If the 1930s and 1940s were the golden age of the classical Hollywood cinema, and the 1970s gave us the American New Wave via the films of Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Coppola, et al., the 1980s represents its own kind of golden age: the golden age of North American horror. As the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” era wound down, a new breed of artist emerged to react both to and against the mores of the Reagan epoch just as the children of Bonnie and Clyde responded to the age of Nixon. Directors like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen and Joe Dante countered the prevailing nostalgia and complacency of the time with witty, often savage commentaries on race, family values, and Reaganomics. Perhaps the most emblematic moment in their work came when an unemployed construction worker put his sunglasses on to expose the consumerist ideology lying behind all of our images in Carpenter’s They Live.
One of the most confrontational—and, perhaps not coincidentally, most unabashedly entertaining—of the ’80s horror masters was Stuart Gordon, a Chicago theater director-turned-filmmaker whose debut movie Re-Animator announced a spectacularly bold and original voice. Like most great horror, that film not only ignored boundaries of good taste but demolished them, particularly in an ingenious visual pun in which a still functioning decapitated head … well, as Stephen King noted, it was the first time a head ever gave head. Re-Animator, which garnered rave reviews from esteemed critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert while also developing a following among the gore hounds, remains Gordon’s most famous work, but the films that followed are as consistently inventive, frightening, and funny as those of any of his peers. Paradoxically, he moved the genre forward by looking back, finding inspiration in the works of H.P. Lovecraft (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, and others) and Poe (The Pit and the Pendulum) but reimagining his sources so completely as to create a new brand of contemporary horror that has proved highly influential in the films of Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and other young genre directors. (The influence is even more keenly felt in the work of Guillermo del Toro, whose Pacific Rim is unthinkable without Gordon’s example—it’s practically a remake of his Robot Jox.)
It’s fitting that Gordon’s first two pictures, Re-Animator and From Beyond, have been selected to launch the American Cinematheque’s retrospective series “Night of the Living ’80s: A New Wave of Horror.” Gordon will appear with his producer Brian Yuzna on July 30 at the double feature, which will be followed by several weeks of programming devoted to Cohen, Dante, William Lustig and others, all appearing in person at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. I spoke with Gordon on the eve of the screening, which happens to coincide with the Blu-ray release of Robot Jox.
Re-Animator was your first film, but you were already an accomplished theater director. Obviously, you had a lot of experience working with actors and blocking and all that, but how did you educate yourself in terms of the things that are specific to film?
Stuart Gordon: I was very lucky that I had an excellent director of photography, Mac Ahlberg, who I used to call the professor because he taught me all the basics in terms of things like screen direction, which I had absolutely no idea about. I would start setting up a shot and he’d say, “This won’t cut with what we just did.” I’d say, “Sure it will, you just glue the two pieces of film together, what’s the problem?” I didn’t really understand it until he explained it to me, but luckily I had a lot of people like that with a lot of experience helping me out.
Paste: At the Organic Theater, you had done all kinds of things, including the world premiere of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. One might have expected you to make your filmmaking debut with a kind of art-house drama or something, but you chose horror … was that a pragmatic commercial choice, or a creative one, or both?
Gordon: A friend of mine suggested that I do a horror film, explaining that it was the easiest thing to raise money for and the easiest way for investors to get their money back, no matter how terribly it turned out. The board of the Organic Theater was not happy about it—originally I was going to do it with the company and shoot it at the theater, but they did think we should be doing an art film and refused to allow me to do a horror film there.
Paste: What were some of the horror films you admired before you became a horror filmmaker yourself?
Gordon: Of course, with Re-Animator I was thinking a lot about Frankenstein as the inspiration. The whole thing began with a conversation I was having with this woman where I complained that all anyone wanted to make was vampire movies, and I wanted somebody to make a Frankenstein movie. She suggested that I read H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Re-Animator, which I had never heard of even though I knew Lovecraft pretty well. I had to seek it out—it was no longer in print—and when I read it I started thinking about how to adapt it.
Paste: Didn’t it start out as a TV series or something like that?
Gordon: Yeah, we had turned our play Bleacher Bums into a television show for public television, so I knew the people over there pretty well. I went to them with the idea of doing Herbert West: Re-Animator as a six-part mini-series, but they were just not interested in it. Lovecraft actually wrote it as a serial in six installments, and originally we were going to do it faithfully to those stories, setting it in period and so forth. We tried doing it as half-hour episodes, then an hour, but we couldn’t get it going for television and eventually I got it to [producer] Brian Yuzna, who was looking for something to do at the time. He really liked it, and we decided to turn it into a feature.
Paste: You ended up doing a lot of films over the years with Charles Band, whose company Empire Pictures released Re-Animator. How did that association come about?
Gordon: Brian worked out a deal with them: in exchange for giving them the distribution rights, they provided post-production facilities for the film. They actually became much more involved than that—in fact, it was Charlie Band who insisted that we replace our director of photography with Mac Ahlberg.
Paste: Had you already begun shooting at that point?
