Queensland Gothic: Richard Stanley’s ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’

Posted by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on December 02, 2014 in Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , ,

When Richard Stanley’s Hardware briefly hit Australian cinemas in the early 1990s, my Goth best friend was beside herself. A cameo by Fields of the Nephilim front man Carl McCoy sent her into subculturally-induced conniptions. If I recall correctly, there were even discussions about lining up for tickets to a movie that frankly would have been lucky to get twenty people on a busy night in the small Australian city where we lived. Like many of us at our high school worst, I confess I lied when I pretended I knew who McCoy was. Desperate to impress my enigmatic, black-clad friend, I mimicked her excitement and just played along.

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Aside from McCoy’s brief appearance in what is now a cyberpunk dystopian classic, my friend lost interest. But not me: when I finally saw it, Hardware was a revelation. With its aggressive visuals, bleak plot and furious soundtrack, I was instantly hooked. And when I saw what Stanley looked like – cowboy hat, skinny jeans, long black hair – Hardware became nothing short of a subcultural awakening. A bottle of black nail polish later and it was game on for Gothy Alex.

Despite what was in retrospect a relatively formative crush on Richard Stanley, I had until recently forgotten that he was involved in the ill-fated 1996 film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This  much-hyped movie was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ sensational gothic science fiction novel from 1896, a tale about a mad scientist who populates a tropical island with terrifying half-animal, half-human vivisection experiments. As the title suggests, David Gregory’s 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau unpacks Stanley’s heartbreaking involvement in the project, from which he was fired and replaced by the more experienced Hollywood director, John Frankenheimer. The end product went on to become one of the most critically maligned Hollywood movies in cinema history.

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Unlike the recent Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013), Lost Soul focuses less on the doomed vision of its original creator and instead more on the increasingly strange story itself. There is little that can prepare one for the twists and turns this production would take, propelled by the egos and eccentricities of larger-than-life figures like Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, John Frankenheimer, and of course Stanley himself.

The notoriously difficult production was based primarily at Cape Tribulation, just outside Cairns in Far North Queensland. Consequently, much of the crew and non-major cast were Australian, many of whom are interviewed in Gregory’s documentary. The perspectives of these non-Hollywood figures – including actor Fiona Mahl and production designer Graham Walker – provide a normative baseline upon which to gauge the increasingly weird story as it unfolds. It is primarily through these locals and a few other key members of the production team that the history of the troubled film is mapped out, spanning Stanley’s inexperience on a big budget Hollywood film, the broadly held dislike of Val Kilmer, and entering its absurd climax with the arrival of Marlon Brando on the set.

Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) Marlon Brando

From this perspective, this is a “breaking of” rather than a “making of” documentary. It is itself a Gothic tale of sorts, this dark, twisted story of  creative vision gone askew. These elements run far deeper than the centrality of Wells’ tale of madness, isolation and monstrosity, or of Franklin’s own visible subcultural leanings. Lost Soul is riddled with its own kind of gothicicity: paranoia, hysteria, persecution, greed, obsessiveness, the grotesque, the excessive, the sensational. All the ingredients are here.

Perhaps it is as an Australian myself that draws me to the Australian interview subjects, their familiar voice providing a way to assess the spiral into mass lunacy that appears to have marked the making of Dr. Moreau. But they are on the whole measured and calm as they recall the micro-details of how and why the production was so problematic. As Australians on an Australian set, they also significantly cast everyone else as outsiders: whether from the UK or Hollywood, like Wells’ story, these people all travel to a tropical paradise to cobble together their own creative visions, for better or for worse. That some (like Stanley) embraced his new temporary home and its culture, while others (like Frankenheimer and Kilmer) were hostile to it or suspicious of it in large part governs who we as an audience find ourselves aligned with.

Whether the final version of the film that was released in 1996 is the worst film ever made or not is, in light of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, ultimately neither here nor there. Frankenheimer’s final film and Gregory’s documentary are both spectacular car crashes: strange, moving testaments to the earnest yet demented ambitions within Wells’ original book. But this documentary is – as the name suggests – ultimately Richard Stanley’s tragedy, a talented filmmaker almost destroyed by the Hollywood machine. Returning to his background in documentary filmmaking, Stanley has over recent years been making increasingly confident steps back into film production, and the success of Lost Soul on the international genre film festival circuit promises that I will not be the only old fan welcoming his return.

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