Art is frustrating. Trying to communicate your vision to the world can be the single most aggravating experience an artist can encounter. I’m not an artist. I’m a writer. I guess these two things can be similar, sometimes. So a movie like Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau is both fascinating and horrifying to me.
Lost Soul is the story of brilliant director, famed misanthrope, and possible warlock Richard Stanley as he tried, unsuccessfully, to bring his version of The Island of Dr. Moreau to the screen. What’s immediately striking about the film is how open Stanely is with the documentary crew. Notorious for his reclusive nature, in Lost Soul Stanley is front and center. What’s unclear is if this is an attempt to reclaim some of his legacy and write history on his own terms or if its simply his attempt to finally put to rest the abomination he helped to create.
What is clear is the consensus on Moreau the finished product. At one point or another everyone interviewed, from cast to crew, find ways to point out how terrible Moreau ended up being. Generally speaking, this is unusual. No matter how terrible a film is, you can usually find someone involved with the making of it who will at least try to give a half-hearted defense. Not true here, which is both hilarious and heart-breaking.
It’s hilarious because everyone is able to reflect on the events surrounding the film and offer anecdotes and insight that make the production seem more like an absurdist comedy than a real-life tragedy, as if Werner Herzog decided to adapt Kafka’s The Trial and make it about making movies. You get a sense that at some point during the filming of The Island of Dr. Moreau the people making the movie lost all control and the movie began making itself. But this is also heart-breaking because everyone seems to have moved on except for Stanley and actress Fairuza Balk. They both look back on the making of Moreau as a strange, traumatizing period in their lives which neither seems to have recovered from. This is compounded by the fact that early on in Lost Soul we see Stanley may have actually been on to something.
Stanley’s early mock-ups and character sketches are breathtaking and reveal the kind of acid-damaged nightmare most were probably expecting based on his previous films Hardware and Dust Devil. His early casting choices were also clearly inspired as the original cast of Marlon Brando, Bruce Willis, and James Woods seemed to hint at an interesting dynamic that was clearly lacking in the film that eventually happened. But Stanley’s anxious presence and a contentious studio were factors that were never going to be able to coexist together.
In one of Lost Soul‘s funnier moments, to illustrate how out of touch New Line Cinema was, a New Line employee extols the company for being the “edgy” alternative to the majors. This because it released such ground-breaking films as House Party and The Ninja Turtles. To drive the knife in a bit deeper, New Line head Robert Shaye occasionally appears looking like an alien transported from a planet of beady-eyed lizard men to brow-beat Stanley.
By the second half of the documentary, you eventually come to realize that Lost Soul isn’t so much about Stanley rewriting history or killing Moreau. Once the circumstances behind his firing are revealed, you realize this is in fact a revenge film and Richard Stanley is the scorned lover here to set fire to everything in the most charming way possible. Stories of Marlon Brando’s eccentricities and Val Kilmer being an asshole aren’t there necessarily to undermine those people specifically, although if one thing is clear in this documentary it’s that you should hate Val Kilmer, but they exist to show Stanley as being vindicated in his vision. He may not have been right, but he definitely wasn’t wrong.
This drives home the larger point that Richard Stanley was always the perfect person to direct The Island of Dr. Moreau, because Richard Stanley was Dr. Moreau. He was the mystical, godlike figured immersed in a creative mania that was destructive to both himself and those around him. By the end of the documentary he even muses about how he made a full cycle from creator to creature when he learn of his post-exile visit to the set.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is, art sucks. You have this vision you want to share with the world, but often you have to work through other people to make that happen. And as Richard Stanley can attest, other people are dumb. They are exasperatingly, frighteningly, soul-crushingly dumb.