On March 24, 2020, prolific cult filmmaker, Stuart Gordon, passed away at the age of 72. When I was first getting into horror, I discovered reruns of Showtime’s Masters of Horror on Sunday nights on the Chiller Network. The series was a short lived, but an engaging, episodic horror anthology in which horror filmmakers, old and new, would direct one episode per season. This was a gateway for me to explore the works of filmmakers I would come to find entertainment and influence from. Some of these filmmakers included Don Coscarelli, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and of course, Stuart Gordon.
Following Gordon’s career, I was intrigued by his filmography but just as much, the projects that could have been. Every director has unrealized efforts, but Gordon’s fallen projects show that he had more potential to rise above than most filmmakers in his field. Originally, Gordon was attached to direct Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for Disney, but dropped out due to the stress of the Mouse’s demands, and was even in early talks to direct a young Johnny Depp in American Psycho. One of the most famous stories of what could have been was when Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped out as the lead for his 1992 film, Fortress, thus cutting the initial budget in half. Gordon was still able to deliver a solid sci-fi flick that should be checked out, especially if you’re a fan of Paul Verhoeven’s American output.
Gordon was a director who adapted works from Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, and even David Mamet, both who started their careers in theater through Gordon’s Organic Theater Company. However, the work he is most known for is his adaptations of everyone’s favorite superstitious great-uncle, H.P. Lovecraft. Over his career, Gordon directed five films based on Lovecraft. It’s safe to say that so far this is the most of Lovecraft’s adaptations helmed by one director. Gordon’s Lovecraft Saga shows his evolution as a director, as well as his ability to work with the budgets set before him. Each one was a different, maddening beast, much like the elder gods that would drive any other filmmaker insane. Yet Gordon, and his co-writer, Dennis Paoli, kept coming back for more. So, to honor the madman, instead of picking a standout, I’ll discuss all five entries. Each of the films is a different exhibition into the absurd, the campy, and dark, the good, the bad, and the ugly of Lovecraft, and low-budget filmmaking in general.
1.) Re-Animator (1985): The one that started it all. The tale of the eccentric Herbert West and his serum that “restarts” the dead. Diverting from the original serialized story, Re-Animator, the adaptation takes a wackier, almost farcical approach to a mad scientist story. It’s the Nutty Professor meets Frankenstein with Jeffery Combs in his breakout role as West, able to chew the scenery like he’s never eaten before, but still take himself more seriously than anyone else. West transfers from the University of Zurich to the eponymous Miskatonic University after an attempt to re-animate his professor, Hans Gruber, goes haywire and he’s accused of murder. Or, he would be, if the film brought that up again. West transfers schools like nothing happened, and we accept it.
From there, West rooms with and forms an “Odd Couple” relationship with struggling med student, Dan Cain, played by Bruce Abbott. Cain acts as this film’s wide-eyed audience surrogate and unlikely accomplice to West’s experiments. Along with them, Barbara Crampton plays Megan Halsey, the daughter of Miskatonic’s dean, and the girlfriend of Cain. As for the villain, Re-Animator sports Dr. Carl Hill, played by David Gale, a neuroscience professor who West immediately starts an antagonistic relationship with.
Gordon, Paoli, and their frequent producer, Brian Yuzna, take the concept of the original short story and turn it into a college comedy meets Evil Dead. And that’s awesome! There’s the villainous professor at odds with the rebellious new kid, a prank that goes wrong, expulsion, and an explosive finale. If it wasn’t for all the body horror, this could have had National Lampoon stamped on it.
Cain, after witnessing the effects of West’s serum on his recently dead cat, tells the Dean about this incredible and otherworldly discovery. The Dean, being sane, but easily angered, promptly expels West and orders Cain to cease communication or suffer the same fate. Not scared by abuse of authority, Cain and West sneak into the morgue to reanimate one of the stiffs on site to prove the theory works. That’ll show’em.
