Some movie productions are worth a thousand nightmares. So notorious are they, the details of what went down can scarcely be believed. A fabled few bypass history all together and bed down in mythology. Did it really happen? Was it that bad? There are film-making fiascos and then there is Richard Stanley’s catastrophic attempt to update H.G. Wells’s classic sci-fi novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Unlike other epic follies, Lost Soul – The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Dr. Moreau isn’t about hubris and volatile egos clashing daily. Well, it is, but Stanley was long gone by then and can’t be blamed for all that. Fortunately, David Gregory’s new documentary is not a revisionist take on Stanley’s concept and material as a masterpiece aborted by scared exes. What is perhaps most striking – judging from storyboards and concept art works – is the South African director’s vision of Wells’s novel looked utterly insane, unworkable from the get-go and quite revolting.
It becomes clear, too, over the course of ninety-five minutes, that Stanley was out of his depth in the Hollywood machine. It’s also fair to note, certainly judging from the opinions of the cast and crew, that Stanley lost his mind. Several crew members attest that their director’s eccentric behaviour and shooting methods disconcerted the moneymen and alienated the production crew.
Lost Soul is absolutely fascinating and occasionally hilarious. A traditionally structured doc, it’s a mixture of talking heads interviews and some incredible archive on-set footage, Stanley comes across as still wounded by the experience and cuts a rather sad figure. The film does confirm one much-talked about legend as absolute fact. Richard Stanley did indeed sneak on to John Frankenheimer’s set dressed up as an animal extra and took part in a few scenes. The first AD, James Sbardellati, recalls how one extra’s vigorous performance was noted as particularly excellent, but drew suspicions because he never removed his mask.