Written and Directed by: David Gregory
Starring: Richard Stanley, Fairuza Balk, and Bob Shaye
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Knowing the odds were stacked against me, I resorted to witchcraft..."
If there’s anything some of us love more than movies, it’s unfinished movies: consider our film culture landscape at the moment, where headlines about projects months—and even years—from release dominate the conversation. People (including yours truly, to a reasonable extent) are fascinated by hype, perhaps because it’s the point where we can be the most optimistic; despite being burned by Star Wars for the past fifteen years, we’re already enamored with The Force Awakens because, well, we want to believe without any evidence. Film is sometimes a faith-based endeavor.
It’s a phenomenon that works retroactively as well. Certain unfinished or aborted films have become downright legendary, from Jodorowsky’s Dune to Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, these projects captivate because out faith leads us to believe that we may have missed out on something truly special without even a hint of a final product. One of the more notorious stories out of this mold is the strange saga of Richard Stanley’s woefully ill-fated adaptation of Island of Dr. Moreau. Based on Stanley’s previous films and the sparse hints provided by concept art and interviews, our hearts want to tell us that it may have been a seminal 90s horror effort—twenty years later, we might have even considered it an all-timer. Irrational hype will do that sort of thing. History, however, forces us to confront the cold reality presented in Lost Soul: this was a doomed venture from the start, and no forces—supernatural or otherwise—could salvage it.
In performing the autopsy on this stillborn cadaver, director David Gregory traces its roots all the way back to Stanley’s childhood obsession with H.G. Wells's original novel. Plucked from his parents’ bookshelf at an impressionable age, the book stuck with the director throughout his life, and Gregory allows Stanley himself to give a rich backstory about it and its previous adaptations (including Wells’s reaction to Island of Lost Souls). Further context is provided when the story speeds ahead to the 90s, when Stanley—still looking to shed his cult director status—began shopping his project to Hollywood. After finding a taker in New Line Cinema, it looked as though his boyhood dream would become a reality.
Instead, it warped into a nightmare. While Stanley is hardly the first filmmaker to see his vision thwarted by various forces, his is an especially insane tale, one that even inspired him to invoke the dark arts (as in a literal warlock) in the hopes of rescuing his film before it could be wrested from him. So much conspired against him, from the suits at New Line to Mother Nature herself conjuring up a hurricane as soon as shooting began. It’s a truly astounding tale in that almost nothing went right: stars were forced to drop out (in the case of Bruce Willis) or delay their arrival on set (Marlon Brando) due to personal circumstances, while Stanley himself never quite found the backing necessary. Almost from the start, the studio seemed intent on booting from the project, going so far as to attach Roman Polanski to the project before he was able to convince Brando to allow him to stay on board.
Quite frankly, this is only the beginning of the story presented in Lost Soul, which also allows a brief glimpse into Stanley’s singular vision of the project via new interviews and concept art. Many people involved with the production (including Stanley himself) are often brutally candid about the ordeal: some—like Fairuza Balk—remain in Stanley’s corner, while some of his doubters (including former New Line head honcho Bob Shaye) still insist two decades later that he was in over his head. While the film certainly sympathizes with the former position, it offers plenty of evidence of the latter too, as it cites Stanley’s erratic behavior during a difficult transition to studio filmmaking. Despite primarily operating as a talking heads documentary, Lost Soul captures the maelstrom that overwhelmed this project and rarely relented, even when John Frankenheimer came aboard to right the ship.
Of course, the final product indicates that he wrecked the goddamn ship right into the shore. A good chunk of the documentary is dedicated to surveying the carnage—it doesn’t pinpoint or have an answer for what went wrong since, well, everything went wrong. As Frankenheimer, Brando, and Val Kilmer aren’t around to defend themselves, this becomes the most gossipy stretch of the film, as the participants recount the director’s bullish nature and the stars’ bizarre demands. Where the accounts paint Brando as eccentric, most portray Kilmer as a bit of a prima donna whose newfound star status fed an out-of-control ego.
“Toxic” doesn’t begin to describe the set, which became especially chaotic for the host of extras; some who expected to be on set only a few weeks suddenly found themselves stranded for months at a time. Behind-the-scenes footage and anecdotes reveal a wild scene where the beast-people lounged under the haze of pot and sex, unsure of whether or not they’d even go before the cameras on any given day. Regardless of the film itself, it must be said that some people had the time of their lives. Lost in all of this is Stanley himself, who fittingly goes missing from the documentary itself until it recounts his jaw-dropping reemergence near the set. It makes for a fitting end to a truly strange story, one that must be heard as a reminder of how the movie industry can take the purest of intentions and twist them into a monstrous creation.
Lost Soul is a cautionary tale in more ways than one: most obviously, it’s the sad story of what happens to independent talents fed to a studio machine that doesn’t understand (or just isn’t interested in) what makes that talent so special in the first place. As much as Stanley may have been over his head, it’s just as clear that New Line was similarly clueless; what started as a modestly budgeted genre film for the studio quickly ballooned into an extravagant production it wasn’t nearly equipped to mount. Gregory rightfully depicts New Line as a studio at the crossroads; after two decades of independent scrappiness, they began to grow more ambitious, with their roots being left in the rearview mirror with each passing year. While New Line was far from collapsing, The Island of Dr. Moreau proved to be an ominous microcosm of an identity crisis that would eventually doom them a decade later, when these first cracks in the foundation of the “House that Freddy Built” became more pronounced.
Playing the “what if?” game is easy enough, and, while that’s part of the appeal of documentaries like Lost Soul, Gregory’s film goes beyond that to uncover the sad story of an implosion Richard Stanley never quite recovered from. Forgetting Island of Dr. Moreau for a moment, imagine what other films his career may have still yielded had he not been soured by this experience. Appropriately, enough, Lost Soul is a horror movie in the purest sense, as it has someone relive and then attempt to interpret their own nightmare. As informative as it is maddening, this documentary gawks at the wreckage of a broken dream that can now be laughed at a little bit, almost as if those involved are just now waking up from it--still, the “what ifs” certainly linger, teasing us with possibilities that will never be.
After making the festival rounds for the past year, Lost Soul arrives on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Severin films. Over two hours of supplements have been produced and curated for the disc, including outtakes with many of the participants, an audio interview with Barbara Steele, and an archive bit with Frankenheimer attempting to sell the film during a junket interview. A Stanley-narrated concept art gallery provides a deeper glimpse into his vision, while another feature returns viewers to the original (and now very abandoned). Footage of Stanely—in full monster makeup—during an appearance at a recent film festival in Mexico and a diary of the shooting experience fill out the disc. If that weren’t enough, Severin is also set to release a 3-disc “House of Pain” edition with even more features (among them is a 1921 Moreau adaptation thought to be lost).
Even if Richard Stanley had somehow managed to bring his complete vision to the screen, I’m still not sure it would have been as wildly entertaining or as purely bizarre as the story behind the failed attempt. At the very least, Lost Soul is the next best thing to what might have been.
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