With his burly frame, graying beard, and jolly, welcoming manner, filmmaker Stuart Gordon could almost be mistaken for Santa Claus.
Or rather, Santa Claws.
After all, this is the director who gave us Re-Animator (1985), a film featuring a severed head attempting to get intimate with a shackled female love interest. He also conjured forth From Beyond (1986), where snake-like, phallic pineal glands sprout from foreheads, and scientists melt into puddles of gelatinous slime like the Wicked Witch of the West. Then there’s Dagon (2001), Gordon’s most recent foray into fear, where unknowing visitors are tormented by macabre, scaly fish people with human sacrifice on their minds, in a Spanish seaside village.
Seattle’s Grand Illusion Theater is the latest tour stop on the cult-director’s trek to promote Dagon, and the compact, funky art house tucked into a University District corner is a fitting shrine to his films. A block south of the earthy cinema rests a candlelit decor shop called Gargoyles, full of gothic, stone statues that conjure forth the doomy vibe of a Transylvanian cemetery. The theater itself hosts a cramped, claustrophobic screening room about the size of a funeral parlor, and its wooden ceiling is punctuated by square, symmetrical engravings... almost like the lid of a stylish coffin.
It’s eleven o’clock p.m., and Gordon’s admirers have filtered in from the "U" District’s dark streets to claim most of The Grand Illusion’s seats and attend Dagon’s northwest premiere. Some are donned in black capes and white pancake makeup, as if decked out for Ozzfest 2002. Others sport more benign, college student fashions, listening attentively as the director introduces his latest stylish descent into movie madness. As with Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak (1995) before it, Dagon takes its premise from the celebrated author H.P. Lovecraft. This scream scribe tormented readers with his sinister, unsavory melting pot of sea demons and over-the-edge scientists before Stephen King was even a ghastly glint in his papa’s eye.
"This one was literally fifteen years in the making," Gordon laughs, enthusiasm beaming from his expressive, crinkled eyes. "We’d take the premise to studios, and they’d tell us that it was just too damn weird. ‘Make the fish people into werewolves’, they would say, ‘and we’ll greenlight it tomorrow’."
Although the horror icon’s speech is intensely articulate and controlled, he appears relaxed and approachable, more like a teddy bear than one of the crazed mad doctors that inhabit his ghoulish projects. The only thing remotely maniacal about the man is his devilish sense of humor. "When I started this movie," he explains, pointing to his hairless, Kojak-style bean, "I had hair. That’s how long it’s taken to get it made." He explains to the Puget Sound crowd that Anacortes, a nearby tourist town that acts as gateway to the San Juan Islands, was considered as a shooting location for Dagon. Eventually, however, Gordon began principle photography at the turn of the millenium in Spain, where his longtime producer Brian Yuzna had recently established a Barcelona production studio (dubbed Fantastic Factory) affiliated with local company Filmax Films. "I don’t think Spain felt that the film would do much to promote tourism," Gordon chuckles.
Indeed, Dagon’s unholy stew of gruesome imagery, seasoned with a pinch of the erotic, follows in the envelope-pushing footsteps of his previous horror outings. During the film’s tense climax, we watch a nude Raquel Moreno dangling over a sacrificial pit while reluctantly waiting to be snatched up by an unforgiving sea god. Images of scantily-clad femme fatale Barbara Crampton being faced with similar predicaments in Re-Animator and From Beyond are brought to mind.
Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. Although inaccuracies about the author’s life often paint him into a twisted, unstable recluse, he was actually a multi-talented wordsmith who manned the editorial posts of several independent East Coast magazine, while penning thousands of letters to correspondents across the globe. He also shaped political essays and soulful poetry, as well as the darker tales like The Tomb, and The Shadow over Innsmouth that would immortalize Lovecraft as a horror writer.
In the years leading up to his death from cancer in 1937, Lovecraft was not afforded reassurance that his inconsistently released writings would endure the test of time. Most often, they were one-offs rearing their unsettling heads in such pulp magazines as Weird Tales, or other obscure journals bubbling under the mainstream radar. Fortunately, Lovecraft’s work has since been preserved forever by Arkham House. Run by admirers of the scribe, the publishing company has issued several hardcover volumes of his off-kilter stories, starting with The Outsider and Others in 1939.
