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Beyond Fest '14: Papa Vinyard checks out the indie-horror STARRY EYES and the madness of LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY'S THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU!


There's a ton of talk these days about how anyone can "go out there and make a movie." Technology is such that, in theory, anyone with a decent cell phone and a computer can shoot and edit something that can then, via Vimeo or Youtube, be shown to millions.

Of course, the reality is much more complicated. It's still a competitive marketplace, and in order to create something that may land you monetary compensation for the time and effort it took to make it, you need a few things, including money, drive, and a cast/crew truly willing to help realize a vision (possibly without pay). There's a world out there of wannabe filmmakers (many of them film students) who believe in themselves and want to get something made, and are hustling to scramble those key elements for the sole purpose of doing what they love.

However, this contradicts with the classic dream of young people in the industry, which is to get discovered by a wealthy backer based on talent alone, to be a part of major, widely distributed motion pictures, and to become a star in the eyes of the adoring public. STARRY EYES is about a young woman coming to grips with the split between what she's always dreamed of and what she can realistically hope for, told in horror movie trappings.

Alex Essoe is Sarah, an upstart actress making ends meet as a fast-food counter girl and hanging around her gang of meant-for-Tinseltown buddies. She lands the audition of her life for a horror film called "The Silver Scream", and, despite the attitude of a snarky P.A., she does a great read, only to be told that immortal, devastating sendoff: "We'll be in touch." She promptly goes to the bathroom and, in a moment of unrelenting rage and self-hatred, rips out clumps of her hair. To her horror, the casting director who just blew her off is standing right there, but then she's surprised to hear that they want to see her again. The casting director asks her to replicate her bathroom fit, and Sarah complies, contorting around the floor and screaming her head off as if hell itself was swimming around her innards. She's just what they're looking for, and she gets a callback to meet the producer, Mr. Astraeus.

What follows is basically a metaphor for how Hollywood sucks up the souls of young actors and actresses with the promise of fame and glory. Except that it's not much of a metaphor; Astraeus and his influence quite literally suck Sarah's soul piece by piece, and she starts falling apart both physically and psychologically. She turns on her friends, assaults her boss (a smug Pat Healy), and starts losing her not-unremarkable good looks.

It's always hardest to talk about the ones that aren't horrible or disastrous, just disappointing. The first act of the film is fairly strong, creating a good setup out of Sarah and her ambitions. Very quickly, however, the sorta-goofy sorta-serious tone started to bother me. Sarah's extended audition, with its two parts segmented with the bathroom freakout, would be something of a mini-masterpiece (and it's still the best scene in the whole film by a wide margin, though gorehounds will dispute that) if it weren't for the camera-hogginess of the actor playing the P.A. This guy leans into every sentence with the kind of over-the-top snarkiness that you'd find on EPISODES or a lesser GIRLS character. It's an incredibly dark, powerful scene, one which features amazing, showstopping work from Ms. Essoe, but directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer failed to reign that guy in, and their potentially classic moment dies because of it.

Even worse, after that scene, the film begins its dovetail into misguided silliness. The Astraeus character is played by Louis Dezseran as if Kolsch and Widmeyer wanted Ray Wise, couldn't get Ray Wise, and told Dezseran, "Fuck it, do Ray Wise." Which isn't to say Ray Wise wouldn't have been great in his short screentime, but ultimately, Dezseran does feel like a goofy imitation of the legendary creeper.

Essoe's so powerful in her early scenes that it actually hurts when the plot leaves her astray, forcing her to lurk about creepily and bark about her mad ambition like a poor BLACK SWAN imitation. Her character becomes something of a joke, and when the movie starts amassing a body count, it's basically eschewing any tension that was there to indulge the basest of our interests, which is, of course, seeing violent murders on film. I've heard people refer to Essoe's work here as a breakout performance, and if the movie ended at the half-hour point, I would've agreed. But Sarah becomes this movie's incarnation of the fame-starved, bitchy actress, and it's one-note, off, and a misuse of Ms. Essoe's obviously significant talents.

