One of the great things about the annual Frightfest is that, not only do the organisers put together an impressive slate of cutting edge genre movies, but they also dip into the world of documentaries.

And it is fair to say that we were pretty excited when we saw David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island Of Dr Moreau making an appearance, considering the barrage of myths, rumours and urban legends that have sprung up around the film over the years.

We were able to chat to David about his documentary, his career in the film business and much, much more.

 

 

MR: Where did your interest in horror and exploitation cinema begin?

It began with the first film my parents took me to see, KING KONG (1976), at the Nottingham Odeon, when I was 4 or 5. From then to my mid-teens I had no interest in any other type of film or creative work than horror or fantasy. Getting to see such films was not easy, except for rationed airings on BBC or ITV which I lapped up and the Hammer House of Horror TV show. When the video boom happened in the early 80s it was open season. Saw absolutely everything I could until the fun was ruined by the ‘nasty’ cull.

 

MR: When you created the original Blue Underground, what was your agenda? Featurettes and EPKs were pretty much an unknown back then – was it a difficult venture to get started? How difficult (or not) was opening up the idea and letting Bill Lustig onboard?

These days we take for granted that there are featurettes and documentaries on almost every film we want to know more about. But back then there was very little. There was The Making Of Star Wars but for first hand info on genre movies there was very little: DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD and DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR and maybe one or two others were the pioneers. Also THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW on Channel 4 was a big one, highlighting the careers of exploitation masters. When Carl Daft and myself (a school friend with whom I watched many of the nasties when we were kids) started Blue Underground in our early 20s it was to get the rights to TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE when it was banned in the UK. And we had a deal for it but then BBFC head James Ferman scuppered our plans stating that the film had no chance of getting a certificate in the next 10 years; the British public was simply not able to handle it apparently. Of course when he retired, within 5 minutes the rights were snapped up by a real company and it came out and lo and behold Britain was, in fact, able to handle it. We were a bit peeved that this self-righteous zealot, had robbed us of our career jump start in the horror movie biz so I decided, after meeting Gunnar Hansen at a horror con in Watford, that I will make a feature length ‘making of’ of TCM. So with a couple of friends, my pitiful credit card limit and David ‘Sheer Filth’ Flint’s camcorder we hightailed to LA and Texas and shot a bunch of interviews. A few weeks later we had TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE – THE SHOCKING TRUTH. By this time we’d already released DERANGED, AXE, DEATH DREAM and others on our ‘Exploited’ label and I was very keen to include interviews or extras as they became known shortly thereafter where the filmmakers told us about making these gems. I honestly wasn’t so interested in how FX were done on major Hollywood movies, I wanted stories from the trenches of low budget exploitation filmmaking and I assumed like-minded horror fans did too. Around that time I met Bill Lustig (we put out VIGILANTE on Exploited and would have done MANIAC but Ferman wouldn’t allow it and also the TCM Tobe Hooper interview was shot at his LA office). Bill was consulting for Anchor Bay at the time and they had a mouth-watering slate of upcoming releases. Because I had done the TCM doc he enlisted me to do a lot of their DVD featurettes in those exciting formative years. He hired me to do THE WICKER MAN first, loved what we came up with, then just showed me their release schedule and we started shooting many featurettes concurrently. It was an amazing time. A lot of these filmmakers and actors and crew would have talked to genre magazines of course but having documentaries made about their work was kind of a new thing and for the most part they were keen to talk about these incredible works they had created that the mainstream had always overlooked.

When Bill Lustig parted ways with Anchor Bay he started picking up rights for himself. He and I were pretty good friends at this point and he liked the name Blue Underground and asked me if he could take the name in the US for his new label. It was fine with me because I was mainly doing work with him anyway and it would make my company seem like a bigger entity in the UK. And so he started BU US and I stayed with him for its first 5 or 6 years, producing discs, making docs etc.