It’s easy to see parallels between Lovecraft’s journey as an artist and Gordon’s creative career path. Gordon has seen his own contributions to the horror genre re-edited without his permission (as in the case of Re-Animator, initially released on video as a neutered, watered-down version minus the more controversial scenes). He has also watched as others are relegated to obscurity (From Beyond is available only in an out of print VHS format, but Gordon is hopeful that a DVD version will eventually surface). Reassuringly, the director also boasts a hardcore following whose continuing allegiance ensures that his creative genius will be recognized into the future.
Gordon’s onscreen projects are not limited to horror. Futuristic sci-fi outings like Robot Jox (1990), Fortress, (1993), and Space Truckers (1997) are also on his diverse director’s resume. Meanwhile, he scored a co-screenwriting credit for the smash Disney hit, Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), and eventually served as executive producer for the popular film’s sequel, Honey, I Blew Up the Kids (1992).
However, his Lovecraft-inspired works have remained the filmmaker’s most enduring creations. Sipping a beverage at the Grand Illusion’s cinema-side cafe, the influential talent recaps his horror career, from pre -Re-Animator days staging David Mamet plays with Chicago’s Organic Theatre to his present success with Dagon ...and beyond.
KJ Doughton: What are your thoughts on the Millenium-edition DVD of Re-Animator, which came out in April?
Stuart Gordon: It’s a two-disc set with a lot of additional material. I think the best thing about it is that they re-mastered the sound. When Re-Animator was first released, it was not even in stereo. It was a mono release. Now, it has THX sound and a beautiful re-mastering of it all. Richard Band is interviewed on the DVD, and talks about the various cues for the film. It shows sections of the movie with only the music so you can get a sense of what he was working for. Richard really picked up on the humor in the film, and his music really helped the audience to know that it was OK to laugh at this movie - that there were comedic sections.
Before the film was scored, I told Richard that I was a big fan of Bernard Hermann, and he kind of went with that. Originally, we had put a credit in the beginning that said, "Our apologies to Bernard Hermann," and it got left out, so Richard has been paying the price for that ever since. He got a letter from the Bernard Herman estate that said, "If Mr. Hermann were alive, we’d be suing you right now." He meant it in a very loving way. He wasn’t trying to steal anything. We acknowledge that Bernard Hermann is The Master of film scores. But Richard’s score is really fun and lively. Now you can hear the score in stereo (on the new DVD).
There is an additional interview with myself and Brian Yuzna, the producer, and an interview with Dennis Daly, one of the writers. The original storyboards are also shown within the film, so that you can click back and forth between the boards and the actual shots."
KJD: Are there other DVD versions of Re-Animator floating around?
SG: There was one done as a laser disc that was converted to DVD, about five years ago. But the new version is far superior.
KJD: Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon are all based on the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Are they meant as a kind of trilogy?
SG: Actually, there is a forth film of mine in the Lovecraft groove, called Castle Freak [1995, available on VHS and DVD]. It is loosely adapted from the Lovecraft story, The Outsider. Originally, I tried to convince them that they should re-name the movie The Outsider, but Charles Band, who runs Full Moon [the film’s production company], is the guy who creates the titles first.
The movie got started during a meeting I was having in his office, where I noticed a poster on his wall that said, Castle Freak. It had a picture of a guy who looks like Quasimodo whipping some poor girl that’s chained to the wall. I asked him, "what’s this movie about, Charlie?" He told me, "Well, there’s a castle and there’s a freak." He had already sold the film, on the basis of the title and the artwork alone. He said, "as long as you have a castle in this film, and there’s a freak inside of the castle, you can direct it."
We did the movie pretty quickly. It was filmed in a castle owned by Charles Band. Make sure you get the director’s cut, because a few things have been taken out in the R-rated version.
KJD: Similar to what happened with Re-Animator?
SG: The R-rated version of Re-Animator was done without my involvement. I was working on From Beyond, shooting in Italy, and when I came back to the States, I found that the only version of Re-Animator available was the R-rated version. Once a movie is rated, that’s the only one that you’re allowed to distribute. We were very upset about it because we had no involvement in making these cuts and changes. We went back to the MPAA and asked them if they would take back the R-rating. They said that was the first time anyone had ever requested that! [Laughter] But they did it. They took back the R and let us release the unrated version.
KJD: Is it true that when you attended the University of Wisconsin as a college student, you took heat from authorities for staging a psychedelic version of Peter Pan?
SG: Unfortunately, it’s true. I was also arrested for that production. So if any one tells you I can’t get arrested, they’re wrong [laughter].
