Occasionally I like to use this space to discuss films that are horrifying, but might themselves have a different opinion of what they are. This week’s movie, the incredibly long-titled Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is not a horror movie on the face of it. It’s a documentary about the making of a horror film, joining Overnight in that rarefied category of making-of documentaries better than their genesis film. Yet, for me, Lost Soul was a horror movie. The most frightening kind, because it was all too real.
I worked for a studio for a little over a year as an in-house writer. I helped adapt a screenplay into a comic, several comics into screenplays, pitched movies for the properties they owned, and swallowed my dignity in daily meetings. Working for a studio is lucrative, but it’s also hell. Executives hold all control, and these are fundamentally businesspeople. They don’t really understand story, and in many cases are actively hostile to any form of creativity. They’re motivated entirely by fear with a little bit of greed thrown in. It’s not entirely their fault, either. Since the business model of Hollywood has shifted, the only way to make money are massive blockbuster tentpoles, and you don’t make Avengers-levels of money by challenging your audience.
In the ‘90s, writer/director/LARPer Richard Stanley was obsessed with making an Island of Dr. Moreau film. Stanley, while being a creative guy, is not the best filmmaker out there. His cult-horror flick Hardware features some impressive worldbuilding in the first half, only to throw it out the window and make Terminator, if Terminator existed entirely on the post-apocalyptic set of Friends. Enough people liked what he was doing, though, to give him a couple more shots at it, and he was going to take it with Moreau.
To his credit, Stanley had a vision. As detailed in fragmentary scenes and lurid pulp drawings, it was a medical dystopian nightmare of a film. Lost Soul lingers over every surviving piece of artwork Stanley had commissioned, showing a surgical gallery populated by feral dog-doctors (dogtors?), a library of squawking skesis-vultures, a pig woman giving birth, and so forth and so on. While watching this, I got swept up in his descriptions of scenes and characters, forgetting that this was the guy who wasted 100 minutes of my life with Hardware, and wishing I could see the Moreau movie as it was in my head.
I was not the only one. Stanley had the misfortune of selling an executive on his vision, and what always happens, happened. Executives hear tons and tons of pitches. It’s part of the job. So naturally, they gravitate to the odder ones, the ones that break through the constant noise of buddy cop movies, revenge flicks, and superhero origin stories. Like anyone who spends a ton of time in a field of entertainment, it’s the oddballs that attract. Stanley is nothing if not an oddball.
Then, the second phase starts in. You’ve sold one executive, but when the time to make this vision comes around, well, now there’s a price tag. And in a feat of logic so insane it could only exist in great fiction or the real world, selling a star on the project is necessary to get it made, but it also raises the price tag, making it that much harder to get made. Now this ballooning budget film (which had to be ballooned, just to get name recognition) can only be justified if this thing is a blockbuster tentpole. All the weirdness, all the idiosyncracies have to be ironed out. It has to appeal to a broad audience because that’s what the budget demands.
See where this is going? Stanley, drunk on the thrill of having a major studio picture, managed to land some very big stars in Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, the former of whom is an insane person and the latter such a colossal douche he managed to submarine a promising career in a field consisting almost entirely of douches. Stanley got to watch, in horror, as his project was taken away from him, inch by inch, and moment by moment, until he was unceremoniously shown the door.
This might be the end of another story, but the studio had already thrown too much money into the project. They just wanted to get something out of it. More to the point, the film wasn’t quite done being insane yet. Richard Stanley, while he seems like a nice enough guy, is the kind of crazy you usually meet in gaming stores and used book shops. If he were a little creepier, he might have a collection of Gor novels. This is a man who, in the film’s best sequence, hired the world’s worst warlock named (not making this up) Skip, to help him land Moreau. Skip spent the rest of his life failing harder at doing magic than anyone has ever failed at doing anything. And after Stanley’s firing, he doesn’t actually leave the island, instead turning into Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.
The most dangerous aspect of Lost Soul is that it made me want to watch Moreau again. I kind of remember the movie, one I saw in the theaters with some friends. Even at the time, I knew it was shitty. Yet it retained a spark of delirious insanity from its inception, mostly due to Brando. This is a man dedicated to seeing how much he could get away with on set, and that turned out to be “demanding a personal dwarf.” While it lost the greatness lurking in Stanley’s original vision, Moreau found a more dubious honor: that of a legendary failure.
Lost Soul is fundamentally about the crushing homogenization process of the movies. One that leaves you with one question. Not, “How did they fail with this project?” But the far more damning, “How have they ever succeeded?”