The House Of Pains In The Arse… LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014) Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Nucleus. 15

“For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” Mark 8:36

On 10.11.(18)71, on the shores of  Lake Tanganyika, the Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley locates the missing missionary  David Livingstone, (allegedly) addressing him with the celebrated words: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Stanley is almost as well remembered for his efforts to discover the source of the Nile but a discreet veil is often drawn over his collaboration in the “development” of the Congo Basin (i.e. ruthless genocide of countless Congolese) under the auspices of King Leopold II of the Belgians. Stanley becomes a Knight of The British Empire in 1899.

Published in 1896, The Island of Doctor Moreau is H. G. Wells’ dark tale of accelerated evolution, a stark warning about naked science untrammeld by human scruple or social responsibility and uncomfortable pre-echo of what eugenic science would “achieve” in the 1930s.

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In 1899 Wells falls out with his friend Joseph Conrad, believing that Heart Of Darkness, the latter’s novella of imperialist excess, had been ripped off of The Island of Doctor Moreau with ivory trader Kurtz standing in for Moreau. Others have identified Belgian soldier Leon Rom and his brutal modus operandi in The Congo as “inspiration” for the character of Kurtz.

In 1924, Creationist B. H. Shadduck ridicules the idea of human evolution in a tract entitled Jocko-Homo Heavenbound.

Erle C. Kenton’s original (and still greatest) adaptation of Wells’ cautionary tale, Island Of Lost Souls (1932), features chilling performances from Charles Laughton as the Doc and Bela Lugosi as “Sayer of The Law” (not to mention the Panther Woman, Kathleen Burke’s unforgettable incarnation of forbidden allure.)

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In 1938, at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, Josef Mengele’s genetics research earns him a cum laude doctorate in medicine in 1938. Five years later he is appointed “Chief Physician” to the Romany population of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dieter Laser’s move from separating conjoined twins to sewing separate people together in The Human Centipede (2009) reflects just one of Mengele’s unwelcome “contributions” to medical science.

In 1977 Don Taylor’s Island Of Dr. Moreau features a predictably solid performance from Burt Lancaster in the Moreau role but is otherwise a reasonably engaging action yarn with little philosophical substance. In the same year, on the flip side of their Mongoloid single on Stiff Records, Devo issue Jocko Homo in support of their “de-evolution” schtick. Lugosi’s most memorable line from Erle Kenton’s film – “Are we not Men?”-  is repeated throughout the track.

Francis Ford Coppola’s overblown Apocalypse Now (1979) filters Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness through the dark lens of the Vietnam War. Kurtz, now a renegade U.S. Colonel, is played by Marlon Brando.
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In 1996, Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s great grandson, up-and-coming horror director Richard Stanley, begins shooting his dream project for New Line, a vision of Dr Moreau intended to more accurately reflect his own take on the Wells novel than was managed in Don Taylor’s version or such schlocky variants as Eddie Romero’s Twilight People (1972) or Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980.) In an example of de-evolution that would gladden the hearts of Devo, Doctor Moreau is to be played… Marlon Brando.

Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls, which preceded by a short head actual Nazi atrocities more awful than anything he or Wells could ever have imagined, is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, in fact – to paraphrase Brian Clough – it might just possibly be “in The Top One.” How to top that? By putting a visionary but unproven maverick talent (still living down a plagiarism charge relating to his debut feature Hardware) in to bat against monstrously massive star egos, ever changing production demands from a studio in the throes of an identity crisis and, just to make things interesting, extreme (bordering on Biblical) weather?  It was always likely that Richard Stanley’s stint directing The Island Of Dr Moreau wouldn’t end well, but how very badly it ended has become the stuff of legend…

… and now the subject of a fascinating documentary. David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau (2014) rehearses the already well-known facts (Stanley was sacked after something like three days, failed to take the plane ride home that New Line booked for him and went native, subsequently turning up on set, mischief in mind, under cover of an extra’s bestial costume) but piles on the detail in compiling its post mortem report of an impossible cinematic hybrid running out of control then expiring via the gonzo surgical slices of movie executives (“Monkey Men all, in business suits.”)