I was arrested on obscenity charges back in 1968. We did the production as a satire of the '68 democratic convention, happening in Chicago. I turned it into a political allegory. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys became hippies, the pirates became the Chicago Police Department, and Captain Hook became the original Mayor Daly of Chicago. After they all went off to Never Land, they dropped acid. That scene got us into trouble, because it was a psychedelic dance sequence and we had a light show projected onto the naked bodies of seven female dancers. We were told that we had to shut the production down. We felt that was a violation of our free speech, so we performed it again, and got arrested.
I’ve always thought it might be fun to do a movie of the event, ‘cause it was so crazy. We’ve even talked of the idea of doing Re-Animator as a musical, which would be really strange, with severed heads singing and dancing.
KJD: In 1969, you formed Chicago’s Organic Theater, and oversaw several productions, including those written by David Mamet. Can you elaborate on this experience?
SG: It was an experimental theater, an ensemble of actors, designers and writers. We created original plays and adaptations. We toured, performed, and brought productions to other places, including New York. We had some wonderful members of the ensemble. Joe Mantegna (House of Games) and Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) were with us. It was a great time. We produced David Mamet’s first play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
Dennis Franz was seen in Cops, a production we did. He and Mantegna played undercover policemen, and a casting director for Brian De Palma was there. He cast Dennis as a policeman in a movie called The Fury, and he’s been playing cops ever since.
KJD: Eventually, in 1984, you took on filmmaking with Re-Animator.
SG: I took a leave of absence from the theatre to direct it, then I went back to work after shooting wrapped. It was during that time that the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The reaction was great. The company that had distributed it offered me a three-picture deal. Empire Pictures released it, Charles Band’s company that has since become Full Moon. We moved to LA. As soon as we got there, he said, yeah, we’re gonna make three pictures, but we’re shooting them in Italy [laughter].
KJD: Alongside Empire/Full Moon guru Charles Band, another name that has long been associated with your movies is producer BrianYuzna. How did he become involved in the mix?
SG: A mutual friend named Bob Greenberg, who brought Brian to Chicago to see the Organic Theatre Company, introduced him to me. We were doing a play then called ER, about an emergency room. Brian had read the script for Re-Animator, and thought we were able to handle medical emergencies pretty well [laughter]).
KJD: Explain your fascination with author H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote much of your source material.
SG: I had really liked Lovecraft, had read him since I was a teenager. But Re-Animator was a really obscure Lovecraft story that I’d never heard of. Some associates and I were talking about all the Dracula movies that had been made, and thinking that someone should make a new Frankenstein movie. A friend suggested that I read Herbert West, Re-Animator, a series involving a scientist’s attempts to re-animate the dead. I discovered that the story was out of print, and I had to find a copy in the public library. It was from an old pulp magazine that literally was crumbling in my hands as I turned the pages. Lovecraft wrote the story as a serial, in six little installments, and they were all great. We had to ask ourselves how many of the six were we gonna put in the movie. In typical Brian Yuzna fashion, he said, "I think you should put all of them in the movie."
The stories follow West throughout his life, starting with him as a medical student. At the end of the stories, he’s in his fifties, and gets destroyed by his own creations. For Re-Animator, we took all six stories and compressed them in terms of time, having them all take place while he’s a medical student at Miskatonic University.
KJD: I notice that in Dagon, the leading man wears a shirt emblazoned with a Miskatonic University logo. There was a similar T-shirt worn by a cast member in From Beyond.
SG: Yeah. Lovecraft created a town called Arkham, Massachusetts, and Miskatonic is the University that’s located there. The Miskatonic Asylum for the Criminally Insane is also there.
KJD: Do you remember the first time you started reading Lovecraft’s stories?
SG: I read them in paperback books. It was in the sixties when I started reading his work, right around the time when he was finally being published (in book format). His stuff was put out in the fifties by Arkham house, a publishing company started by August Derleth, one of his friends. If it weren’t for that, I think Lovecraft would have been forgotten, because all of his work had previously only been published in these pulp magazines, and then they didn’t even bother renewing the copyrights on them. I read a bunch of those stories, and found them to be scary as hell. Because his work is public domain, it’s like a treasure trove.
KJD: The Sam Mendes film American Beauty (1999) included a reference to Re-Animator, in a scene where Kevin Spacey and Wes Bentley swap movie trivia.
SG: I got a call from Jeffrey Combs (the actor portraying Herbert West), who said that beyond their mention the film, they had duplicated the famous "lustful head" scene shot for shot at the end of American Beauty. I couldn’t believe it, then went back to take another look. It was true. In the scene where he’s finally going to seduce the cheerleader, his head is in the corner of the frame, and you can just see this disembodied head - Kevin Spacey’s head, lowering toward her, very much like the way we shot Re-Animator. It was really an homage to the film, and I was very honored.
