Featured Article: The Doomed Journey of Writer/Director Richard Stanley

With the release of Lost Soul on blu-ray, we take a look at the career of Richard Stanley.

South African writer-director Richard Stanley is among the most idiosyncratic and eccentric cult filmmakers of the last decade.  The descendant of famed journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley and anthropologist Penny Miller, Stanley’s upbringing was shrouded in South African mythology, folklore, witchcraft and magic.  Donning the regalia of a modern day necromancer, Stanley’s penchant for the gothic and industrial landed him music video work for Fields of the Nephilim, Public Image Limited and Renegade Soundwave.  Before he knew it, Stanley broke into the mainstream with his 1990 post-apocalyptic science fiction debut Hardware, establishing a rapport with future Miramax figureheads Harvey and Bob Weinstein.  Stanley was suddenly an exciting and original name to pay attention to in the cinema world. 

Unfortunately, trouble began to befall the young South African auteur with his supernatural follow-up Dust Devil when Miramax recut the film against his wishes.  The nail in the coffin for Stanley was the ill-fated production of H.G. Wells’ seminal novel The Island of Doctor Moreau for New Line Cinema in 1996.  Stanley spent four years developing arguably his most personal project of his career only to have saboteurs Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer make the first few days of production a living hell before Stanley was ultimately replaced with John Frankenheimer and the script doctored into an unrecognizable mess.  Since the massive blow to his hubris, Stanley withdrew from the filmmaking world and retreated into the mountains before quietly resurfacing to contribute short film work to anthological features and documentaries.  With the recent release of the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, the Movie Sleuth takes a concerted look at the sadly troubled career of one of cinema’s most wholly original and unique auteurs ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal.

Hardware (1990)
Inspired by the short 2000 AD comic strip, Hardware tells the post-apocalyptic futuristic tale of Moses “Hard Mo” Baxter (Dylan McDermott), a former soldier living with his unemployed girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in their squalid, claustrophobic apartment amid urban decay.  One day, Hard Mo surprises Jill with a gift in the form of a broken robot head he purchased from a scavenger, a present she eagerly accepts before sculpting it into a piece of art.  Unbeknownst to either of them, the head of the robot belongs to M.A.R.K 13 unit which has the capacity to rebuild itself no matter how many times its destroyed or torn apart and before they know it, the machine wreaks bloody ultraviolent and increasingly hallucinatory havoc in their apartment.

In the pantheon of post-apocalyptic science fiction films such as Mad Max and deadly robot films such as The Terminator with low budget fare like Robot Jox coming to mind, Hardware manages to separate itself from the pack purely by Stanley’s approach to the material.  First off is the distinctive visual style, drenched in deep reds of desert terrain before withdrawing into the claustrophobic blue and neon-red hues of the heroes’ apartment.  Then there’s the narrative approach, which seems to be telling a conventional story but stylizes it with asides such as Iggy Pop’s cantankerous radio DJ lamenting the crumbling world around him intercut with surreal television programs resembling some of writer-director Richard Stanley’s earlier music video work.  In a conscious break with reality, there’s a thread involving one of the characters being injected with M.A.R.K. 13 blood and the increasingly bizarre hallucinations which follow once it hits his bloodstream.    In keeping with the director’s music-video work is the gothic industrial soundtrack with music by Public Image Limited, Motorhead, Ministry and Iggy Pop, forming an anarchic soundscape that benefits the bleak and grungy feel of the film beautifully.  While ostensibly it’s a rock-em-sock-em man vs. machine thriller, it’s full of otherworldly anecdotes and a peculiar approach to storytelling which would make the likes of Terry Gilliam blush. 

Hardware, as they say, isn’t for everyone.  Much like Robocop, the film was given the dreaded X rating by the MPAA for its extreme violence and graphic sexuality before ultimately being toned down to an R for theatrical exhibition.  Upon initial release, the mainstream critical establishment was less than kind to what they saw as an ‘unoriginal punk ripoff’ of James Cameron’s The Terminator.  Despite the negative reactions, the film grossed around $5.7 million against its $1.5 million production budget, making it a minor success.  As a piece of storytelling it’s a little disjointed and regular composer Simon Boswell’s synthetic score doesn’t do much to hide the budgetary limitations.  Still, in the pantheon of dystopian cybernetic thrillers, Hardware leaves an indelible impression on all who see it with saturated images of deserted landscapes, rusting derelicts with few inhabitants surviving however they can and a truly disorienting approach to editing.  If only more directors like Neil Blomkamp knew how to make their science fiction robot thrillers this bizarre and affronting.


Dust Devil (1992)
Described as ‘Tarkovsky on acid’, Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil is a surreal horror thriller follow-up to Hardware which maintains the aforementioned film’s dusty and squalid terrain with a greater emphasis on the sweat and sand drenched atmospherics and an even stronger penchant for the occult, witchcraft and demonology.  Closer to Stanley’s South African roots with locations dancing between the deserted Nambia and Johannesburg (a Blomkamp favorite), the film tells the tale of a lone ritualistic serial murderer (Robert John Burke) wandering the deserted landscape who may in fact be a transformative demon with supernatural powers known as a naghtloeper or ‘dust devil’.  With the dwindling police force hot on his tail in the form of Sergeant Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae from Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow), the inhuman drifter sets his sights on his next victim, a married woman named Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) in the midst of marital crisis with her domineering yet nebbish husband Mark (Rufus Swart).  Thus begins a multidimensional supernatural showdown of metaphysics, voodoo, combatting spiritual forces amid Sangomas and the unforgiving elements of the deserted terrain.

