – which of course is now almost infamous as being one of the worst movies of all time.
There’s a lot of fascinating interviews here and insight into what went wrong. Stanley himself, despite his eccentricities, comes across as a likeable, knowledgeable and passionate guy; he has a clear and distinctive vision for the film which gets more and more compromised the closer the project gets to the shooting stage. Fairuza Balk, who was cast in the movie, also comes across as a hugely relatable and principled person, willing – as she was – to stand by Stanley and to express her disgust at the fact that he was fired from his own project. Marco Hofschneider, cast as Moreau’s assistant, tells some often hilarious stories about his time on the film.
There’s some great stuff here from the Australian cast and crew too, especially the extras who spent days in elaborate creature makeup and often had little to do. The production was turbulent even with Frankenheimer – seen as an experienced helmer who could wrangle control of the film back on track from its unruly cast and on-set disasters – in charge, given that Brando and a bullying, arrogant Val Kilmer did everything they could to be as difficult as possible. It’s a shame we don’t hear from David Thewlis, who ended up taking the main role of the castaway when Rob Morrow left just two days into shooting (while Stanley was still in charge), but we do at least get Morrow’s tale of his experience with the troubled production. It’s a shame also that we don’t get to see anything from actor Ron Perlman, who I’m sure must have had some experiences of his own that would have been fascinating to hear.
I’ve long known the stories of what happened during filming – and believe me, it gets seriously crazy as the production goes on, though I won’t spoil the twists and turns of the real life tale here – but even so it was great to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and see the tale told from the perspective of lots of people who were involved in the resultant mess from the start. And though I’d heard the stories, little did I know how much witchcraft, egomania and just downright debauched behaviour was involved throughout. The first part of the movie is a pretty heartbreaking tale of seeing a young guy’s lifelong ambition stripped away from him, mostly by forces outside of his control; once Frankenheimer is on board, it becomes an incredibly comic series of ridiculous actor demands and clashing personalities. It’s a wonder that the movie ever got made, frankly, even in the terrible state it finally arrived in.
Though I’ve never seen The Island of Dr. Moreau, I’m now more morbidly curious than ever to check it out. Which is quite something, considering it’s now 24 years old and I’ve successfully avoided even wanting to check out the trainwreck for myself until seeing Lost Soul. I’ve no doubt, however, that the story of its troubled production – told brilliantly here – is far more fascinating and compelling than the film itself.
Note: The story shown in the film has a somewhat melancholic outcome, given that Richard Stanley said that he’d never return to direct a movie again, following his experience with The Island of Dr. Moreau. Thankfully, however, since Lost Soul was released, he has at last returned to directing with 2018’s HP Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space, starring Nicolas Cage – which was a critical, if not commercial, success.
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