Shock Q&A: Stanley’s Master of Horror, Stuart Gordon

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For the second Master of Horror award, The Stanley Film Festival has chosen to honor Stuart Gordon. The filmmaker boasts an incredible, unique filmography in the genre, and with his 1985 all-timer Re-Animator celebrating its 30th birthday, he couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. For the increasingly experiential festival however, this goes beyond a mere anniversary.

Stanley’s intent is to present horror in all its form, something Gordon has done from the beginning. The director has deep roots in theater, forming the Organic Theater Company in 1970 alongside his wife Carolyn Purdy Gordon, and since he’s explored literature, theater, television and film, returning to authors, themes and cast, presenting fresh perspectives each time. Gordon’s carried the spirit of Lovecraft through Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak and Dagon. He’s worked and reworked Re-Animator through feature film, an unmade series and recently, an acclaimed musical. He’s directed Mamet plays on stage (Sexual Perversity in Chicago) and on screen (Edmond). Similarly, he had kindred collaborator Jeffrey Combs channel Edgar Allan Poe in two productions, the Masters of Horror episode, “The Black Cat” and the unreal one-man show, Nevermore.

As Stanley unspools a lineup of the latest in stellar horror filmmaking, a showcase of the some of the best of genre past (the two overlap with Re-Animator star Barbara Crampton starring in two new films), as well as a live radio play, an immersive live-action game and theatrical performance of The Pumpkin Pie Show, it feels the perfect home for Gordon to be recognized.

In anticipation of Gordon’s Master of Horror Award, career talk with Mick Garris and the festival’s 35MM presentation of Re-Animator, Shock Till You Drop spoke with the filmmaker about Re-Animator’s legacy, its further possibilities and much more…

Shock Till You Drop: How do you think your theatrical background informed your perspective as a horror filmmaker?

Stuart Gordon: The theater company that my wife and I started was called the Organic Theater, and we did a lot of science fiction and horror plays. So, the jump to movies in some ways wasn’t all that different, really. We did a play called Poe, which was a nightmare collage of Poe’s life mixed with his work. We did a ghost story called Beckoning Fair One; we did a science fiction trilogy called Warp which was about superheroes, sort of inspired by Marvel Comics. The kind of stuff that we were dong onstage was not that dissimilar to the kind of films I ended up making.

Shock: Do you think your training and process on stage lent you a different outlook on how to approach horror?

Gordon: I think that theater gave me an opportunity to work with actors and work with writers—Dennis Paoli, who ended up writing all of the Lovecraft adaptations that I did was working with the theater company, as well. It sort of gave us an opportunity to try out some of these techniques. In some ways, when you do it live on stage, it can be more disturbing.

Shock: It often seems like horror is very difficult to make work on stage.

Gordon: It’s funny, I’ve gone back to doing theater again. I just did a play called Taste, which is based on the true story of a guy who put an ad on the internet for someone he could kill and eat. We had people fainting during the performances of that show.

Shock: What do you think provoked that? Performance?

Gordon: It was a combination. The writing, the actors. I used some of my old FX guys on it, as well. Tony Doublin, who did the FX for Re-Animator and Gabriel Bartalos, who I worked with on Dolls way back when. There were some things that were very graphic, and the audience wasn’t prepared for some of the stuff that we showed them.

Shock: The FX in Re-Animator still feel like pure movie magic. They’re grand, they’re fun. At the time, do you expect them to hold up so well?

Gordon: I’m absolutely amazed that people are still enjoying the movie, thirty years later. It’s wonderful. Most movies you don’t want to see again two weeks after you’ve seen it. The fact that there’s still an audience and more and more people are discovering it, I think it’s great. I never expected, even when I did the movie. I was just hoping that the fans would like it.

Shock: What was the atmosphere making something low budget then? Something that is so FX-heavy and wild?

Gordon: Yeah, the biggest challenge we had is we have a character who’s walking around, carrying his head around for the last 30 minutes of the movie. It’s easy to do something that only lasts a few seconds, but when you have to keep it going… We used all different kinds of techniques to pull it off, a lot of which—we recently ended up doing a musical version of Re-Animator—we used those same FX on stage.

Shock: What keeps you returning to Lovecraft?

Gordon: Lovecraft has got so many great stories, literally hundreds of them. He’s really this untapped resource. I think people now are discovering him and there are more Lovecraft adaptations, which is great. And these Lovecraft film festivals. They make these short films based on Lovecraft and a lot of those are terrific. The thing about Lovecraft also is his ideas are so fresh and bizarre, they never age. They’re still way ahead of us.

Shock: He’s become known for what’s unknown, yet you tap into another side. The bigger, the gorier.

Gordon: Some of Lovecraft’s stories are very explicit and Re-Animator is one of them. Some of his stories are very internal and those would be very hard to adapt, but Re-Animator, I think he was having fun with it. He was trying to do his version of Frankenstein. He describes pretty much all of the various things that we do in our movie. Lovecraft provided us all of the ingredients.

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Shock: Speaking outside of Re-Animator, what’s your favorite Lovecraft adaptation of yours?

