From his humble beginnings in Chicago with the Organic Theatre Company to launching the careers of actors like Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Graham Skipper, through his support of young filmmakers like Jason Eisner (Hobo with a Shotgun) and Joe Begos (VFW), Stuart Gordon has been an indelible figure in not just the horror industry, but in the lives of everyone who was lucky enough to consider him a friend.
While most of us are familiar with Gordon through his work in horror, specifically his H.P. Lovecraft films (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon) the director never relegated himself to one type of movie. For every film about a cadre of killer dolls, he would give us one about lorry drivers in space, or wish-granting clothing. Gordon was the kind of renaissance man who could make a movie about giant robot boxing matches and then turn right around and give us a film adaptation of an acclaimed David Mamet play.
Gordon’s films focused on oddball characters typically on the fringes of society, which is maybe why we could relate so well with what Gordon was producing. For those of us who discovered his work late night on cable or in the darkest corner of our video stores, it felt like we found something suited directly for us: the type of people who would root around stacks on stacks of VHS and DVD to find that one treasure, that Castle Freak, that makes them step back and marvel at worlds we never knew could exist. That’s the power of an accomplished director. That’s the power of Stuart Gordon.
Where do you begin looking at a career’s worth of bangers? Chronologically, of course. The Boo Crew loves Gordon, so we couldn’t resist revisiting his complete directorial output (minus the unavailable TV movies Daughter of Darkness and Bleacher Bums!) and offering some words into why they left a lasting impression on us.
Like you, we all love Re-Animator, and so rather than have just one of us write about it, we decided to all share a quick thought on this stone cold classic:
- A movie that took me out of my comfort zone at the time, then made me realize that all horror should aspire to be this creative, manic, and wild. (Kieran Fisher)
- Love at first cold open. (Meg Shields)
- I’ll always remember renting the old Vestron VHS from Hollywood Video circa 2000, and how those final moments – the green syringe pushing into blackness – absolutely melted my fucking mind. (Jacob Trussell)
- My first viewing of Re-Animator made it apparent this is a movie that, perhaps more than any other film, deserves nothing but glowing reviews. (Anna Swanson)
- Re-Animator rules. I don’t like that a cat dies, but it still rules. (Chris Coffel)
- Never has a character been such a prick while also being an utterly righteous dude like Dr. Herbert West. I * Heart Eyes * him. (Brad Gullickson)
- I was busted by my mom while watching a lot of late night movies as a teen, but the only one she ever yelled at me about (after walking in during the infamous head scene) — and then sat down to join me in a re-watch of — was the brilliant, gory, fleshy, fun, and frequently naughty Re-Animator. (Rob Hunter)
From Beyond (1986)
Dr. Edward Pretorius’s Resonator works. And not only that….IT’S RUNNING ITSELF. The cosmic carnival is open for business: a peek behind the dimensional veil, courtesy of a supercharged tuning fork honed in on the pineal gland. And naturally, as is wont with adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft, the veil is peeking back. Released a year after Re-Animator, From Beyond is far more deviant and serious. But make no mistake: From Beyond has such lubed-up sights to show you. It’s a visual treat with prestige 80s creature work and an impossibly fluorescent flush. Jeffrey Combs is captivating (as ever) as the traumatized and ultimately heroic Crawford Tillinghast. Barbara Crampton delivers an underrated career best, reversing roles with Combs as the obsessively self-destructive Dr. McMichaels. From Beyond is an unmatched entrant in an evasive sub-genre: cosmic horror par excellence and a depraved ode to the horrific qualities of the sexual ether. It’s bat shit. It’s kinky. It does for neon pink what Re-Animator did for green. (Meg Shields)
Dolls has never been one of Gordon’s better known or well-loved films, but most people are fools and it remains among my top three favorites. How do you not love this playfully gory blend of And Then There Were None and Grimms’ Fairy Tales? A group of strangers find themselves stuck in a storm and hole up in a big house populated by a kindly old couple and a menagerie of toys, puppets, wooden soldiers, and dolls… that soon come alive and begin dismembering the visitors in glorious ways. Gordon and writer Ed Naha deliver the gory goods with heaps of black humor and a clear sense of dark fun unfolding on a rainy night. You’re never too old to watch and enjoy Dolls. (Rob Hunter)
Robot Jox (1990)
