It would be unfair to blame the fiasco that followed solely on Kilmer but he was more than just the straw that broke the camel’s back. He turned up two days late to the offshore location, and then, according to many but not all reports, failed to know his lines or even his shooting schedule. After four days of horrid, unproductive filming DeLuca made a decision; he chose to blame the mumbling, unrehearsed chaos he was seeing in the rushes on Stanley’s inexperience rather than force his big name into towing the line. Stanley left the production (though if you read the engrossing chapter in Hughes’ book, you’ll find out that he returned in full beast person make-up to observe the shoot illicitly) and journeyman John Frankenheimer took over the struggling shoot. Frankenheimer, seeing an opportunity to work with Brando and operate again on the larger scale he was more accustomed to back in the 1970s, tinkered with script. Frankenheimer soon also found himself struggling with Kilmer’s ego and also had to find a replacement for Rob Morrow who left a day after Stanley for another commitment. British method actor, David Thewlis, was drafted in, miscast and clearly uncomfortable onscreen with the situation. Quoted as never having watched his performance, Thewlis will not be shocked to discover it remains his blandest work.
With the unmistakable smell of turkey emanating from the set and back at New Line, the critics probably composed the film’s deserved slating before even viewing the finished product. The finished product recouped a dismal $27,663,982 of its $40 million budget. The feature had no redeeming features.
Frankenheimer made many awful choices, choosing to diminish Ron Perlman’s iconic role as Sayer of the Law to a background character, omitting the memorable House of Pain altogether and watering down the more horrific and subversive elements of Stanley’s script. Clearly, Stanley hoped to make a far more interesting film. His un-filmed shooting script contained reference to a possible global holocaust, far more tension, far more gore and an ironic development that forces Thewlis’ civil rights lawyer to become the islands torturer and executioner.
"With the unmistakable smell of turkey emanating from the set and back at New Line, the critics probably composed the film’s deserved slating before even viewing the finished product."
While all this sounds far more engrossing than the diluted finished product, one could question the financial viability of Stanley’s other ideas; bestiality, waist high fields of marijuana, a hero referred to as Prawn-Dick and the leading lady being eaten are hardly popcorn shifters. Much of what the public and critics attack about the film was surely Stanley’s decisions that Frankenheimer inherited, such as Brando’s ludicrous costumes and his Mini-Me inspiring midget freak sidekick. Yet even these glaring flaws may have worked within Stanley’s intended universe for it is unlikely that he would have the world’s greatest method actor covered in white sunscreen and wearing a small tent on his head with such straight-faced ignorance.
All that is bizarre good or bizarre bad about the film seems unconnected; the entire exercise seems without a point. Possible actions set pieces fail to materialise, the actors all remain one note, the excellent make-up work is never filmed flatteringly, the lost body horror means it lacks blood or spunk, while any political, ethical or moral debate is elsewhere. The Island of Doctor Moreau just has nothing going for it; it is difficult to even pin it down to a genre, being neither really a thriller, horror nor comedy (not even being bad enough for that dubious honour.)
And bad films can still make money. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and The Matrix Reloaded (2003) both survived slatings in the press. Films with disastrous shoots also can. The chaos of Titanic’s 1998 production springs to mind. Even films that have swapped directors can go on to be money-spinners. Much of Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) was filmed by original director Anthony Mann, The Wizard of Oz (1939) went through five different directors. Did The Island of Doctor Moreau face strong competition at the box office? Released in September it was not threatened by a contender in the same class. Family films Jack and Matilda, golfing rom-com Tin Cup, all 1996, made money but nothing on a similar scale was released for male audiences. The biggest hit of the season Fox’ Independence Day, also from 1996, made $306,169,268 at the beginning of the summer and while its hype was massive enough to delay Stephen Spielberg’s then planned War of the Worlds (2005) by a decade, it hardly rode a crest of great reviews either. Nothing really catered for the Independence Day market of males between the ages of 15 and 25, and Moreau could have filled that gap, even as a stinker.
The reasons the film failed were numerous. A horrid press reputation followed by a non-descript marketing campaign, probably stemming from no one at New Line knowing exactly what the finished product they had actually was. DeLuca tried to salvage his company’s image by suggesting that the Kilmer’s widely reported sabotage of his own vehicle was down to Stanley’s weakness as a director. This flew in the face of the gentleman’s agreement made between New Line and Stanley on his leaving. Stanley responded with a volley of interviews in various newspapers’ media sections resulting in more negative column inches for an already rotting body. A corpse that was happy to drag down a few reputations with it.
Stanley’s career has taken 10 years to recover. He is finally being mooted to helm a new thriller this year. Morrow never found another project with which to build on the following he made with TV success and a sophisticated lead turn in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994) and has slipped into unfortunate obscurity. Frankenheimer went on to make his biggest budgeted and most prestigious film, the Robert DeNiro thriller Ronin (1996). Kilmer’s reputation has seen him downsize back into smaller roles and less showy productions, though performance- wise he has done his best work since then. Brando would only perform in one more film of note before his death, the equally troubled The Score (2001) and is now largely remembered for the quality of his work in his 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The Island… should have been his best shot at a respectable swansong. Instead, Well’s still very viable tale is now smeared with an unapproachable effluence of failure. It remains unlikely to be tinkered with again any time soon.