The scenes with her friends should have some truth to them, seeing as they're probably the most autobiographical stuff in the film, but somehow they end up feeling like setup. There's another actress in Sarah's circle who's constantly competing with her, and seemingly every line out of her mouth is supposed to be a snarky put-down, like a bitch character on a sitcom. Noah Segan and Amanda Fuller are sympathetic as two of Sarah's other friends, but they inevitably only exist as cannon fodder for Sarah's rage.

The scenes with her friends are obviously supposed to be played as the real, but unglamorous contrast to the Illuminati-tinged mechanations of Astraeus and his cronies. I get where Kolsch and Widmyer's hearts were at, trying to show the dark side of the Hollywood scene by manifesting the worst ideas about it into the narrative, but it's too on the nose. We get that you and your friends hanging out is purer and less sinister than scrambling for a star on the Walk of Fame, but there have to be subtler ways of conveying that than just showing a bunch of film types kicking back and doing drugs together just before a producer makes Sarah blow him. It's a tendency of young filmmakers to write what they know, and what they know is usually the desperation of young filmmakers, so you tend to see almost as many wannabe directors in indie movies than you do on the streets and in the reperatory theaters of Hollywood.

Kolsch and Widmyer make several strong instinctive decisions, and some of their scenes really sing (the audition and Sarah's bathroom fit alone almost make the film worth seeing), but keeping the focus on the humdrum fringes of Hollywood and refusing to double down on the dark, sinister tone keeps this from achieving any sort of significance within the horror genre. I'll be seeing their next movie hoping that they stretched their metaphor a little more, and that they didn't feel the need to make the whole thing into a private little joke against the evils of the movie industry.



About 20 years ago, Richard Stanley was dead-set on making a contemporary adaptation of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. He developed it at New Line for three years, and planned on directing it himself with a budget in the realm of $8 million. He wanted Jurgen Prochnow as Moreau, and to film in the deep forests of Cairns, Australia, almost totally removed from the studio scene. Then, someone at New Line came up with the idea of landing Marlon Brando instead of Prochnow, and all of a sudden, the budget escalates to accommodate him. However, despite his high asking fee, Brando wasn't exactly putting asses in seats at the time, so they gotta get a younger marquee name to justify the ballooned budget: Bruce Willis. Then Bruce and Demi Moore get divorced, and the famously difficult (but then enormously successful) Val Kilmer replaces him. So now, the director of the micro-budgeted HARDWARE is tasked with mounting a $40 million production way off the grid with two actors legendary for their on-set antics.

I'm not saying it was positively doomed to fail, but I will say that one of the execs admits that he set aside $1.5 million "just in case" they had to hire a new director if Stanley didn't work out.

This is just the starting off point of David Gregory's excellent doc, LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY'S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Using comprehensive interviews with people involved with all facets of production (notably absent from those still above ground are David Thewlis, studio head Michael De Luca, and most tragically, the universally lambasted Kilmer), Gregory has pieced together another ode to a film that could've, and probably should've, been.

But there's a big difference here between LOST SOUL and JODOROWSKY'S DUNE or the upcoming THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU did actually get made and released (which, as Bob Shaye happily admits, was basically all he could hope for after a certain point), with Stanley credited as a screenwriter. So how much of Stanley's work was in the final cut? How did Frankenheimer manage to wrangle everyone together after the production almost fell apart? And why, oh why, did this movie end up as bumfuck insane as it ended up being?