Imagine a future where war has been outlawed and battles are decided between robots that represent each global territory. That’s the premise of Robot Jox, and the world would be a better place if conflicts were settled this way. Inspired by the Japanese Transformers toy line and the ancient Greek poem The Iliad, Robot Jox is Gordon’s most family-friendly movie, as it was made with the intention of appealing to both children and adults. Screenwriter Joe Haldeman described the finished movie as akin to having a child with brain damage, so not everyone is a fan. However, I can assure you that Robot Jox is a lot of fun. (Kieran Fisher)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)
While most Stuart Gordon films can confidently claim a bat-shit status, The Pit and the Pendulum is properly, properly, banana pants. Set during the fever-pitch of the Inquisition, Maria and her husband Antonio (a pre-Castle Freak Jonathan Fuller) are jailed and tortured for intervening in the public whipping of a child. The Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, lusts after Maria and (of course) resolves to punish her for it. The film boasts an all-star cast (Lance Henriksen! Mark Margolis! Jeffrey Combs! Oliver Reed!) who adopt a glorious smorgasbord of wandering accents. The goofier qualities of the film (namely Gordon’s decision to pitch the Inquisition as a workplace comedy) rub awkwardly against the viciousness of the subject matter. But the result is a tone with an inexplicably endearing smirk. It’s bleak, it’s perplexing, but because it’s Gordon: it’s still a lot of fun. (Meg Shields)
Named after the Sting song “Fortress Around Your Heart,” this gem starring Christopher Lambert and Kurtwood Smith takes place in a future prison where inmates aren’t allowed to commit thought crimes or step into red zones, otherwise their intestines will explode. Lambert plays the sympathetic inmate, and Smith is the detestable prison inmate who believes in blowing up the intestines of pregnant women. While Fortress is an unpretentious B movie in many ways, it feels awfully prescient considering that so many prisons these days are run by corporations, just like the underground facility in this movie. (Kieran Fisher)
Castle Freak (1995)
One of the great gifts that a movie can provide is fulfilling the promise of its title. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is indeed a space odyssey. In Taxi Driver, there is indeed a taxi driver. And in Castle Freak, you’re goddamn right that there is a castle freak. Frequent Gordon collaborator Jeffrey Combs stars as a horned up mediocre husband who inherits an Italian castle and, unbeknownst to him, a brute trapped within the walls of his new home with some sinister plans for the castle’s latest inhabitants. Castle Freak is schlocky, savage, and fun as hell, with just enough nasty to remind you that they sure don’t make ’em the way they used to. (Anna Swanson)
Space Truckers (1996)
Blue-collar sci-fi doesn’t get better than Ridley Scott’s Alien, but it does get waaaaaay sillier, and a whole lot messier in Stuart Gordon’s Space Truckers. Dennis Hopper is the last of his kind, a no-nonsense interstellar hauler who finds honor in his work and his ability to deliver the goods on time. After dropping off a batch of square pigs, Hopper finds himself in a financial pickle. To get out of debt, he agrees to transport a shipment of sex dolls across “the scum zone” and all the way to Earth. Only one catch, the sex dolls are not sex dolls; they’re a horde of killer robots thirsty for action. Space Truckers is a gas, made all the more peculiar and enjoyable by Hopper’s no-bullshit performance. The actor is trapped somewhere between Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Blue Velvet. Hallelujah. (Brad Gullickson)
The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998)
Having already adapted Ray Bradbury’s short story for the stage, Stuart Gordon felt that The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit would easily translate into a film. He wasn’t wrong. The film is an utter delight, perfectly capturing the Twilight Zone whimsy of the source material and highlighting a batch of actors who rarely got the attention they deserved during the late 1990s. The saga of a magical white suit that transforms its wearers from dullards to charismatic Lotharios is an upbeat celebration of humanity in both its best and worst forms and a far cry from anything else Stuart Gordon ever directed. Some could dismiss it as fluff, but those folks are cynical jerks incapable of joy or love; sour filthy creatures in desperate need of a wardrobe change. They all should watch The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit three more times to put a shine on their days. (Brad Gullickson)
