A Muse in Lovecraft: Spotlighting Stuart Gordon
By Desmond Reddick
29 May 2007 — As I mentioned in my two earlier director spotlights, there is a tendency for the best of directors to do variations on a theme. John Carpenter is fascinated with the conflict found in the classic western Rio Bravo, and both he and Guillermo del Toro seem to enjoy exploring fantastical elements which cling to the other side of reality's fabric. But there is no real precedent for a director who adapts the works of a single author as the brunt of his filmography — save Stuart Gordon. Yes, Roger Corman has his excellent cycle of Poe films, but they're but a small blip in his huge (and mostly laughable) collection of works. But Corman is a good comparison to make for Gordon. Unlike Carpenter and del Toro, Stuart is unquestionably a director of B films. Good B films, but B films nonetheless.
It's almost unheard of for a debut director to come out of the gate with a classic. But that's exactly what Gordon did when he adapted "Herbert West: Re-Animator" into, you guessed it, Re-Animator. It was there where the Gordon / Lovecraft love affair began. Re-Animator, thanks in no small part to Jeffrey Combs, was an over-the-top gory schlockfest, yet it still managed to build suspense in a way that is not commonly found in films of any genre. It romanticized the villain and slowly turned the audience's favor from the hero to the villain... and then slaps you in the face for falling for it. Combs, playing Dr. Herbert West, is only bested in his maniacal tendencies by David Gale — who portrays cinema's most memorable severed head. The violence is exaggerated, the humor is dark and understated yet found throughout, its sexually charged and the colors are bright. These four aspects do not describe anything resembling a Lovecraft story. Regardless, this sensibility (if we can call it that) is carried throughout all of Gordon's Lovecraft films. The wonderful thing about Re-Animator is that it spawned two sequels (both directed by longtime Gordon collaborator Brian Yuzna) that suffer very little deterioration in quality from the original. The preproduction rumors of a third sequel puts Dr. West in the White House to re-animate the president (William H. Macy) being produced as a Masters of Horror episode ensures a one-hour streamlined sequel to the franchise.
The following year had Gordon adapting Lovecraft's "From Beyond." The thing about Gordon's From Beyond is that it takes the very short story, adapts it as the opening sequence and continues on its own path. Again the film is dripping with sex, fluorescent slime and excessively comedic violence. I feel compelled to say that there is nothing fluorescent about H.P. Lovecraft's writing. Yet it works.
Another year later, Gordon released an original project called Dolls. This film sees vacationing friends staying at an old couple's house overnight. It turns out the couple has a strange hobby; their collection of dolls is actually shrunken humans with bad attitudes. While it is an unfortunate film, it is still pretty good as far as the "tiny terror" aspect of horror goes. I'd choose to watch this film over and over for the rest of my life rather than subject myself to any of the Puppet Master or Demonic Toys films (especially, and God help me for even knowing this film exists, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys). Still, it's very clear that Gordon should stick to Lovecraft.
Gordon's 1990 offering, Robot Jox, despite having an interesting premise, was cheesy as hell. It takes place long after a nuclear holocaust where the atmosphere burns the skin and war is outlawed. (Huh?!) Rather than pit armies against each other, nations battle it out with giant robots. Mech fans will probably dig it, but all others who don't regularly partake in hallucinogenics should pretend it doesn't exist.
The next year saw the release of a direct-to-video gem, The Pit and the Pendulum: an ultra violent adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story depicting torture during the Spanish Inquisition. It is in no way in the same league as Corman's adaptation featuring Vincent Price, but Lance Henriksen's Torquemada is also terrifying. Torture porn is not an invention of the new millennium, my friends.
After a piss poor Christopher Lambert vehicle, Fortress, Gordon returned to familiar territory with the light but horrific Castle Freak. In it, Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton (now full fledge Stuart Gordon regulars), flee a repulsive and freakish monster. It pales in comparison to the original story ("The Outsider"), but is a decent adaptation nonetheless.
Quite soon after Castle Freak, Gordon must have suffered some sort of psychotic fugue because nobody saw Space Truckers or The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit coming. Hell, nobody even saw them! But once he came back to his senses one supposes he needed to overcompensate. Dagon, based mostly on Lovecraft's short story "Shadow Over Innsmouth" with elements from "Dagon," is to my knowledge the closest adaptation of a Lovecraft story. Though not without its humor, Dagon is more quirky than ridiculous. It is intense, creepy and captures at least a little of the story's tension during the chase scene. The ironic thing is that this is probably the hardest Lovecraft-based horror film to find. If you can track it down, do so.
Next came the interesting psychological horror film King of the Ants. While the film was a total misfire, it hinted at some future success in a non-supernatural, non-Lovecraftian era of filmmaking. George Wendt (Norm from "Cheers") is suitably intimidating, but delivers the only interesting performance of the film.
Edmond is not a horror film. But in 2005 it reunited Gordon with master screenwriter, David Mamet. Mamet cut his teeth in plays and Gordon, if I'm not mistaken, directed the first production of one of his plays in the late 1970s. It is gritty, vile and depressing, but it's the best film directed by Gordon to date.
While Edmond was a creative stretch for Gordon, it was released almost in conjunction with more standard fare for him. The Masters of Horror episode "Dreams in the Witch House" is yet another Gordon-made Lovecraft adaptation. It felt like his earlier schlocky work without the comedy. It was trying too hard to be the culmination of all of Gordon's horror work. His second season effort, "Black Cat," was better but not by much. The biographical Poe story about the fictional inspiration for the story of the same name is a good idea on paper, but Jeffery Combs' portrayal of Poe was too over-the-top. It was certainly a film which would have been much better served taken a bit more seriously.
His next film (slated for release this year) is titled Stuck. It tells the true-life story of a woman who hit a homeless man with her car — and then drives home with him stuck in her windshield. Instead of turning herself in or even dumping the poor bastard off at the emergency room, she parks her car in her garage and leaves him to die over the course of three days. I certainly hope this one will be devoid of humor.
Stuart Gordon has always been, to me, a hit-or-miss director. When he gets it right it is a fun experience, and in some cases a wonderfully crafted film. When he gets it wrong... it's really, really wrong. Who knows what the future holds for him. There are only so many Lovecraft stories, right?