Gregory does a great job of showing how the whackadoo content of this flick didn't originate from one or two guys; there was crazy written all over this thing from the word go, and New Line was letting it go down with the same heedlessness that brought the '70s era of "auteur filmmaking" to a crashing halt. They were riding high off of the successes of stuff like THE MASK, DUMB AND DUMBER, MORTAL KOMBAT, and SE7EN, and basically decided that they could afford to dump money into this flick and hope for the best. They spent tons on Brando, Kilmer, the extensive Stan Winston animal makeup, and the sets, and the sort of indie renegade Stanley would've had a ton of pressure on him even if the talent was easy to work with.

here's a ton of content with Stanley, himself, who now lives atop a mountain in Montesegur, France, and the eloquent director goes on at length about his ideas for the film and just how terrifically fucked up things got on set. Gregory's original idea was to only film Stanley talking about the film without any other interviewees, and you see why he thought that could've warranted a feature in and of itself. Stanley's a fascinating guy, heavy into spirituality like Jodorowsky but with a darker, more voodoo-laced focus. His original sketches that he designed to pitch the film, which he proudly shows off, contain a level of sinister black comedy quite different from the goofiness of the final film. Knowing New Line was skittish to hire him, he went directly to Brando and, partially due to some alleged witchcraft, Brando backed Stanley to direct the film. Of course, Brando's support was unreliable, and the legendary actor was nowhere to be seen when New Line was axing him from the flick. But Stanley has nothing but kind things to say about both Brando and Kilmer, and has seemingly made peace with the whole endeavor. Watching him calmly, objectively explain the implosion of his own work and career is an absolute joy, and he's the same glowing center at the heart of this doc that Jodorowsky was in JODOROWSKY'S DUNE.

But it's the extensive spectrum of talking heads that really makes the movie something of a mini-masterpiece amongst film-centric documentaries. We hear about DR. MOREAU from everyone, to Bob Shaye at the head of the studio (De Luca's omission is also a bummer, considering he was the movie's biggest champion) all the way down to the dudes working on the set as extras and hired hands, and we get a genuine sense of what the production may have been like. Much of the cast and crew spent six months in the rainiest part of Australia doing drugs, having sex, and working ridiculous hours on this runaway monster movie at the mercy of an aggressive director (John Frankenheimer, Stanley's replacement, is painted as something of a brute) and two diva movie stars. The execs, back home, waited eagerly for fax updates on the production and deliveries of dailies just to see just how messed up and ridiculous the renegade production had gotten. This is the kind of mad, un-corporate behavior that we don't really hear happening in movie production anymore, and luckily, just enough time has passed for the interviewees that the wounds have (mostly) healed and they can talk about it openly while it's still somewhat fresh in their memory.

The five notable absences (including the late Brando and Frankheimer) are the only flaw I can detect about David Gregory's film. This is way beyond a DVD/Blu-Ray supplement, and closer (and perhaps superior) to JODOROWSKY'S DUNE in terms of impact, if not necessarily production value. Gregory understands that there's a ton of tragedy, drama, and hilarity associated with this production, and somehow manages to juggle the tones nicely. Despite Gregory's friendship with Mr. Stanley, it's not even that one-sided; we initially side with Stanley against the studio, but it becomes fairly obvious that Stanley was pigheaded about doing things his way against the studio's wishes, and not even relenting his time to do industry-standard production meetings with his crew. I will say that Kilmer gets a fairly harsh treatment, with one subject going so far as to describe him as a "prep-school bully", and the story of his personal apology to Stanley at the film's wrap party is unfortunately omitted (but was all-but-confirmed by Gregory in the post-film Q & A). Still, the amount of info here is staggering, illuminating, and consistently hilarious, and we get a glimpse into the mind and work of the inscrutable, bizarre Richard Stanley.

Admittedly, I'm someone who kind of likes the madness of Stanley and Frankenheimer's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, from the ice-bucket-wearing Brando kookiness to the batshit insanity of Kilmer's character to the top-to-bottom-excellent makeup work. Hearing about the genesis of the more out-there aspects of the film (the story of Moreau's infamous diminutive sidekick is wonderful) and how easily they could've left that jungle with absolutely nothing to show for it kinda makes me like it even more. Definitely way, way more than anyone who actually had anything to do with it.


That's it for today's reviews. Now I'm off to see THE MONSTER SQUAD with Fred Dekker and the Meltdown's Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani, along with three members of the titular Squad. Tickets are still available, so if you're around, come on out to the Egyptian Theater and rediscover Wolfman's nards with the rest of us!

-Papa Vinyard

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