Gordon: Oh yeah, we shot a week with the first guy and all the material he shot is in the movie—it’s not like it was unusable. But there was a sequence that the producers thought was too dark, and that’s when they brought Mac in to take over.
Paste: Tell me a little about the casting. Originally I imagine you were going to just use people from the Organic, but when that didn’t work out you cast a lot of people out of Los Angeles who would become consistent members of your stock company, like Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. I always think of Combs as your Max von Sydow, in the way that Bergman would use von Sydow all the time but sometimes he would be a lead, sometimes he’d be a kind of glorified extra…
Gordon: That’s exactly right, I always do that when I find actors I enjoy working with. Jeffrey was brought in by our casting director Anthony Barnao, who had seen him in a play—as soon as he walked in and started reading, we knew this was the guy, even though in Lovecraft’s story West is described as being a blue-eyed blonde. Barbara Crampton actually came in very late; I had cast a different actress in the part, but she got cold feet because she talked to her mother about it and her mother insisted that she leave the production immediately. Again, Anthony Barnao found Barbara, and she was so much better than the first woman we had—I can’t even remember the other actress’s name now.
Paste: The performances in that movie are uniformly terrific, and it’s a tricky tone—if one person gets the balance between horror and comedy off, the whole movie falls apart. How did you get everybody on the same page so that the acting style—which is somewhat theatrical—remained consistent?
Gordon: We rehearsed for two weeks at Barbara Crampton’s apartment, during which we treated the scenes in order as if it were a play, because I knew that when we started shooting we wouldn’t have time to talk about motivation and things like that. That really got everyone comfortable with each other and the script.
Paste: How long was your shooting schedule?
Gordon: Eighteen days, although we came back and shot the opening sequence several weeks later. That scene had been cut from the script, but when Brian Yuzna saw the first assembly he thought we needed it to let people know what kind of film this was going to be.
Paste: The movie is wildly ambitious for a first feature … did you find that your ideas outstripped your resources?
Gordon: We worked on that script for so long that we boiled it down to the essentials—when you’re making a low-budget movie you need as few characters as possible, as few locations as possible … there are actually no exteriors in the whole movie. We ended up shooting a couple of establishing shots after the fact to open it up a bit, but overall it was very spare, and that was deliberate.
Paste: Did you do a lot of takes on average? Watching the movie again recently I couldn’t help but think about what a pain it must have been to reset every time you called cut, given the enormous amounts of blood and gore drenching the set.
Gordon: Yeah, we did very few takes for exactly that reason—it would have taken forever to clean up all the blood. The main thing I remember about shooting Re-Animator is that my shoes stuck to the floor the whole time.
Paste: Aside from realizing you needed the prologue, were there any other major discoveries in editing? Things you thought you needed but didn’t, or vice versa?
Gordon: There was a whole subplot that ended up getting cut in which Dr. Hill had the ability to hypnotize people. Albert Band, Charlie’s father, suggested we get rid of it. He said something that I think is very true, which is that a movie should only have one fantastic thing—if you expect the audience to believe more than that you’re going to stretch credibility too far—and the fantastic thing here was the serum that could bring the dead back to life.
Paste: When did you first see the movie with other people and realize what you had?
Gordon: We had a test screening in San Francisco, and at the end—spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the movie—when Meg has been killed and is lying on the autopsy table, someone in the audience yelled, “Use the juice!” That’s when I knew it was working.
Next: About those MPAA ratings…
Paste: The movie went out unrated … was that the intention from the beginning, or did you ever try to get it rated by the MPAA?
Gordon: We did, but it became clear that if we cut it to their standards the movie would be about fifteen minutes long. I have to say that it was really brave of Empire Pictures to release the film unrated, though all of those things people say about not being able to get ads or theaters simply aren’t true. We had a perfectly good release, so unless you’re a major studio or something, you really don’t need a rating … it’s interesting, A Room with a View actually went out unrated. It had one shot of full frontal male nudity, and that was enough to give it an X rating, so rather than taking that rating they just released it without it.
Paste: You did get your next film, From Beyond, rated, and I know it created a lot of headaches for you. Was an R rating contractually obligated on that picture?
Gordon: Yes, and they really gave us a hard time, partially as payback for releasing Re-Animator unrated. And we thought we were so clever, because instead of using blood we just had a lot of slime and goo, but the MPAA said that was even more disgusting!
From Beyond was another Lovecraft adaptation, and you did more after that … your relationship to Lovecraft always reminds me of Corman and his Poe films. Were those an inspiration to you, and did you always have a series like that in mind?
Gordon: Yes, absolutely, I loved those Poe movies. I saw them as a teenager and they led me to read Poe, as a matter of fact. So that was always the plan, if Re-Animator was successful—you know, the name above the title is Lovecraft’s. He was the star of the movie as far as we were concerned, and we wanted to do a whole series. Originally the follow-up was supposed to be Dagon [which Gordon ended up making in 2001], but Charlie Band thought the idea of people turning into fish was ludicrous, so he insisted that we use a different story and Brian Yuzna chose From Beyond.
