20 years ago, director Richard Stanley was fired from the Val Kilmer-starring 'Island of Dr. Moreau.' Since then, he's been communing with ghosts—and planning his comeback.
The Château de Montségur is a rotten molar of a ruined castle perched on a remote hill in the French Pyrenees, 70 miles south of Toulouse. It is also the place director Richard Stanley calls home. Technically, he lives in the nearby village of Montségur—but the Château is the place where the forever black-hatted filmmaker hangs his metaphorical chapeau. “Home sweet home!” he says as we enter the roofless structure one early afternoon last November.
The château has a bloody history: In 1244, some 220 members of the quasi-Christian Cathar faith were burned to death for heresy in Montségur. The pagans were eventually driven out of the region—but Stanley says that at least one still dwells at the castle. He first visited the château in 1992, and was caught in a terrifying storm he thought at the time to be a natural phenomenon. Now he believes it may have been evidence of something stranger.
The director became obsessed with Montségur, and even made a documentary called The Secret Glory about a German writer named Otto Rahn—who, in the ’30s, investigated the possibility that the Holy Grail was hidden in the area. When Stanley returned to the château in 2007, he claims he saw a luminescent woman he believes to be Esclarmonde de Foix, a Cathar leader who lived from approximately 1151 to 1215.
“Her skin was glowing,” says Stanley, 48. “She was wearing calf-length boots and a cloak; her arms and legs were standing out against it. The sensation that Esclarmonde could exist was so far-fetched to me, I started crying.”
Esclarmonde appeared to him at the castle again a year later. “Second time, I got down on my knees and told her I loved her,” he says. It was after that second meeting that Stanley relocated here from London, hoping to once more experience something a lot of people would switch countries to avoid. “I wanted to see what would happen,” he says. “A lot of the s hit in my life [has been caused by me] taking the bad advice of always going towards the thing that scares me.”
Stanley says he would have described himself as a rationalist prior to these sightings, and remains perplexed as to what they represent—although he has theories. The director thinks it’s possible he glimpsed some returning, non-Christian god—a frequent motif in the works of horror writer and Stanley favorite H.P. Lovecraft—a being that showed itself to the filmmaker in a guise to which he would favorably respond. “I’m not Christian. I didn’t meet Jesus,” he says. “I met something that looked like it had come out of a Heavy Metal comic.”
Stanley also theorizes he perhaps really did see Esclarmonde, thanks to a rip in the fabric of time. At one point, he became so concerned about the possibility of being sucked back to the Dark Ages that he visited a dentist to have work done on his teeth. “The stupidest thing to happen would be to make it back to the 12th century and discover you have a toothache,” says the director.
If all this sounds nuts, strap yourself in. The director’s supposedly supernatural experiences are just one chapter in a life that has enough color to shame a rainbow.
25 years ago, Stanley was among the hottest horror directors around, thanks to his 1990 killer-cyborg indie Hardware, a film beloved by many of today’s terror-meisters. These include everyone from Joe Lynch, whose recent Salma Hayek-starring action movie Everly borrows from the playbook of the claustrophobic Hardware with its single apartment-setting, to Hostel auteur Eli Roth, who last year placed both Hardware and Stanley’s second film Dust Devil on a list of the six best horror films available on Netflix.
“I discovered his movies when I was in film school in the ’90s,” says Roth. “There was just something different about Richard’s films. He was taking elements of science fiction, but blending them with classic horror movies, and also spaghetti westerns. It was really refreshing. You don’t judge them as if you’re watching Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring. They’re a very particular type of movie, but a really fascinating world if you allow yourself to escape into it. He’s really an artist.”
Stanley hit the big time in 1995 when, at the age of 28, he was hired by New Line to direct a $35 million update ofThe Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells’ tale of a scientist whose attempts to turn animals into humans yield catastrophic results. Starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, the project became an epic debacle. Unable to tame the beast that was Moreau, Stanley was fired shortly after the start of principal photography and was replaced by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate). Frankenheimer managed to finish the film, but his version was spectacularly terrible: in one famous WTF sequence, Brando wears an ice bucket on his head. Variety called Moreau an “embarrassment for all concerned,” and when the film hit theaters in August 1996 it tanked, limping away with just $28 million. At the 1997 Razzie Awards, Brando beat Kilmer to “win” the title of Worst Supporting Actor.
Although none of the footage Stanley shot made it into the finished movie, Moreau killed his career. “Basically, I’m f–ked,” he told this writer on the last occasion I interviewed him, around the time of the film’s release. Indeed, he has not made a movie since—and, like the island-dwelling Moreau, he seemed to disappear from the earth.
In the past year, Stanley has suddenly reemerged, hitting the horror-film festival circuit to help promote a new documentary called Lost Soul, which is now available on VOD. Made by British filmmaker David Gregory and subtitled The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the movie chronicles Stanley’s misbegotten adventure in hilarious detail. The director himself supplies many of the choicer anecdotes, including the time he enlisted a warlock named Skip to perform a good-vibes ritual in England while he met Brando for the first time in L.A.