 

MR: Do you have any favourites of the featurettes you’ve made? I’m personally pretty fond of ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘To the Devil a Daughter’ episodes you produced. How difficult is it to pull that kind of material together, especially considering most of the films were made thirty or forty years ago?

My favourites are THE GODFATHERS OF MONDO and THE JOE SPINELL STORY from the Lustig years and FORGET EVERYTHING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN – THE MAKING OF JODOROWSKY’S SANTA SANGRE and NO FLESH SHALL BE SPARED from the subsequent Severin days. I also like BAN THE SADIST VIDEOS about the nasties and the HENRY PORTRAIT one we did too and, off topic a bit, I was very happy with the one I did for BARAKA for MPI. Similar filmmaking approaches, different perspectives. The TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and WICKER MAN ones were interesting because there were serious tales of production and distribution turmoil. WICKER MAN of course has a history unlike any other so that was a fun story to tell, but TO THE DEVIL was really an eye opener (and was suggested by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn because of its turbulent production history rather than the quality of the final movie) because we got to explore what went wrong with Hammer rather than the usual nostalgia and hagiography that it’s easy to fall into when covering that era of British horror.

 

MR: What drives you to put these films in front of the public? You’ve worked on projects involving other genres – spaghetti western etc – but you obviously have a deep love for horror. Are you trying to show audiences what they’ve been missing, or defending and showcasing the work of directors who have been treated badly by censors and distributors? ‘Lost Souls’ seems a case in point – it’s a documentary that (I assume, not having seen it yet) highlights how the Hollywood studio system abused and effectively ended the career of Richard Stanley, a young man who promised to be one of the world’s best and most exciting genre directors.

The films we put out are films that I think deserve special treatment. We gave SANTA SANGRE the respect of a CITIZEN KANE or a VERTIGO. I’ve seen CITIZEN KANE and VERTIGO more than a couple of times over the years but even before we had the rights I’d seen SANTA SANGRE at least ten times and had the poster on my wall and would encourage others to watch it too. Never did that with CITIZEN KANE or VERTIGO. It’s an extension of that. But SANTA SANGRE is at the respectable end of our catalogue. We gave a lot of love to PSYCHOMANIA and HORROR EXPRESS, films which you can walk into any massive US Walmart type store and get for $1 with purchase of a hot dog. But those bootleg editions do not give the love and care to these films that they deserve. They are amazing, unique films which deserve special treatment. We even gave special treatment to NIGHTMARE CASTLE, one of many Barbara Steele gothic horrors shot in Italy in the 60s. But the care and effort that was put into making this film, with its beautiful cinematography and direction and score etc has never been seen by today’s audience. It deserved it. CITIZEN KANE and VERTIGO will always be amongst the films which are worthy of restoration and retrospective documentaries but, for me, I’d rather see this kind of attention going into films that I want to see and grew up loving. And please don’t think I’m taking credit for a unique idea here, there are a bunch of great labels which are doing incredible work in this field and I proudly collect many of their discs: Grindhouse, Mondo Macabro, Blue Underground, Code Red, Scorpion, Vinegar Syndrome. We’re very lucky these days to have a market where these films are available in superb editions, looking in a lot of cases better than they ever did, but as they were supposed to when they were made.

 

MR: It almost feels like throughout your career you’ve been an advocate for film makers whose work has been overlooked or disregarded. Do you consider your work as a documentary filmmaker, and Severin’s co-founder, a voice for those people?

I think that might be a bit grandiose but it is fun and gratifying when we do conventions to meet like minded film fans who really enjoy what we do. We want to see these films out there in Special Editions and thankfully other genre movie fans do too.

 

MR: Had you been thinking about ‘Lost Souls’ a long time before finally making it? Was it always intended to be a feature-documentary?