While this wasn’t my first Stuart Gordon movie, this was the first Stuart Gordon film to come out after I watched Re-Animator and I. WAS. PUMPED. It’d been 15 years since StuGo had given us a new Lovecraft film and one gets released right when I’m introduced to his movies? Fucking kismet, y’all. While it may have a different brand of humor than that found in his earlier films, Dagon is our glimpse into what Gordon would have done if given a budget to make a serious adaptation of one of the master of horror’s greatest work. While it does pull from its namesake short story, Dagon truly is the only film adaptation of The Shadow over Innsmouth we’ve ever gotten. While most Lovecraft stories border on the unfilmable, Dagon keeps its pace quick and its horrors mostly under the guise of a dreary, rain drenched Spanish seaside town. And while you can see budgetary constraints fraying the edges, it’s this striking location that gives the film so much of its atmosphere, not to mention the surprising amount of practical effects he was able to use especially considering the limitations of CG at the time. Dagon goes to some extreme places, and you can’t help but be surprised, and delighted, by it. (Jacob Trussell)
King of the Ants (2003)
King of the Ants was one of the earliest films produced by The Asylum, and it’s probably the best of the studio’s output as well. Adapted from Charlie Higson’s novel of the same name, this was Gordon’s foray into neo-noir-inspired crime thriller territory, though the film’s violence and George Wendt’s frightening performance as a sadistic mobster are a reminder of Gordon’s roots as a horror master. The story follows a hitman who gets hired to kill an accountant who is investigating them, only to end up being double crossed by the criminals. King of the Ants is an amoral movie that’s not for those with weak stomachs or a need for movies to have someone to root for, but it’s still a taut little thriller that deserves more recognition. (Kieran Fisher)
In addition to making awesome movies, Gordon also had a fondness for theater. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that he was drawn towards making this film adaptation of David Mamet’s 1982 stage play of the same name. The film stars William H. Macy as a mild-mannered husband who ends up leaving behind his old life behind in pursuit of rebellion and degradation, taking to the grimy New York underworld for a night of sex, boozing, racism, and murder. This is one of Gordon’s most chilling efforts, and while his character is rotten and far from politically correct, Macy’s performance is exceptional. (Kieran)
In 2001, a homeless man was struck by a car in Fort Worth, Texas and became lodged in the windshield. Instead of being rushed to the hospital, the driver just drove home, parked the car in the garage, and let the man bleed to death. This utterly insane and unbelievable true story served as the inspiration for the last film Stuart Gordon would ever direct. In a way that only he could, Gordon took a terribly grim incident and crafted a darkly comedic tale that is sure to make your jaw drop. What appear to be relatively sane and normal people are placed in increasingly bizarre situations that allow their inner monsters to run free. It’s gory, it’s funny, and it’s Gordon at his (second) best. That’s right, I said it’s his second best. Fight me.. (Chris Coffel)
Dream in the Witch-house (Masters of Horror, 2005)
The Black Cat (Masters of Horror, 2007)
Easter (Fear Itself, 2008)
While Gordon is best known for his feature films and work on the stage, the filmmaker also dabbled in television. One of his stage productions was adapted for television, and in addition to Bleacher Bums (1979) he also directed 1990’s Daughter of Darkness for CBS. He also co-wrote (with Brian Yuzna) the blockbuster kids hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), and when that was adapted into a TV series — which ran for three seasons! — he directed an episode in the late 90s.
More relevant to genre fans, though, are the three episodes of horror anthology shows he directed. he did two for Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror, and both are based on tales from long-dead horror legends. “Dreams in the Witch-House” (2005) adapts an H.P. Lovecraft story (surprise!) about a grad student who takes a cheap room in an old house and discovers that its cruelest tenant, a centuries old witch, still roams its halls. It’s a dark little chiller pairing updated science with some creepy practical effects — rats with human faces! — and not for nothing, but killing off a baby is always a surefire way to my heart too. “The Black Cat” (2007) adapts the famed Edgar Allan Poe tale with a terrific performance by Jeffrey Combs at its center as Poe — a role he would later turn into a one-man stage show — that sees him playing the writer driven mad by creativity, alcohol, his dying wife, and that goddamn cat named Pluto. Consider it Rufus’ revenge from Re-Animator. Gordon’s final effort on TV was an episode of the short-lived NBC series, Fear Itself. “Eater” (2008) adapts a Peter Crowther story about a rookie cop left to stand against a supernatural evil in a small police station overnight. (Yes, it is similar in setup to 2014’s Let Us Prey.) The episode features some atmospheric beats, but the real highlight is a young Elisabeth Moss as the cop facing the unknown threat. (Rob Hunter)