With the production running out of control, Stanley was fired as director, but later slipped back on set in the guise of a masked extra playing one of Moreau’s grotesque creations – completing “a full arc from creator figure to dog”, as he says in the 2014 documentary Lost Soul, which tells the whole bizarre story.
On the phone from Los Angeles, he explains what happened next: “I took a good step back from the film industry, mostly because I was able to, thanks to the massive settlement that New Line Cinema was forced to pay me.”
Stanley is a born raconteur, whose wry, sonorous tones suggest he, himself, could be a narrator out of Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. Over the past two decades, he’s had all kinds of strange experiences, including a stint as a BBC correspondent in Port-au-Prince, “covering voodoo festivals and the American occupation of Haiti”, and another at a “halfway house for traumatised primates”.
Though he doubted he would ever direct a feature again, Stanley kept his hand in with occasional documentaries and shorts, as well as commissioned screenplays such as Color Out of Space, based on an H.P Lovecraft story about a bizarre extra-terrestrial force wreaking havoc in rural Massachusetts.
His luck changed when this script fell into the hands of a kindred spirit, long-term Lovecraft fan Nicolas Cage, who quickly agreed to star. From that point on, the project came together quickly: the shoot took place roughly a year ago in Portugal, not too far from Stanley’s home in the French Pyrenees.
“It was probably the smoothest transition from page to screen I’ve been lucky enough to have in my career,” Stanley says. “This was pretty much an unalloyed joy.”
Does he still feel like the same filmmaker who made Hardware?
“Life flashes by,” Stanley says. “I’ve really always been making deadpan apocalyptic black comedy. I think Hardware and Color Out of Space are very much coming from the same place. They’re different genres – Hardware‘s a near-future cyberpunk movie, where this is an American nuclear family in a creepy old dark house with a supernatural threat. But pace wise and in the general emotional tone they’re pretty much the same.”
As he points out, the droid in Hardware and the bizarre alien force here – literally a colour rather than a sentient being – are two versions of the same idea.
“We’re confronted by something we cannot really comprehend, which cannot comprehend us, with which dialogue is futile, and which is also implacable and probably impossible to stop or in any way overcome. There’s a place I like to get to in everything I do, where emotionally you’re pretty much beyond despair.”
Wherever it comes from, this fascination with extremity goes back a long way.
“The family in Color Out of Space is very closely based on my family from the time when I was a kid. I basically imprint onto Jack, the creepy kid, the seven-year-old, who responds to the general trauma by drawing crayon drawings of monsters and developing relationships with invisible friends.”
Similarly, the horrors visited on Joely Richardson’s mother character are inspired partly by Stanley’s own mother and her battle with lymphoma.
“She took 10 years to die from the point when she was diagnosed,” Stanley says. “That process of having to deal with my mum gradually mutating, both physically and psychologically, becoming something very different from the way one might like to remember one’s loved ones, I think is strongly reflected in the issues the family has in dealing with the mum in the second half of the movie.”
It’s not how everyone would choose to process grief, but here again Stanley and Cage were on the same wavelength. “I know that some part of Nic’s character was drawing on his own dad,” Stanley says. “So there was a sense of tipping our hats to the ones that had come before us. I was also super-conscious of trying to do right by H.P. Lovecraft, even though Lovecraft, a self-confessed atheist, probably couldn’t be sitting on a cloud somewhere watching what we were doing.”
I tend to always walk towards the source of the problem. That’s why I’ve ended up in an awful lot of war zones.
Stanley himself seems to take the idea of the supernatural seriously, though not solemnly – raising the question of whether his fascination with malign or demonic forces might entail a degree of personal risk. “I’ve always had the feeling, possibly erroneously, that one needs to approach the things that you fear,” Stanley says. “It’s got me in an lot of trouble. I tend to always walk towards the source of the problem. That’s why I’ve ended up in an awful lot of war zones.”
Even within the safety of fiction, he adds, confronting your fears can be cathartic – which may explain why Cage is so drawn to roles in which he violently freaks out.
“I think Nic has a huge amount of energy that he really needs to get out of him, because you don’t want that messing up one’s life, you don’t want to be that person off camera. So having the opportunity to act out all those dramas on screen is really like the best therapy you could ask for.”
With his career revival under way, Stanley has no intention of slowing down: two more Lovecraft adaptations are already in the pipeline, and perhaps someday he’ll even get another shot at Doctor Moreau, the project that derailed him for so long.
“If the chance to go back to the island and shoot the movie in the manner close to what I originally intended is offered to me, I’m going to have to take it up. I couldn’t walk away from such a proposition at this stage in my life.”
It’s a prospect he contemplates with hope, fear and a characteristic burst of eloquence.
“The memory has receded way into the back of my mind, and has left not much more than a faint sense of mistrust,” he says.
“Yet somehow it seems that the tentacles of that project from my past will snake out and drag me back into it, and that before I go to my grave peacefully, I imagine, I’ll probably end up back on the goddamn island again.”
Color Out of Space is opening on February 6.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.