KJD: Speaking of the famous love scene between the severed head of Professor Carl Hill (David Gale) and intact body of Megan Halsey (Crampton), were there certain limits set by Barbara when it was shot? I’d have to be inebriated to agree to something like that.
SG: Barbara is a very brave girl. Originally, we had cast another girl in that role, and when we told her she had the part, she completely chickened out and dropped out of the production. Then Barbara came in, and did the scene, knowing that it would be the one people would be talking about. I can’t even remember the name of the other actress.
KJD: In interviews, Brian Yuzna claims that a lot of the humor in Re-Animator was from you, and improvised. I understand that the movie was originally intended to be more of a straight-out horror experience.
SG: Well, I think that there were funny things in the original Lovecraft story. Whenever one of these experiments goes bad, the line that Herbert West keeps repeating is, "Well, I guess it just wasn’t fresh enough." All of us were coming up with bits and pieces of shtick. Brian actually came up with the bit where the professor, after being beheaded, is trying to put his head into the pan and it keeps falling over. He takes a note spike and sticks the head on it, which gets a huge laugh whenever we show it.
KJD: There’s another line where David Gale is demonstrating the removal of a cadaver’s scalp to a room of medical students. He describes the procedure as, "very much like peeling a large orange." Who came up with that?
SG: We interviewed and visited a lot of pathologists. We toured a morgue in Los Angeles, and we met these guys. They had the blackest senses of humor of anybody. This guy that was describing the process is the one who used that expression, and I said, "OK, that’s going in the movie."
I think a lot of the comedy in Re-Animator comes from these pathologists. If you’re gonna do a job like that, you’ve gotta have a sense of humor. The first time I ever visited a morgue, it was the Cook County Morgue in Chicago. There was a guy there named Dr. Stein. He was opening up what looked like meat lockers, and each would be full of bodies. I’d be walking along trying not to lose my lunch. We got to the end of the line, and he turned to his assistant, and said, "Well, he’s still standing. I guess he’s ready for the Rose Room." I said, "What’s the Rose Room?" It turned out that the Rose Room was for the bodies they found that had been dead for several weeks, several months, or in some cases, for several years.
He led me into this room, where there are all these decomposing bodies. There was one that looked sort of like what Dracula looks like after he gets hit with a burst of sunlight. I remember this shape of a body that was just, like, dust. There was a body that had been pulled out of the Chicago River that had been completely bloated. It was horrific. And the smell was so bad. That’s why they called it the Rose Room. I couldn’t get it out of my nose for about a month after that. It just stayed with me.
We tried to give that feeling to Re-Animator concerning the smell. I took the actors on a tour of the Cook County morgue, just because I wanted them to see how the bodies are treated and what the attitude was. Again, the smell was really bad. There is a scene in the film which shows Bruce Abbott going into a morgue locker, holding his breath while he’s doing his business inside there, then coming out and exhaling, gasping for air. That is really what you had to do while working there. It’s kind of hard to convey smell in movies, unless you do "smell-o-rama". No one would want to stay in the theatre very long.
KJD: One of Re-Animator's final scenes, where the zombies burst out of the black bags under command of Professor Hill, is very effective. Each body has a different look to it.
SG: We had a gunshot to the head, a failed operation, a motorcycle accident, and a burn victim. One pathologist I’d visited was asking me specifically about the corpses that would be seen in the movie. So I went through and listed them all. He said, "come back tomorrow". I came back the next day and he had a slide projector set up with a screen, and one chair (laughter). The nurse says to me, "I hope you have a strong stomach," sits me down in the chair, and starts going through slides that pathologists had taken of the various bodies they had worked with. It was kind of like, "Stuart Gordon, You Asked for It" (laughter)! Here’s the gunshot to the head. Here’s the burn victim. I started getting woozy. I was ready to pass out after about ten minutes. I finally asked them to stop, and said, "Let me just hold them up to the light. If they’re smaller, I think I can deal with this a little better."
The pathologist thought it was pretty funny. As a present, he actually ended up giving me a head block that they use for autopsies, which they put behind the neck to keep the head from moving around. Quite a souvenir.
KJD: Did you have any sort of fascination with forensics prior to researching Re-Animator?
SG: No. It was a real eye opener for me. I had never seen a dead body, except for one at a funeral that had been embalmed and made up and everything.