Paste: On Re-Animator you were completely inexperienced, but you came to From Beyond having learned how to make a movie – in fact, if I have my timeline right you actually shot Dolls in between. How did this alter your approach going in? Did you approach pre-production in any way differently from how you had on Re-Animator?
Gordon: Not really, although it was a more complicated movie when it came to the effects. We actually shot it on the same set where we shot Dolls, just re-dressed Roger Corman-style. Dolls was actually thrown at us at the last minute—we’d been planning From Beyond for months, and suddenly Charlie Band handed me this script and asked me to shoot it first. I liked the script, so I agreed.
Paste: So why did it come out after From Beyond? Did it have something to do with all the effects work?
Gordon: Exactly. The stop-motion animation added six months to the post-production, so From Beyond was finished long before Dolls even though we shot it later.
Paste: Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton return in From Beyond, but they’re essentially trading roles from what they did in that film—here, Barbara is the mad scientist. Did you write the parts with them in mind?
Gordon: Yeah, that way of working comes from my theater, where we had an ensemble that would perform in all the plays—when we found somebody good, we hung on to them for years. I wanted to do the same thing in my films, and I loved working with Jeffrey and Barbara so much I wanted to use them again after Re-Animator. There was a bit of an argument about Barbara because she was playing this psychiatrist and some people thought she didn’t seem old enough, so we just added a couple lines about her being a “girl wonder” and that fixed the problem.
Paste: You mentioned that on Re-Animator you built rehearsal time with your actors into the schedule. Ironically, as movies get bigger that’s often not a possibility—were you able to hold rehearsals for From Beyond?
Gordon: Oh yeah, I’ve done that on all my films. I think it’s really essential. I can’t imagine beginning without any rehearsal and meeting for the first time on set—although as you say, it’s kind of the norm, which just floors me.
Paste: After Re-Animator you shot your next several films in Rome, at Empire’s studios there Were there significant differences between the Italian crews and American ones?
Gordon: The thing about Italian films in those days is that they never recorded sound—everything was added later. One time when we were making Dolls, a carpenter kept hammering during the scene—he was building a set while we were shooting. I went over to him and told him he couldn’t do that, and he said, “Senior Fellini always lets me work.” I said, “Well, I’m not Fellini,” and he said, “That’s for sure.” [laughs]
Paste: Aside from the casting, another way you kind of flip Re-Animator around in From Beyond is in the color scheme, which is a kind of hot, vivid pink as opposed to Re-Animator’s green and gray. Where did you come up with the idea for the palette?
Gordon: Lovecraft talks about that in the story—he refers to ultraviolet light and the idea that the eye sees things it can’t normally see when you’re going into the beyond. So Mac and I got some of our visual ideas straight from Lovecraft, and it actually helped us a lot because that color made the effects look more believable somehow.
Paste: Right out of the gate your films had a very lush, beautiful visual style … how much of that is planned and how much happens on set?
Gordon: Whenever I’m doing an effects sequence I storyboard it, so a lot of From Beyond was planned in advance. When it’s a scene that does not involve a lot of effects I base it on the rehearsals—that’s another thing that’s really helpful about rehearsals, that you can walk around and watch the actors while they’re running a scene and figure out the best angles from which to shoot it.
Paste: Let’s wrap up by touching on Robot Jox, since Shout! Factory just put out a great new Blu-ray edition of the film.
Gordon: I got the idea for that from these Japanese toys that I loved—I had started collecting them, and a lot of the boxes would have these pictures of gigantic robots in hangars with maintenance crews working on them and so forth. I always thought, wow, what a great movie that would be! I kept waiting for the Japanese to make one of those films, and they never did—they did some animé, but never a live-action version. So I took the idea to Charlie Band and he responded to it. Plus, his studios that we were working in in Italy in those days had huge soundstages—it was like working at Universal. That allowed us to build enormous hangars and robots with full-size legs and all that—we really took advantage of our resources.
Paste: Why did it take so long for the movie to come out?
Gordon: As with Dolls, we had very complicated special effects. They were supposed to be done in a couple of months, and they ended up taking a year. The reason is that Dave Allen, who did the stop-motion work, decided that it would be better to shoot it outdoors in the Mojave Desert so that you would have sunlight and all this great depth of field. It was a great idea, but it put us at the mercy of the weather. There were sandstorms and flooding and everything that could go wrong—it was like the ten plagues of Egypt. Then the other thing that delayed the release was that Empire went out of business before the movie was completed. A new company took over, and they had to decide whether they wanted to finish Robot Jox, and it took them about six months to make up their minds.
Paste: I think it holds up really well though—the miniature stuff still looks great. More realistic, in some cases, than the CG upgrades in Pacific Rim.
Gordon: Well, that’s thanks to Dave Allen and his approach, which was inspired, if you can believe it, by Darby O’Gill and the Little People—he was using those same in-camera effects. It took a lot of extra time and care to do that, but it was worth it.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, currently available on DVD and iTunes. He writes about movies and television for American Cinematographer, Filmmaker Magazine and Talkhouse Film, among many other outlets.