As troubled productions go, this third adaptation of H.G. Wells’ prescient thriller about gene slicing and animal experimentation is pretty damn spectacular. Detailed extensively in David Hughes’ The Greatest Sci-Fi Films Never Made, it is the tale of a dream project gone horrifically wrong. Richard Stanley was a promising young British horror director; he is still alive at time of writing, just in case my grammar scared you, it is his career that the ensuing fiasco left pretty much for dead. His debut Hardware (1990) was an effective psycho-robot shocker with a distinctive look. He followed this with Dust Devil (1993), a haunting demonic serial killer flick that made excellent use of its desert location and deserves a stronger following. Unfortunately, the collapse of financiers Palace Pictures meant that his sophomore triumph was seen by few more than approving reviewers. From the critical praise received for these two films he was courted by up and coming mid-level studio: New Line.

This was before their success with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy 2001-2003 made them a major contender. Up until the early 1990s New Line had been happy to fire off a scattershot of low-budget sub-genre pictures each financial year; teen movies, suburban horror, urban gangsta flicks and gross-out comedies. Films in proven genres with easily returnable budgets between $5 and $15 million. Small bets that worried no one if they failed to recoup expenses, and if they succeeded beyond expectations, like previous hits the A Nightmare on Elm Street series 1984-2003 ($307,420,075 over 8 entries), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990 ($135,265,915) and Dumb and Dumber1994 ($127,175,374) had, it would be seen as large bonuses. No star vehicles, no expensive properties, no big studio overheads. New Line had made continued profits aiming low, both in scale and prestige, yet this formula was about to be ignored.

Channelling its unexpected series of bounties, New Line started seeking bigger budgeted properties and established names to open them. The Island of Doctor Moreau’s inception coincided with the promotion of Michael De Luca to Head of Production. De Luca’s brash personality, forged from working his way from the very bottom of the ranks at the studio (his rise from runner to chief took under a decade) progressed the studio to produce films of note and riskier packages. None as risky as the mess he inherited with Moreau. Stanley, a potentially excellent helmsman, had been nurturing an adaptation of his favourite book for years. His exciting script attracted Val Kilmer and Rob Morrow, then hot from his ratings winning TV show Northern Exposure, as well as the talents of the legendary Marlon Brando, character actor Ron Perlman and make-up supremo Stan Winston. Despite Stanley’s lack of standing at the box office, the project he worked up for New Line had a lot of financial potential.

The tale of a mad scientist creating his own human race through genetic manipulation came hot on the heels of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 1993, then the highest grossing film worldwide ever, and the lower budget, starless adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Congo 1995 (he also wrote the source novel for Jurassic Park), which managed to scare up a more than respectable $81,022,101. Both adventures based around animal experimentation in the tropics, HG Well’s story also fitted neatly into that sub-genre’s hot track record. Miramax’s surprise hit The Crow (1994) proved there was still a market for effects-heavy fantasies aimed squarely at adults, and during Moreau’s production New Line got a huge taste of similar success of Se7en (1995), which grossed $100,125,643. Mainstream films rarely come more grown-up and bleak than David Fincher’ dark real world serial killer smash. To suggest that the potentially oppressive, inherently monstrous fable was not ripe for modern day interpretation because it would not have the luxury of a family-friendly rating was of little proven financial concern given 1995’s market. The clincher in box office precedent stakes would have been 1995’s sleeper hit Outbreak for Warner Brothers. This killer disease thriller had its plot ripped from the headlines and found itself very prescient during the Ebola scare in Africa. Its prevalence made for a $67,659,560 tally and Moreau seemed to cater for a similar up-to-date interest in genetics; it would be released the same year that Dolly the sheep was first cloned after 18 months of intense media speculation. A good Moreau adaptation was fated to succeed. Or so it seemed.

Another box office smash, however, would rudely awake Stanley from his career-making reverie, Val Kilmer, who had signed on for the lead role, came to the project on the back of his biggest box office success Batman Forever (1995). Hollywood logic dictates that such a hot actor can demand whatever they want if they guarantee as many bums on seats again. Kilmer already had a reputation for being unreasonable on set. Many directors, more seasoned than Stanley, who worked with him over the previous few years would comment on his lack of professionalism, even Batman’s Joel Schumacher. Just before production, coinciding with his divorce from Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, the star decided he wanted his role reduced by 40%. Kilmer’s standing at the box office meant he could expect such potentially fatal requests to be met, so Stanley, risking losing key scenes to appease his studio’s favoured son, made a desperate decision. He swapped Kilmer over into Morrow’s supporting role, a dramatic shift, which actually fitted both actors far more snugly. The urbane and sensitive Morrow became the castaway UN lawyer who discovers the abuses of Moreau’s hideaway while Kilmer switched into the smaller but equally showy part of Moreau’s research assistance/ executioner, a more testosterone powered character. An unexpected, unnecessary tight squeeze to make before a big project was about to roll but maybe everything would be OK, after all…

For the sake of a big name, should New Line’s DeLuca have acquiesced to handicapping a $40 million production in such an unreasonable way, merely on Kilmer’s whim? On closer examination Kilmer’s biggest cash generators had been supporting, almost villainous roles in Top Gun(1986), Tombstone (1993) and Heat(1994). His sole lucrative lead turn in a blockbuster, Batman Forever, saw him take over the lead in a franchise whose takings have never dipped below $100 million and was aggressively marketed on rising star, Jim Carrey’s ad-libs as The Riddler. Kilmer may have topped the bill but Carrey was on a streak that equated his name with $100 million comedy hits, a streak that despite the occasional faltering to black or serious material, continues to this day. New Line’s faith in Kilmer’s prima donna antics over the package, which had delivered to them everyone else, seems lethally narrow-minded on closer inspection, not just in hindsight.

To be continued next week.(21/04/06)