One thing Lost Soul doesn’t address is what the hell Stanley has been doing for the past 20 years. The answer lies in Montségur and, if Stanley is to be believed, in another dimension altogether.
One of Stanley’s pet peeves is that today’s directors have not led “real” lives. “You’ve got all these people making action movies and they’ve never been in a life-or-death situation,” he says.
The same cannot be said about Stanley. The director was born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, an experience that left him with an extreme suspicion of authority. “It was like growing up in Nazi Germany,” he says. The director’s parents divorced when he was about four, and Stanley was raised by his mother, an anthropologist named Penny Miller who took young Richard along on her research expeditions. “She was constantly seeking out witch doctors, and different initiation rituals, and bizarre things,” he says. “A guy would take two snakes and put them in his mouth, and one would come out each nostril, and this would make me laugh. Nobody told me to be afraid of these things.”
The director scarcely knew his father. But around the time of his parents’ divorce, Stanley Sr. showed his son the movie which would inspire him to become a filmmaker: King Kong. Stanley was particularly enamored by the character of Carl Denham, the film director who brings Kong back from Skull Island to New York. “From a very early age, I knew I wanted to be Carl Denham,” he says. “Going someplace where no one’s ever been before and capturing images no one’s ever seen must have gotten into my head as being the thing to do. Which is completely the wrong thing for Hollywood, where they don’t want you to bring them things they’ve never seen before. They want you to bring them things that are like two other things that made money recently.”
Stanley was a prodigious reader who ate up the fantastical stories of Lovecraft and Wells. As a teen, he frequented drive-ins, gorging on a diet of spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies, and horror films. “[I had] no access to black-and-white cinema or old movies,” he says. “South Africa had very poor repertory distribution. I didn’t find out about Akira Kurosawa, and Tarkovsky, and Werner Herzog until I got to the U.K. But, yeah, [I received] a solid grounding in b-pulp.”
One film which impressed the young Stanley was Phantasm, director Don Coscarelli’s tale of a teenage boy who faces off against a terrifying “Tall Man” and his lethal flying spheres. “I love Phantasm,” says Stanley. “I saw that when it was first released, when I was about 13. It was just the best movie. I was exactly like that at that age—a creepy kid, spending too much time jumping over fences at night into graveyards.” He also saw the Burt Lancaster-starring, 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which he believed to be a ham-fisted desecration of Wells’ book. As Stanley says in Lost Soul, “It has the distinction of being probably the first movie I ever saw which angered me so much that I wanted my money back…I guess from that moment onwards, the germ of the idea started to gestate in my mind and I was determined to try and do it justice, to try and adapt the story in a way that could actually work.”
The teenage Stanley joined a filmmaker’s workshop—and managed to get expelled for making a super 8 caveman movie called Rites of Passage. The director describes the film as “a day in the life of the caveman, which is really just me covered with mud slouching around African savannah.” Why did that result in his expulsion? “I guess part of it was the evident danger of the scenes,” he says. “There was a section shot on a cliff face and other sequences involved leopards and baboons.” Also? “It flashes forward at the end into seeing the character reincarnated as a fetus being grown in a tank in a futuristic laboratory. There’s this notion of lives being essentially painful and meaningless. It just pressed all the wrong buttons.”
Stanley’s mother sent him to a Catholic military academy, because it accepted both black and white pupils. Thanks to the South African government’s policy of military conscription, he was on track to become an officer in the army and fight in the Angolan Bush War, a long-running border conflict. Unwilling to defend a regime he did not support, at the age of 16 Stanley fled to London, where he worked as a dishwasher and kitchen porter.
One day, with nowhere to sleep, he bought a ticket for an all-night screening of films by Italian horror director Dario Argento at the Scala—a famed repertory cinema—with the intention of getting a cheap night’s rest. “I didn’t sleep a wink,” he says. “I was too riveted by what I was seeing. I think it was the opening ten minutes of Suspiria that finally did it. Hearing the Goblin music and seeing the opening cab drive through the rain changed my life, made me want to make horror movies desperately.”
Stanley returned to South Africa where, pretending to be British to avoid the draft, he studied anthropology at the University of Cape Town. But before long he was back in London, making a name for himself as a music video director, overseeing clips for goth-rockers Fields of Nephilim—whose singer Carl McCoy would play a small but pivotal role in Hardware—and the John Lydon-fronted Public Image Ltd. “A girl goes to an abortion clinic, and Lydon’s the abortionist, and the rest of the band are the surgical team.” laughs Stanley, describing his initial pitch for the clip which accompanied the PIL track “The Body.” “It softened. It’s not as extreme as the initial thought. But she still goes to the abortion clinic, and Lydon’s the mad doctor with the forceps.”
A version of this article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Feb. 27 issue.