What Could Possibly Go Wrong?



In 1996, when I still had my film company, we worked on a disastrous new version of ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’. HG Wells never makes for easy adaptation, partly because, like John Wyndham, we remember his books wrongly.

In Wyndham’s ‘The Kraken Wakes’ and also in ‘The War of the Worlds’ events unfold in a matter-of-fact style from a distance. In Wells’ ‘Moreau’ a large chunk of the book is taken up with the journey to the island, and it’s not really about the beasts overthrowing the doctor. Both authors wrote about normalising strange events. So in order to provide more action beats, film companies tend to throw away everything but the titles.

The new ‘Moreau’ was to be made by Richard Stanley, a socially awkward young director capable of producing some nice visuals, but who had no facility with actors. He was also a fantasist, reimagining himself as some kind of a shaman when he was in fact a rather geeky bloke in a hat. He’d made two low-budget films, both of which ran into trouble over financing because Stanley hadn’t done his preparation properly, and suddenly here he was being trusted with a big budget Hollywood A-lister movie.

Suddenly people were calling him a visionary because his films looked good, even if ‘Hardware’ had been nursed through by penny-pinching Palace Pictures and nobody saw ‘Dust Devil’, which ended up existing in lots of different versions. I wrote to JG Ballard about this second film – Ballard had seen it and loved the images but agreed that it didn’t hang together as a story.

My great pal Graham Humphries was ‘Moreau’s concept designer, and we heard regular horror stories about the film’s production as it veered wildly off the rails. Now the whole ghastly story has been told very well – and very accurately – in a new documentary DVD, ‘Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau.’


If it was a mistake trying to shoot on location in a remote hurricane-prone part of Australia, driving 2 hours a day from the hotel just to get a view of a mountain that could have been found anywhere, it was also a mistake to major on lots of silly rubber creature transformations instead of getting the character dynamics right. Worse was to follow with the casting of the dreaded kiss-of-death Val Kilmer, and then the addition of Marlon Brando, still grieving for his lost daughter, who simply turned up to make mischief and express his contempt for stupid movies.

The description of Brando’s first appearance on set in a costume of his own devising is hysterical; delivered on a palanquin, chalk faced, dressed in a cheesecloth sarong and wearing what appears to be a tablemat on his head he’s beyond absurd – but it was when he decided to wear an ice bucket that things got out of control; Stanley was unable to stand up to him (or anyone else on the shoot – he did what awkward directors usually do, retreated to his trailer) then got kicked off the set by New Line and later snuck back as an extra when John Frankenheimer came on board with just a week to prep the remains of the movie – after that everything really crashed and burned.

In a way Stanley was in the wrong time; CGI was coming and would have solved most of his problems, but there was also an issue of personality. Whenever I’ve met him Stanley has been perfectly affable, but he seems a rather distant, detached person, and not really suited to directing films. At least this retelling is a well-constructed hoot, and Graham’s production paintings are stunning to behold.

9 comments on “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”

  1. Mim says:

    Hardware… haven’t seen that in years!

  2. Vivienne says:

    I read The Island of Dr Moreau when I was quite young. Subsequent journeys on the tube (I think this was because of the crowds) made me look at people in a completely different way. I would guess which animal they really were – it was creepily not difficult to do. Will look out for this DVD, but not sure it would ever have worked well on film.

  3. Alan says:

    Had never heard of this. Brando has just gone up 10 points in my estimation.

  4. chris hughes says:

    I agree about Wells’ books which are great reads (for the most part) but don’t translate well into film. I saw the Island of Dr Moreau – the Charles Laughton version – not so long ago at the BFI and although it’s very hammy, there is a very eerie quality to it. As far as Wyndham goes, the ‘Triffids’ film is terrible -and how did Howard Keel get the lead? Brando looks a bit like a demented Madame Arcati, I think!

  5. Paul Graham says:

    Hardware got into trouble as it was an unauthorized adaptation of a 2000 A.D. (well pedantically, a short comic from the Judge Dredd annual 1981!) story by Steve MacManus and Kevin O’Neil.

  6. Bangbang!! says:

    This confused me momentarily as I thought had watched it in the cinema when I was in my teens but I couldn’t remember Marlon Brando being in it. It was obviously the 1970’s version I saw. I remember nothing about that other than that Burt Lancaster and Michael Yorke were in it.

    I haven’t seen the 1996 version. I will have to check it out, it sounds delicious!

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    Howard Keel got the job on “Triffids’ because he sang about ‘The corn is as high as an elephants eye’ in Oklahoma.

  8. Roger says:

    “I saw the Island of Dr Moreau – the Charles Laughton version – not so long ago at the BFI and although it’s very hammy, there is a very eerie quality to it.”
    Deliberately or not, Laughton gives the impression that he is an “adapted” animal himself.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    I like Island of Lost Souls, the beast men do work well plus it gave a role for Bela Lugosi. The Invisible Man works well but I agree about the rest.

    The version of Dust Devil I have works plot wise but even then it jumps and has a mythic/supernatural feel that makes it look good but really does not give it a centre.

    Val Kilmer had done well upto this point, the year before he was Batman and in Heat, then he did the killer lions film, and Dead Girl, plus this, the stories of him and Brando are legend. Then it went very Pete Tong.

    Richard Stanley made an appearance at the Fantistique (part of the Derby Film Fest.) on Skype he was on form and gave an insight to the film and the Documentary and has a number of things up his sleeve. He came across well to be honest.


Comments are closed.