Around 2010-2011 I got to know Richard Stanley because Severin released a Blu-ray and double DVD of HARDWARE. Then when we produced THE THEATRE BIZARRE, Richard was one of the directors we desperately wanted on board. We thought he may have sworn off filmmaking because he hadn’t made a narrative film since the MOREAU debacle but in reality he had long since recovered from the understandably traumatic experience and was looking to get back into it. Unfortunately the excitement and success of HARDWARE had been numbed by the passage of time so this vital genre mind was not finding it easy to get a movie off the ground. A segment of a horror anthology was a good way to get back into the game. We became friends during this period and I visited his home in the mountains of south west France a few times. I started asking about Moreau. The stories were incredible (helped by the fact that Richard is without a doubt an incredible story teller). Both the filling out of the details of the rumors but also the myriad production tales that we hadn’t heard. And when he started showing me all the production concepts and storyboards by the great Graham Humphreys (who is featured prominently in the doc) and the various creature designs from the Stan Winston FX shop it dawned on me that there was enough story-wise and visually to do a full length doc on the making of this film that we, as horror fans, were robbed of. There was nothing in the mid-90s of interest to real horror fans and this would have been that dose of adrenalin that our then-pitiful genre desperately needed. Why wasn’t it? Well, that’s the story we tell in the doc.

 

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MR: How difficult was it to set up? Does any of Richard Stanley’s original footage still exist? Is it true he destroyed all his production notes before he left the production?

It was simple to set up in that Richard started talking and I decided to start rolling. It wasn’t a project that went through development and pre-production. All the interviews with Richard are just me and him and a camera. Not even anyone looking through the camera. I just happened to have my camera on me so we started shooting. Then I started approaching others about their experiences on the picture and with a couple of key exceptions (there’s no Val Kilmer or head of production Mike De Luca) I found that the participants were more than willing to talk about the experience. After all it had made quite an impression on everyone involved and not necessarily in a negative way. No one is proud of the final film but they all have stories about why it became what it became. Having said that, I knew that New Line, now owned by Time Warner, would not open their vaults to us to tell this story so I never got to see the footage shot in the few days that Richard was at the helm. It’s more about what the film was designed to be and why it became what it became.

 

MR: Did you meet any resistance from the film’s current owners and how many of the people involved with the ‘Moreau’ shoot participated? Did you get David Thewlis and Fairuza Balk?

Nobody gave us any real problems, either they were willing to talk about it or they weren’t. Kilmer simply didn’t respond to numerous requests through numerous channels. I thought there might be a side to him where he may reflect and realize that his ego was out of control but it wasn’t to be so we only have stories about him rather than from him. And unfortunately Mike De Luca who green lit the picture, he’s now all Oscar nominated so probably doesn’t want this debacle being associated with him. But we got an amazing cross section of people from the production from the executive producers to the production runners. Fairuza was key to the story. She absolutely believed in Richard’s vision and was devastated when he was fired and to add insult to injury was forced to stay on the production or face being sued by the studio. She gives a very heartfelt interview. Thewlis was not on the film when Richard was at the helm, Rob Morrow had his role. We interviewed Rob. Thewlis, we interviewed for another featurette and got a couple of bites about his reflections on Moreau. When we went back to him to give us permission to use the footage, he refused. But again, he wasn’t really part of the Stanley vision.

 

MR: Richard Stanley wrote an original screenplay that was strong enough to scare up an enormous budget and a cast headed by Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Where did it start to go wrong? Was ‘Moreau’ a film that was essentially doomed before it began, thanks to the ego and infighting of its two stars? I believe it was Stanley’s first (and so far only) ‘Hollywood’ film, so it seems as if he was working within a creative strait-jacket from the start?

The egos of the stars was a major part of the problem. They brought Frankenheimer in to get these guys in order and even he, a well-known wrangler of difficult actors, couldn’t get them to do what they were supposed to. As producer Ed Pressman says in the doc, had the movie remained between $5-8m it could have been quite something. But it became something else when the stars got involved. And at that point New Line had no interest in making Richard’s movie, they just needed to deliver a film starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, no matter what the quality. Without those guys they could have taken creative risks, with them and the pay packets involved, they just needed to complete a film with a beginning, a middle and an end. To be fair to New Line, they were certainly in the business of giving breaks to innovative filmmakers, but once these stars got involved there was way too much at stake.