From the outset, Dust Devil looks to have been one grueling task for the cast and crew to undertake.  Between the relentlessness of the atmosphere, scouting the ghost town locations of abandoned cities, movie theaters covered in sand, dingy hotels and even grungier bars, it’s the perfect playing field for Hell, fire and brimstone on Earth.  It’s also far more violent and sexually disturbing than Hardware with an equally unstoppable villain who cannot be deterred by conventional means.  Given Richard Stanley’s own affinity for witchcraft, Dust Devil allows the writer-director to unfurl all of his obsessions with the occult and spiritual forces in the universe.  It also, like Hardware, presents a resourceful heroine with more fire in her soul than meets the eye who will stop at nothing when going toe to toe with evil incarnate.  Having seen Zakes Mokae as a villain practicing voodoo in Wes Craven’s film, it’s refreshing to see him on the opposite side of the fence as an equally lost wanderer who only knows that he must expel the dust devil from the Earth. 

Long before Stanley experienced the devastating debacle that was The Island of Dr. Moreau, the young auteur began experiencing problems well beyond his control or imagining with Dust Devil.  In 1992, after turning over a 120 minute rough cut of the film, British production-company Palace Pictures folded and Stanley lost his right to final cut.  Where Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax Pictures championed Hardware, they hated Dust Devil and shortened the film to 87 minutes from its original 120 minute length against Stanley’s wishes.  It wasn’t until 2006 that Stanley was able to reacquire full control of the picture and reassembled a new director’s cut running at 105 minutes in length, aptly named The Final Cut.  The film briefly surfaced on a limited edition three-disc DVD from Subversive Cinema before going out of print until Hardware and Lost Soul distributor Severin Films announced a forthcoming Blu-Ray edition with new extras in the works by Stanley himself.  In the years since its release, Dust Devil has maintained a cult following as a spiritual successor to Hardware in terms of technique and fulfillment of the director’s idiosyncratic obsessions with the occult and forces beyond our own world.  If anything, there’s little scarier than being relentlessly pursued by a shape shifting demon able to use elemental forces of the world against us.


Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)
Richard Stanley spent four years developing what would be the most painstaking personal project of his career only to have it taken away from him by New Line Cinema three days into filming before being replaced by John Frankenheimer with his script altered beyond recognition.  Originally planned as a modestly budgeted $6 million independent feature, the budget ballooned to a whopping $35 million (around $125 million with adjusted inflation) once Hollywood whacko bad boys Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer signed on.  With the release of the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, the legendary catastrophic production of what became one of the biggest box office bombs and worst reviewed films in cinema history is even more insane and tragic than you’ve been led to believe. 

Based on an original script by Richard Stanley with contributions by historian Michael Herr (who provided voiceover narration for Apocalypse Now), Stanley sought to get to the heart of Wells who infamously never liked any of the adaptations of his work including dismissing Island of Lost Souls which was made when he was still alive.  After scouting locations in rain forests near North Queensland, Australia with costumes and a cast in place, Stanley’s hopes to tell The Island of Dr. Moreau faithfully to H.G. Wells’ original story were dashed the moment Val Kilmer walked on set.  While Marlon Brando was a notorious hellraiser himself, Kilmer refused to take direction or deliver the dialogue as written and the dailies were considered useless.  At one point, Kilmer held a cigarette up to the cinematographer’s head and started to burn the man’s hair, sparking anger within the Australian crew who were tired of taking his bullying prima donna crap.  There was a rumor floating around that after a day of haggling with Kilmer, Stanley actually climbed up into a treetop and wouldn’t come down.  

Actress and friend of Stanley, Fairuza Balk, was so incensed by her friend being fired by the studio she tried to escape production before being caught at the airport with threats that her career would be destroyed if she tried it again.  Then there’s Marlon Brando’s antics, frequently showing up late and unprepared, dressed in a white silk cloth resembling an overgrown diaper with an ice bucket attached to his head and 2-foot tall man Nelson de la Rosa recast at Brando’s behest as his miniature sidekick, inspiring the Austin Powers mini-me meme.  To top it off, Stanley’s curiosity of what was happening to his baby after being replaced by John Frankenheimer got the better of him and he snuck back on the set as an extra creature and even managed to appear in shots of the finished film, sparking fears he might try and sabotage the production.

As a documentary, it mostly consists of retrospective interviews with the key players including producers and New Line founder Bob Shaye recalling the chaos of the project.  Everyone had bad vibes about the state of the project but so much money and time was already invested it was decided that they should follow through with the disastrous endeavor anyway.  Richard Stanley invites sympathy for his plight and is well spoken in interviews, although the documentary doesn’t take the easy biased route and side completely with him.  Throughout, we hear from producers the reclusive and mercurial Stanley wasn’t exactly the easiest guy to work with either, often staying home when he should have attended production meetings and handing out storyboards to the cast and crew as a form of direction.  Whether or not Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau would have bettered Frankenheimer’s remains to be seen, but what is here joins Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowsky’s Dune as a bittersweet rumination on what might have been.  And when you’re not lamenting the mistreatment of Stanley, a move that hurt him so badly he retreated from feature film directing for many years, you’re in awe of the insanity Kilmer, Brando and de la Rosa brewed on set in one of the greatest cinematic misfires ever committed to celluloid. 


-Andrew Kotwicki