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rochefort [Celluloid 09.24.14] scifi thriller documentary

A recent trend has been emerging in the world of documentaries, one in which maligned, overlooked, or even unmade films and their makers are getting long-overdue vindication. Film’s like “Corman’s World” and “Jodorowsky’s Dune” are exposing a wider audience to tales of how their subjects faced incredible odds, and sometimes lost.

In some cases, the happy ending comes in the form of a version of a film that restores its maker’s original vision, like we saw in last year’s successful run of Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut”. But in others, like in the aforementioned “Dune”, we can only appreciate what could have been, and at least take some bittersweet comfort in the whole story finally being told.

The latter applies to “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’”, about the making of what eventually became a film many consider one of the worst big-budget movies ever made, and definitely one of the most bugnuts insane.

“Island” is a prototypical example of Hollywood at its worst, a bloated production plagued by natural disasters, studio power-plays, and psychotically self-indulgent actors. Many (myself included) feel that the most vital lesson to be learned by “Island”’s failure is a simple and time-proven one: if you’re going to commit to hiring a creator, no matter how much of a neophyte or outsider they may be, get out of the way and let them create. Or suffer the consequences.

When Richard Stanley approached New Line Cinema about making H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, his chief intention was to create the most faithful adaption of the source material to date. He had already made a name for himself with “Hardware”, the 1990 quasi-cyberpunk, low-budget wonder that took “The Terminator” and dragged it kicking and screaming through a gauntlet of punk rock nihilism, and proved that a loud, gore-soaked, post-apocalyptic sci-fi picture could also tackle mature themes of overpopulation, rampant pollution, isolation and state-sponsored sadism.

“Hardware” was a big hit, and his second film, the mystic serial killer pic “Dust Devil”, while not as successful, further proved that Stanley was a genuinely original voice in the land of genre filmmaking. It’s worth noting that 1992 was a year that featured independent and underground films like “Dead Alive”, “Man Bites Dog” and “Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer”, while in the mainstream we were stuck with crap like “Dr. Giggles” and, not one but two, “Witchcraft” sequels, and Stanley was clearly part of an exciting wave that was threatening to overtake the Hollywood sequel machine.

His vision for “Island” was dense with ideas and brimming with disturbing imagery, and promised to do for its era what the original “Planet of the Apes” had done for the 60’s. It was heavy with themes of scientific arrogance and responsibility, darwinism (social and otherwise) and theology, and suggested that Man’s violent nature is so pervasive and inescapable that it could be transmitted to “lesser” species. New Line found it interesting, but they weren’t all that keen on investing in it. That is, until Marlon Brando got involved.

Brando had expressed an interest in the project but insisted on meeting the director first. Unconvinced that Stanley, a pale, black-clad figure who looked more at home at a Bauhaus concert than an office in Studio City, could handle the responsibility of a major motion picture, the suits at New Line sent him to Brando’s house to meet the reclusive actor and bring him on board, expecting him to fail. To everyone’s surprise, Brando took a liking to the director and his vision, and his involvement became official.

Set construction commenced in Indonesia, a massive amount of special makeup fx was created, and actors Fairuza Balk and James Woods (who would be soon cut out) signed on. But the exec’s never stopped second-guessing their director, and as pre-production evolved it became apparent that circumstances were stacking up against him. Val Kilmer came on board and proved that every rumor about his difficult behavior was depressingly true. Storms destroyed whole sets and washed them out to sea. The studio people took offense when Stanley would seclude himself in his rented house and avoid their frequent production meetings. And soon after principal photography commenced, Brando’s daughter committed suicide, and nobody had any idea when or even if he would show up to set.

New Line had already put too many millions into the movie, so they fired Stanley and replaced him with veteran John Frankenheimer. Stunned and depressed, Stanley disappeared into the Indonesian countryside, and was later snuck back in as a makeup-covered extra just so he could watch what the project had become. What he saw was a movie that had continued to spiral out of control despite Frankenheimer’s considerable experience, and when Brando showed up in that unforgettable costume and white-face, it was pretty much all over, the film virtually unsalvageable.

We’ll never know if Stanley could have prevailed had he stayed on, but there’s no denying that what we got was a jaw-dropping train wreck, and “Lost Soul” suggests that Stanley deserved the chance he never got. The experience so affected him that he retreated from Hollywood completely, and it’s a downright shame that audiences were robbed of both his version of “Island” and the subsequent stories he could have told with the substantial budgets that even its moderate success could have guaranteed. And while it’s somewhat legitimate for a businessman in the film industry to have concern over how his money is spent, I think a large part of the reason why New Line abandoned Stanley is rooted in something much more deeply-rooted in human behavior. He simply didn’t fit in.

It doesn’t matter to me that Stanley's version of “Island” might have been a mess, because I know it would have been a compelling and invigorating one; what we got instead was just another confirmation of how absurdly out of touch Hollywood can often be, another victim of the struggle between art and commerce. Let’s face it: if you sign on to fund a movie that features a graphic scene of an animal mother birthing her baby on a human-sized operating table surrounded by dogs in hospital scrubs, you need to expect a certain level of risk and chaos.

“Lost Soul” is an excellent depiction of how Hollywood is sometimes its own worst enemy, and in this story of creator versus suits, it’s not all that difficult to figure out which party actually knew what it was doing.

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