 

MR: Is the urban myth true, that Stanley snuck back onto set and played one of the beasts in the film after John Frankenheimer took over?

All is revealed in the doc by Richard and several accomplices in the undercover operation.

 

MR: Richard Stanley’s screenplay was hacked to pieces by Ron Hutchinson, Frankenheimer, Brando and Val Kilmer’s attempts at improvisation, but he still retains an on-screen credit. Was that Stanley’s wish? If he really shredded two years of documents (“not as sabotage, but to leave behind as little trace of my cooperation as possible” Stanley said in a ‘Sex & Guts Magazine’ interview) why do you think he didn’t separate himself entirely from the fiasco? For a screenwriter as talented as he is, going through that hell and then allowing the producers to link him on-screen with the butchered script seems unusual.

It was a writers guild thing. He had to retain credit. Sadly ironic because Richard is an amazing writer and the only major Hollywood film he has a writing credit on is legendarily bad.

 

MR: A stage production was later mounted of Stanley’s script. Does Richard have any plans to revisit the material again, theatrically? Did you ever get the sense ‘Moreau’ is still unfinished business for him in some respects?

I think he tried to put it out of his mind for many years. When I started rolling on him talking about it he said that enough time has passed for the whole story to finally be told. Now it has to be said that some of the participants have conflicting recollections with Richard but no one we spoke with says Richard had no business being at the helm of MOREAU. It was more that it grew out of anyone’s control, even Frankenheimer’s. I don’t know if he’s now thinking of revisiting it from a creative standpoint to be honest.

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MR: What are your personal views on the Frankenheimer ‘Dr. Moreau’?

It starts out like it might be an interesting huge film but quickly deteriorates. Even the beast people makeups look a bit lame having been shot in the sunlight. There’s no denying that the genius/madness of Brando are the only things memorable about that film ie his partnership with Nelson De La Rosa, the smallest man in the world, and his showing up inexplicably in white face. Otherwise, just a sad, missed opportunity.

 

MR: What are your personal views on Richard Stanley? In your opinion, how great a talent did the film world lose when the experience of ‘Moreau’ made him walk away? If Stanley had stayed onboard, and ‘Moreau’ had been completed the way he planned, how good a film do you think it might have been? And if Stanley had completed ‘Moreau’, where do you hypothetically believe he would be now, among the pantheon of directors?

It’s hard to say. Richard was definitely an outsider artist who almost penetrated the system. At the time he was confident and full of ideas to inject into the mainstream and his self-confidence really could have made a mark. But it was also probably his downfall in that he didn’t second guess the idea of getting a massive name like Brando involved in the picture. He should have resisted knowing that you don’t do a picture with Marlon Brando and get to keep your vision. It wasn’t his choice I hasten to add, and who in that position would say, “nah, let’s get someone else instead of Brando.” Had the movie not become this behemoth of money and ego it really could have been something. And had it been that, even if it hadn’t have set the box office on fire, it would have kick started Richard’s Hollywood career. But is that what we, as horror fans, selfishly want from a talent like Richard Stanley? Would he then have become another promising genre director churning out uninspired junk for the multiplex? That’s what seems to happen to most of the visionaries of the genre. Once they get on the conveyor belt they don’t really retain the vitality which made us believe in them in the first place. On the other hand, I would have liked it not to have been such a devastating blow for Richard so that he could have bounced back and made another independent horror film a couple of years later. As it stands we’re still waiting for the next Richard Stanley horror feature. He wrote a script recently with his partner Scarlett Amaris based on Lovecraft’s COLOUR OUT OF SPACE and it’s terrific. I hope it gets made. And he’s always writing and has just as much, if not a more focussed vision than he always had so it’s time for some enterprising producer to jump on that.