Gordon: I was very happy to finally do Dagon, which was originally supposed to be the movie that we did after Re-Animator way back when. It took us 20 years to get it made. When we presented the idea, it was Empire Pictures and Charles Band, the idea of a village where people were turning into fish, they thought was ridiculous and laughable. We ended up doing From Beyond instead, but I’ve always loved that story and I finally got to do it with Brian Yuzna when he had the Fantastic Factory in Spain. We shot it in Galicia, which was great.

It’s my all-time favorite Lovecraft story, and even though we called it Dagon, it really was The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which was kind of a novella that he wrote. The thing about Lovecraft’s writing, his earlier stories are very short. Some of them are only a few pages long, and the longer that we wrote, the longer his stories became. At the end, he was writing things like At the Mountains of Madness, which was a novella. Shadow Over Innsmouth was one of the last stories that he wrote.

Shock: We’re seeing films, especially in horror, that are very explicit about their influences. Your work is often one of them. Making something Re-Animator, were you thinking to influences?

Gordon: Well, I was thinking a lot about movies like James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. I’m also a big comic book fan, I kept thinking about Bernie Wrightson. Some of the shots in Re-Animator are very Wrightson-influenced, I would say. He gets these great angles on things. When I got to work on The Black Cat, Bernie had done an adaptation in a comic book and I used that as storyboards for the film.

Shock: The audience for Castle Freak seems to be growing. Have you noticed this new appreciation?

Gordon: Yeah, I’m happy about that. That was a movie that was kind of like the little freak in the cellar [laughs]. It took a long time for people to find it. I’m very proud of that movie. The work, starting with script that Dennis Paoli wrote, the performances by Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, it’s just a very strong movie and I think it really holds up.

Shock: Your bond is strong with these actors you’ve worked with continuously. How do you think your relationship creatively and their work has evolved?

Gordon: They get stronger as actors. They started out being incredibly talented and they’re wonderful to begin with, and very brave. That’s the other thing about Barbara and Jeffrey. They are willing to try just about anything and pull it off. Good acting is the best special effect, it’s what makes the audience believe what they’re watching is really happening. The actors have to be the ones to convince the audience. I think they keep growing as artists, too.

Shock: Re-Animator was originally intended as a television series.

Gordon: That was based on the fact that Lovecraft wrote Re-Animator as a serial. He wrote it in six installments, published in a magazine called Home Brew. The idea originally was, why don’t we do a six-part little miniseries and follow Lovecraft really sort of episode by episode? I was unable to get it done. Originally they were a half-hour and someone suggested, “Maybe you need to expand it into an hour.” Finally, I met Brian Yuzna and he said, “I think this should be a feature.” When we turned it into an hour, we took the first two stories and combined them, and then, so I guess we’ll need to take the first three to make it into a feature. [Yuzna said] “No, no take them all. Put ‘em all.”

Shock: That feels so ahead of its time, the way so many horror properties are moving to television and being expanded, from Hannibal to Psycho to The Omen.

Gordon: It’s true, and I’m happy. Horror, I believe is the most popular genre of all, so the fact that television caught up with that, it’s about time.

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Shock: Similarly, Re-Animator is being embraced in different fashion, like the musical. I imagine your theatrical roots keep you refreshing these works. Many get a bit up-in-arms about remakes and reinterpretations.

Gordon: There’s no one right way to do anything. When you do theater, how many productions are there of Romeo & Juliet? The different interpretations and set in different periods and so forth. Any good story lends itself to that, to tell them over and over again and it’s the way that you tell the story that makes it fresh.

Shock: Do you hope to see Re-Animator: The Musical adapted to film, or simply to tour?

Gordon: I’d love to tour it. We took it to Las Vegas this year and that was fun. I’d like to do more touring with it. I’d love to bring it back for a run in New York City. That’s our ultimate goal, but maybe at some point it could be a movie. We’ve gotten to be friends with some of the folks who do The Simpsons and we’ve started discussing the idea of turning it into an animated film, which I think sounded really cool. That’s something we’re kicking around.

Shock: What excites you about exploring Re-Animator in an animated version?

Gordon: With animation, literally anything is possible. That’s what’s so great about it. Trying to come up with the right look and style would be fun. It’s larger than life, so I think it could work well as an animated feature.

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Shock: Are you still interested in a Nevermore film?

Gordon: What we were thinking about doing when we were talking about filming it, was to really open it up into a movie, which would make it very different. The live performance is really, really strong because you feel like you’re in the same room with Edgar Allan Poe for 90 minutes. Jeffrey Combs’ performance is extraordinary and it was inspired by us doing The Black Cat together for Masters of Horror. I really did feel like I was hanging out with Edgar Allan Poe and thought, “wouldn’t it be great if we could do that for a live audience?” There are great strengths in both things, the live performance and a movie, but a movie would have to be very different from the play.

Shock: You’re being awarded at Stanley. Are you looking to see any new films, and inspire and address new filmmakers there?

Gordon: I love meeting filmmakers and I like a lot of the work that I see done today. Horror, as I said, has always been the most popular genre and I love seeing what people come up with. Every generation is going to approach it differently. I love being surprised and shocked and having the shit scared out of me.

I really want to see Barbara Crampton’s new movie, We Are Still Here. I love her work. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of them. I still get a chance to see new films. I saw a movie called Honeymoon recently that I thought was really good; very well done, and very Lovecraftian. I think that director is great and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work.

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