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As with Wells’ source material itself, of course, alternative versions of the truth are possible and it has to be said that Gregory gives most of his screen time over to Stanley himself and those sympathetic to his cause, notably conceptual artist Graham Humphreys, actress Fairuza Balk and fangirl journo Kier-La Janisse… it’s also patently clear that Gregory himself is very much in Stanley’s camp, though he’s careful to present as balanced a picture as possible. The suggestion is acknowledged, for example, that Stanley just wasn’t temperamentally up to handling such a unit and although John Frankenheimer (Stanley’s martinet replacement) and Brando are dead (who could possibly claim to know what the latter really thought, anyway?) and Val Kilmer presumably unapproachable, Gregory doesn’t shy away from presenting hostile witnesses. Of the two New Line execs ultimately responsible for TIODM, Stanley’s champion Mike De Luca is conspicuously and eloquently absent while his opposite number Bob Shaye is given free rein to vent the misgivings he entertained about Stanley from day one. Having interviewed Richard Stanley (though regrettably he failed to greet me with the words “Bob Freudstein, I presume!”) and found him to be every bit as otherworldly as reputed, I’m tickled that Shaye chose to seize, as irrefutable evidence of his irredeemable oddball status, upon the guy’s four sugar coffees … God knows what Shaye would make of the diabetes-inducing brews favoured here at The House Of Freudstein!

After nearly losing his pet project to Roman Polanski on the eve of shooting, Stanley made a personal pitch to Brando, backed up with ritual magick performed by a sympathetic adept. When his magus fell ill, though, Stanley’s felt his grip on the production beginning to wane and the eyes of the hyenas on his hotel wallpaper staring at him… more prosaically, male lead Kilmer was, by all accounts, conducting himself on the set like a complete prick.

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Having granted us story board glimpses of the film that might have been, Gregory details the debacle that ultimately unfolded, depicting a Hollywood location shoot (this one in Cairns, Australia) as something scarcely less hubristic than a mad scientist’s lab or some white supremacist’s twisted imperial wet dream… nobody is killed but more than one career is dealt a mortal blow. Whatever onset mischief Stanley might have surreptitiously wrought to undermine Frankenheimer becomes a moot point in the face of the film’s stars’ antics… Kilmer strutting around like an insufferable self-perceived ubermensch, the Zen-like Brando puncturing the production’s pretensions and, via his promotion of court jester Nelson (Ratman) de La Rosa, inventing Mini-Me into the bargain!

Frankenheimer duly delivered his compromised sack of cinematic goods to the suits, who expressed themselves relieved that it was (by their calculations) going to lose them less money than if Stanley had continued at its helm… and the critics commenced to rave, their brickbats ranging from “train wreck” to “worst film ever made.” Perhaps “Twilight Of The Idols” would have been a more apposite jibe…

Meanwhile Stanley dwells on in splendid, Moreau like isolation atop Mount  Montségur in the Ariège department of southwestern France, where the Cathars (who had their own very definite ideas about the integral status of the human body) took their crackpot, heroic final stand in 1244. It’s possible that Stanley is more comfortable anyway as a cult foot note than he could ever be operating among the bland conformity of low-fat latte Hollywood… who knows, had the dice been loaded differently or the runes cast more assiduously in his favour, he could have become as big a player as that other misfit maverick, Tarantino… could have been a contender (now who said that?) Gregory, who has distributed Stanley’s earlier films, collaborated with him on 2011 portmanteau effort The Theatre Bizarre and seems to have conceived this doc at least partly as a comeback launcher, might well believe that such a move is still potentially on and again… who knows?

The once and future horror Hotshot’s thematic concerns certainly aren’t showing any signs of receding into irrelevance. This year alone, the US National Institute of Health announced that it was considering the funding of “chimera” research projects intended to generate organs from human / animal hybrids and it was recently announced that a human baby has been conceived with genetic material from three parents.

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“The Horror! The Horror!”

Note: The DVD screener I was sent for the purposes of this review comprised only the main feature. When Lost Soul hits the shelves (approximately the same time as I type these words) it will boast a raft of attractive extras, making this winning Nucleus release an even more essential purchase.

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