Cinema has an incredibly rich history of fascinating stories – both of success, and failure. In 1996, director Richard Stanley embarked on an adventure to create a new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. Armed with his own screenplay and a $35 million budget, it seemed like nothing stood between him and his passion project. But after just 3 days of shooting, Stanley was relieved of directorial duties (fired by fax) and replaced by John Frankenheimer. Not only that, but his script was rewritten. The resulting film bears almost no resemblance to Richard Stanley’s original vision, and is a great big steaming pile of cinematic shit. How did this happen?
The 2014 documentary, only now getting a UK home release, aims to tell the story. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is one of those documentaries that is lucky right from the beginning – it has an absolutely fascinating tale to tell. You know what I mean? It doesn’t really matter if the production values of the documentary itself are poor – if the story is engrossing, it doesn’t matter. Well, in this case, that isn’t entirely true. While Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness was stylish, engrossing and full of stars, Lost Soul is a slightly different type of film.
While some areas of the film are engrossing enough for the viewer to overlook the filmmaking flaws, a lot of the time you’ll be somewhat taken aback by the fact it just doesn’t feel cinematic enough. In recent years, we’ve come to expect a certain sense of quality and style from these documentary films. But Lost Soul just feels like a glorified DVD special feature. It doesn’t feel at all like its own film, it seems like something you’d find tucked away on Disc 2 of a Dr. Moreau special edition.
Still, any film buffs will find enough to keep them interested during the documentary. Despite being uncomplicated and presented like a magazine article or Wikipedia entry, Lost Soul does ram a lot of history into its 90-minute runtime. But stories like this – those covering behind-the-scenes drama and unfamiliar faces from history – are only as entertaining as the people they discuss. Our hero, Richard Stanley, seems like a nice guy. The eccentric independent horror auteur behind such classics as Hardware and Dust Devil spent years putting this Dr. Moreau adaptation together, and he seems glad that he’s finally getting a chance to tell the whole story. But he isn’t the only face in this tale. We meet a large portion of the film’s cast and crew – with the exception, of course, of the late Marlon Brando and stars such as Val Kilmer and David Thewlis. Everyone we meet is brutally honest in their anecdotes, and each anecdote is fascinating.
Lost Soul tells an interesting story that is both funny and sad, but I can’t help feeling that a better way to have gone about telling this story would’ve been with a big star-studded biopic. Everybody loves films about films, and Richard Stanley’s story could burst off the screen with the right production values. But as a cheaply made documentary, it just doesn’t pop. It’s informative and entertaining, sure. But there’s nothing here you couldn’t find online. And while some of the best documentaries are similar in that they’re just rehashing old facts, they come at it with some style and attitude. This is purely a case of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened. The end.”
Hollywood enthusiasts and wannabe filmmakers will find a lot of interesting nuggets in Lost Soul’s anecdotes, but if you’re looking for a stylish documentary then look elsewhere. This is not Hearts of Darkness for a new generation as I’m sure it’s trying to be. If there’s one lesson to learn from Lost Soul, it’s this. It isn’t “follow your dreams” or “never give up” or “stay true to your vision”. It’s “don’t watch The Island of Dr. Moreau”. What a fucking disaster that film was. Lost Soul is an underwhelming documentary, but still boasts a fascinating story. 3/5
Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau at CeX
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