Where to begin with Richard Stanley

A beginner’s path through the fantastical work of cult director Richard Stanley.

23 February 2020

By Matthew Thrift

Dust Devil (1992)

Why this might not seem so easy

It was an interest in shape-shifting that led South African filmmaker Richard Stanley to Afghanistan at the age of 22. He’d gone in with the UN, before being kicked out of the country for wandering off the designated path. His next attempt at entry was through a fixer later arrested for heroin smuggling, before deciding the best way in meant joining a fundamentalist group, partly because he believed their religious abstinence might help him quit smoking – “They were all hypocrites. The moment they were out of sight of civilisation they were all smoking, wearing leather jackets and trading Leonardo DiCaprio videos,” he’s said.

He was there for the siege of Jalalabad, during which his cameraman was hit by a rocket. His solution? Swallow all the LSD he had on him, strap his mate to a donkey and hope for the best as he made his way out, tripping through the minefields. He’d later allege that the film’s producer was assassinated by the CIA. The project became the short documentary Voice of the Moon (1990), and as with much of his work across some three decades now, it’s impossible to separate the myth from the man, or the films from the tales of their making. Few directors’ commentaries are as stuffed with war stories as those of Richard Stanley.

Richard Stanley

He may only have three commercially released features to his name – alongside a handful of shorts and documentaries – but his legendary tales of resourcefulness and ruin precede him. “Knowing that the odds were stacked against me, I resorted to witchcraft,” he said of casting Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), the film from which he was famously fired. “I don’t think I’ll ever make another movie again,” he said at the time, vanishing to France in search of the Holy Grail.

He re-emerged briefly in 2011 with Mother of Toads, an 18-minute segment of anthology film The Theatre Bizarre – “written on a glow-in-the-dark ouija board from Toys R Us” – before a return to the commercial stage with H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space (2019), his biggest production to date.

Where to start – Hardware

Having shot a mid-length, Super 8 prototype with Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985), Stanley began shopping around the script for what would later become his debut feature, Hardware (1990). “People told me to make it more like Alien (1979) or The Terminator (1984), so I put on an Iron Maiden album and dropped a hunter-killer war droid into the apartment, rewriting it as a monster movie.”

Hardware (1990)

The war droid is the M.A.R.K. 13, “a multi-faceted combat system” (and persistent antagonist to a swiftly housebound scrap-artist) scavenged from The Zone, the no-go desert outside a futuristic city poisoned by radiation. The city in question, while unnamed in the film, could well be Mega-City One, a police state presided over by a justice department that includes a certain Judge Dredd. Hardware was adapted from the 1981 short story ‘Shok!’, which appeared in the British comic 2000 AD, but it was only after a court case that writers Kevin O’Neill and Steve MacManus were given a belated story credit.

The narrative arc may well have been appropriated, but the detail belongs wholly to Stanley. Made for under £1 million and largely shot at a derelict Roundhouse in Camden, the film’s practical ingenuity still beggars belief. At once a cyberpunk exploitation number and satirical stab at authoritarianism (“It was the Thatcher era”) – think Demon Seed (1977) by way of Paul Verhoeven and Italian horror – it’s a gory ride that its director described, much like the later Color Out of Space, as “structured like a trip… It’s classic bad trip material”.

Look (and listen) out for cameos from Iggy Pop and Motörhead’s Lemmy (“We used him when Sinead O’Connor cancelled. He did it for a bottle of whisky.”)

What to watch next

Stanley’s longstanding interest in the occult would colour all of his work to come, beginning with his second feature, Dust Devil (1992). Shot on location in Namibia, the supernatural horror film charts an investigation into a series of brutal murders committed by a shape-shifting hitchhiker.

While made in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), with its shamanic spiritualism and barely submerged political agenda (“It was written before the collapse of apartheid, so it was science fiction but set in the immediate future, when society’s collapsing, which meant that real life just caught up with it”), there’s little confusing it with mainstream genre fare. Miramax made their own cut, decimating it in the same way they had Hardware for its US release, forcing Stanley to agree to a compromised version of his own. It wasn’t until much later that he was able to track down the original negative and put together a director’s cut at his own expense.

Color Out of Space (2019)

It would be another 27 years before audiences got the chance to see a Richard Stanley picture at their local cinema, and even longer since any H.P. Lovecraft adaptation of note. Color Out of Space sees Stanley team up with an alpaca-milking Nicolas Cage for the best Lovecraft joint since Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985). “A snapshot of a Spielbergian, white-bread family unit at the point of extinction,” the film follows the fallout from a meteorite landing in the back garden of the Gardner clan. Body horror meets psychedelic wig-out in a terrific study in nuclear impotence and privilege, as satirically subversive as it is political – and funny!

“I see pretty much everything I do as a kind of apocalyptic deadpan comedy,” quipped Stanley recently, but there’s little humour to be found in the best of his documentary work. The White Darkness (2002) saw him filming voodoo rituals in Haiti under the watchful eye of the US military, there to provide “humanitarian assistance” and deliver a “Christian consensus”.

Stanley’s move to Montségur in the Pyrenees led to both The Secret Glory (2001) – a documentary about the Grail-obsessed Nazi officer Otto Rahn – and a personal account of a supernatural encounter of his own in the French town. “It was a difficult thing for us to deal with,” says Stanley at the start of The Otherworld (2013), “having a mythological character step through a solid wall into one’s life.” Barmy and quite wonderful, this one has to be seen to be believed.

Where not to start

There’s little reason to bother with the carnival of crap that is The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), given Stanley’s 11th-hour replacement by John Frankenheimer. Better instead to watch the jaw-dropping documentary on its making, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014). Directed by David Gregory, the film is unsparing in its recollection of the events that led to Stanley’s firing and subsequent stealing his way back on to set to watch Frankheimer at work, disguised as one of the dog-man extras.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)

Tales of Brando’s misbehaviour come by the dozen, but it’s Val Kilmer for whom the participants save most of their ire (“Maybe that was how he prepared to be an arsehole, by acting like one off camera?”). It’s one of the great behind-the-scenes documentaries, at once gut-bustlingly funny and testament to the fact that the Hollywood machine has no idea what to do with an artist as singular as Richard Stanley.

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