The attitude of the doctors, which I tried to get into Re-Animator, was that when you’re alive, they’ll do everything their power to save you, but as soon as you’re dead, you become garbage. You’re toxic waste. The idea of putting them in garbage bags was something we observed. I never saw any of these nice little drawers that you see in most movies, where they’re sliding bodies out. They were just sort of putting them on gurneys and heaping them on top of each other until they could get rid of them.
The other thing that was amazing to me was that the bodies looked nothing like they do in movies, which is usually sort of gray. In reality, they were all different colors, depending on how they died. When we made the film, we tried to make it more accurate, in terms of the way we portrayed the corpses. There were some that would be red. That usually had to do with a cardiac problem. Blue had to do with asphyxiation, yellow ones were jaundiced, and they would all have what is called pooling, where blood settles in the bodies. There would be a sort of two-tone effect, with the undersides all dark and purple. It was really pretty wild. My feeling was that the more real you could make something that is fantastic, the better your chances were of getting an audience to believe it.
KJD: During the early eighties, when Re-Animator was released, there seemed to be a whole movement of similar horror pictures that were released at the same time.
SG: One of the things that Brian Yuzna had me do that was a great education was to view all the movies made before Re-Animator, in the 'eighties. It was kind of like a horror movie film festival. We saw Evil Dead, and Driller Killer, and much more obscure ones. Brian said that we had to find a way to outdo these other films.
KJD: I think you did, by adding more sexual situations than the other films...
SG: Horror movies have always had a certain element of sexuality. There’s always the scene of the monster carrying the girl in the negligee off to the swamp, or something. However, they never show you exactly what he’s gonna do with her once they get there. So in Re-Animator, we did.
KJD: I understand that the Lovecraft story that inspired your next movie, From Beyond, was only used in the prologue.
SG: From Beyond is a very short story, only seven pages long. We used it in the movie as kind of a pre-title sequence and based on those themes, kind of expanded on it.
KJD: That film dealt with a resonator that would expand its user’s pineal gland, allowing them to see creatures that existed in another dimension while opening the gateway to a sixth sense. Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), the creator of this machine, is literally devoured by these monsters, seen morphing and melting into worsening states of deterioration. To get this effect, was the makeup quite taxing to apply?
SG: The monster he becomes is based on another Lovecraft concept called the shogoth, which is a shape-shifting, protoplasmic creature. The story that they talk about him in is one called, "At the Mountains of Madness". The shogoths were sort of beasts of burden, but as a Lovecraft line explains, "They accidentally gained intelligence." How they did that was by devouring their masters. They absorbed intelligence somehow. The creature that eats Pretorius becomes Pretorius, in a sense. "You are what you eat" was the idea.
We had Pretorius constantly shape-shifting. The most elaborate makeup on him is seen as half of his body sort of oozing and dripping away. Ted Sorel, who played Pretorius, said, "Please don’t make me do this more than once," because the makeup took eight hours to apply. I said, "OK Ted, but it may be a long day." He said, "I’d rather do that than go through all of this again." So we’re shooting, and everything’s going great, until about four hours go by. Then, he starts having problems remembering his lines, which was not like him. This is an actor who is really sharp. Then, he started swaying. Eventually, we realized that the makeup was inhibiting his movement and stopping his circulation. He wasn’t getting enough blood to his brain. We ripped the makeup off of him, and found that his arm had swollen to twice its normal size. The shoot had become became a real horror movie! It was a scary deal. He was a trooper. I think we did have to put him back into the makeup again.
Shooting movies can be a very dangerous thing. It always amazes me how many movies you go to see where they say, "in memory of so and so", after the film. You’re dealing with all kinds of stunts and pyrotechnics where there’s potential for disaster.
KJD: Dagon kind of brings things full circle, as the latest Lovecraft adaptation. It seemed to be a larger production that the previous installments, with scenes shot in the ocean and various other risky locales.
SG: Yes. There was one hard scene that involved a half-deflated raft, which we shot right on the open sea. It was scary. We used humor to relax us. It allowed us to get the scene done.
KJD: In your own words, describe the central theme of Dagon.
SG: A fear of genetics is a theme. Lovecraft’s parents went insane and had to be committed. He was afraid that the same thing would happen to him. That plays into this film.
KJD: Will this chain of Lovecraft-inspired horror films continue to grow?
SG: Probably. I’m currently toying with a project based on his story, "The Thing on the Doorstep." You know how they say people look more like each other the longer they’re married? Well, in this story, the people actually turn into each other. It’s Lovecraft’s ode to marriage.