 

MR: Richard Stanley has recently begun a return to ‘film fiction’, contributing segments to ‘The Profane Exhibit’, ‘The Theatre Bizarre’ (which you also directed a segment for) and ‘Europe-99euro-films 2’, do you know what he’s planning next? Do you have any plans to collaborate with him?

I’ve only seen his THEATRE BIZARRE segment, I don’t know what the others are. I know he is writing both for other directors and for projects for himself to direct. I hope his recent forays into dramatic work has opened the door for him to take the reigns once again on a feature.

 

MR: So far, ‘Plague Town’ is your own only ‘horror feature’, which you directed and co-wrote with John Cregan. What was that experience like? What did you think of the finished product?

It was a great experience for the most part and I’m still pretty happy with the film. Unfortunately I had an executive producer with whom I didn’t see eye to eye creatively. It was a shame because while I’m the first to admit it’s not a genre milestone, I believe it does have unique horror imagery and a nice sense of dread so could have found an audience. I just wrote another script, mind you, and I hope I can scrape together the low budget to make it. THEATRE BIZARRE was a much more satisfying experience creatively. I was the main producer so I made sure all of the filmmakers, including myself, didn’t have to answer to executive producer demands. I was really happy with the films that all of the filmmakers came up with on TB. Severin will be bringing a full special edition of it out in the US and UK next year.

 

MR: Have you plans to direct any more features? Do you have any self-penned screenplays waiting to see the light of day? You must have a pretty impressive list of horror film contacts, ever thought of drawing a few of them together on your own project? (I’m particularly thinking of Barbara Steele!)

See above. I actually wrote the Lynn Lowry role from my segment of THEATRE BIZARRE for Barbara Steele as she and I had got along quite well the few times we met. Unfortunately due to budget it had to be a non-union shoot so I wasn’t able to hire her. Lynn was great though. She was so striking in I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, THE CRAZIES and SHIVERS, very happy she was able to do it.

 

MR: If anyone knows of a film that’s been disregarded and forgotten about, and really believes it deserves to be seen by a proper audience, what should they do to draw it to Severin’s (or any other distributors) attention?

Write to info@severin-films.com. We’re always on the lookout for new and interesting stuff, whether it’s a new production or an unsung classic. We also have a sub-label called Intervision Picture Corp (UK readers will recognize this as an amalgam of two of the great pre-cert UK label names) for when we have elements which may not make the Severin grade but for films which deserve a decent release.

 

MR: What’s on your wish-list? Films you would like to have for the Severin catalogue? Documentaries you would like to make about films you admire?

There’s so many we’d like to have versus what we can get the rights to… very excited that we’re giving the blu treatment to Jess Franco masterpieces VAMPYROS LESBOS and SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY and the unfairly overlooked Frederick Friedel dirve-in classics AXE and KIDNAPPED COED though.

THE TENANT and BITTER MOON need proper special editions. Arrow asked us to do BM but Polanski, Hugh Grant, Emmanuelle Seigner and Kristen Scott Tomas knocked us back. We got Peter Coyote and he was great but for what I think is one of the finest films of the 90s it deserved better. Wanted to do a DROP DEAD FRED or MR. JOLLY LIVES NEXT DOOR but now that Rik Mayall is no longer with us that ship has sailed. I think the Paul Morrissey/Warhol DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN deserve proper editions too. There’s still a multitude out there but sometimes they’re out of our reach or the filmmakers don’t particularly want to talk.

 

MR: Finally – when you watch a film to relax, what film do you put on more than any other? And what’s your favourite film soundtrack?

BITTER MOON is always my litmus test for whether it’s worth pursuing a friendship or relationship with someone. For relaxation? BETTY BLUE, ERASERHEAD, ELEPHANT MAN, MONSTER CLUB, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, FIRE WALK WITH ME, BRIDES OF DRACULA, SECRETS & LIES, ALL OR NOTHING etc.

 

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white