Wednesday 5 August 2015


(David Gregory, 2014)

Like an awful lot of modern documentaries, this is quite dull in the execution. Talking heads, still photos, the occasional piece of home video or camcorder footage - it's the default mode for narrative documentary these days. The obvious reason for that is pure efficiency; it works.
And in this case, the story director David Gregory is telling is fascinating enough that it doesn't really matter that he tells it in such an uninspired (if competent) way.
Richard Stanley is the main talking head for the first half of the film, and he is an interesting figure; very much a self-styled eccentric, his passion for his old project is still evident and endearing, despite his pretentiousness and sometime pomposity. He talks about his plans for The Island of Dr Moreau, his vision, what attracted him to the story, how it would work on screen. It all sounds convincing, an interesting little film from a young filmmaker. But as soon as other people begin giving their sides, the tale becomes more complex. Stanley was clearly talented but over his head on a major studio production; paranoid and insecure, the arrival of major egos in the form of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer more or less ensured his exit from the production.
At this point, the documentary gets a shot in the arm as the tales from the shoot mount up and each successive outrage and anecdote gets more ridiculous than the last. Director John Frankenheimer could not cope with either Brando or Kilmer. Rob Morrow fled, replaced by David Thewlis (whose perspective is surely missed). Stanley disappeared into the jungle. Australian extras, hired for 3 weeks, were on set for 6 months, their mini-sociaety starting to reflect the one depicted in the movie. The crew detested Frankenheimer and worked against him. Brando made fun of everything about the film, something that is obvious in his actual performance. Kilmer acted every inch the movie star brat. And somehow a film got made; a bizarre mess with just enough of Stanley's vision still detectable (mainly in the make-up and creature effects) to keep it somewhat interesting, even if it is barely coherent and tonally erratic.
The documentary captures all this chaos but skimps on footage from the film, which would give it useful context. It ends up back with Stanley, bruised and older and only now really contemplating a return to filmmaking. Would make a great double bill with the finished product.

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