H.G. Wells’ classic novel Island of Doctor Moreau is one the best examples of how horror and science-fiction can blend seamlessly together to challenge our concepts of life and death, identity, and morality. A cautionary tale about the evils of playing God with nature, the novel has been adapted to film several times, most notably as Island of Lost Souls (1932), again in 1977 with The Island of Dr Moreau with Burt Lancaster and Michael York (a personal favorite), and most recently with an adaptation with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer (1996). The later adaptation, originally conceived by film auteur Richard Stanley (Hardwire, Dust Devils) and ultimately directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) was considered a box-office bomb and ranks high in that polarizing category of worst-best films. That version, especially considering Stanley’s involvement and subsequent removal, is the subject of David Gregory’s documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
Considering Richard Stanley’s unabashed love for the source material, his vision of the film was not to be seen, as New Line Cinema execs were ultimately unhappy with their interactions with Stanley, who initially refused to attend meetings, preferring instead to work on the script and creature designs in seclusion. New Line attempted to bring in Roman Polanski to direct, but after Stanley demanded a meeting with Brando, they relented based on Brando’s sympathetic attention to the director. Stanley was intimate with the source material, as the novel was one of his earliest influences, and he knew of the strange connection of the novel and Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, itself an inspiration for Apocalypse Now. Stanley also had a family connection to Conrad’s inspiration of the Kurtz character in Heart of Darkness, which in turn influenced Brando’s decision. Stanley’s vision of the film had Bruce Willis starring as Edward Prendick, and James Woods as Montgomery, Moreau’s assistant.
Turmoil on the set began almost immediately, with Willis dropping out of the project early on, replaced by the combative Val Kilmer, who signed on with a request of a significant time reduction of set attendance. Stanley switched Kilmer to the Montgomery character who had less screen time, which forced the removal of James Woods. Compounded by the suicide of Brando’s daughter Cheyenne, the set shut down, with no one sure when Brando would return. These obstacles created the perfect atmosphere for New Line to exert more control over their project. The biggest hurdle for Stanley to overcome was working with Kilmer, who remained somewhat hostile throughout production. Unable to reign Kilmer in, the studio saw an opportunity to rid themselves of a director they didn’t like working with anyway, so they fired Stanley and replaced him with Frankenheimer, who in turn used New Line’s desperation as a hefty bargaining chip, negotiating a nice package for himself in the process. Once Brando made it back to the set, the problems only escalated.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau dives deep into the problems with extensive interviews with Richard Stanley, and the producers and cast and crew of the film, providing additional insight to the myriad of issues that ultimately resulted in a box-office failure. The documentary also shows early creature designs, Stanley’s storyboards that also served the purpose of communicating with the cast of the film while he spent time in seclusion during pre-production, and details about Val Kilmer’s bullying and hostile behavior on the set. The final version of the adaptation certainly isn’t unwatchable, just cringe-worthy for the most part, but when paired with Gregory’s documentary, makes for compelling cinema that is definitely worth the price of admission, for it is then we get to see what could have been, and get a grasp of why it was never meant to be. Lost Soul is a SHUDDER exclusive but can be found for rental online through multiple sources.