However, the corpse they perform the test on is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stand-in on Terminator, who reacts by roid-raging around the morgue. The Dean and Megan arrive, conveniently, and the Dean is mauled by the stampeding man-mountain. Not one to waste an opportunity with the freshest corpse in the room, West re-animates the Dean to the same result.
The Dean is put into the care of Dr. Hill who immediately confronts West at home. Instead of turning West over to the authorities, Hill announces that he’s going to take all of West’s research and claim it as his own. West rationally reacts by decapitating Hill with a shovel and tries to re-animate the head. Hill wakes up and is not too pleased. Still able to control his own body, despite no attachment, Hill knocks out West, steals the serum, kidnaps Megan, and enslaves the Dean as his Igor; two egotistical, mad scientists who don’t realize how inept they are.
Combs is perfectly cast, playing the role he was born to play and hasn’t really stopped playing since (not that we’re complaining). He’s delightfully selfish and narrow-minded; it’s just him and his work. Unfortunately, Abbott and Crampton aren’t given much to do in this film. They’re both pretty reactionary as characters, with Crampton pretty much just showing up to be horrified and later subjected to the villain’s plans. Really the only actor matching Combs in terms of ham is David Gale; he’s lecherous and over-confident, probably having too much fun.
TRIGGER WARNING if needed! Most of us, of course, remember this film for the climactic scene where Megan is almost assaulted by Hill’s severed head. It’s probably the most vile visual pun put to film. Props to Crampton for committing to this role, scream queen status and all, knowing so many others would have jumped ship. It’s still an effectively disturbing scene that goes just far enough before pulling the punch. It was apparently effective enough back in the day that David Gale’s wife allegedly divorced him for participating.
One of those 80's horror films made for under a million, Re-Animator shines as an example of the genre, rolling with its imperfections and 24 gallons of blood to spare. It was unapologetically provocative and successful enough that producer Brian Yuzna continued the series in his own directing career.
2). From Beyond (1986): though often overlooked by horror fans, From Beyond is 80’s horror at its finest. Riding high off of the commercial success of Ghoulies and Re-animator, Empire Pictures greenlit From Beyond along with ten other projects to be released in 1986. Gordon brought over the majority of his cast and crew of Re-animator for a more polished round two.
As an adaptation, the film brings the entirety of the seven page story to life before the opening credits even role. Two scientists, a narrator, and a man named Crawford Tillinghast, are testing a device, the Resonator, which stimulates the brain’s pineal gland through electronic waves. Once the gland is exposed, the user is able to see an overlapping dimension outside of our own. Needless to say, the experiment is a success and the two realities merge, but the narrator destroys the machine, killing Tillinghast. The adaptation, From Beyond, opens with Tillinghast as the narrator, once again played by the always welcome Jeffery Combs. Tillinghast serves as an assistant to the Resonator’s creator, and he’s a nod to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, specifically Dr. Edward Pretorius. The experiment is a success and the “beyond” is shown. Upon realizing the creatures within are aware of the two, and hostile, Tillinghast abandons the power-mad Pretorius in the attic lab where his head is devoured by one of the creatures. With Pretorious’ headless body left behind in our world, the police accuse Tillinghast of the murder.
Acting as a pseudo-sequel to the short story, the film comes into its own with Barbara Crampton’s Dr. Katherine McMichaels as a psychiatrist assigned to Tillinghast and the only one vouching for his innocence. Crampton is able to come a long way from being the horror movie blond she was a year prior, showing agency and control. Once the plot of returning to Pretorius’ home is set in place, the Gordon train rounds out with Ken Foree affectionately named Detective Bubba Brownlee (not everything ages well). The always welcome Foree, acts as our straight-man as the madness once again unfolds.
Returning to the house, we see the experiment play out again where more creatures are being released from the “beyond.” The trio discovers Dr. Pretorius reborn within one of the monsters, mutating further with each appearance. With almost five times the budget of Re-Animator, the film goes all out with its creature effects, designed by the late John Carl Buechler. I mean, the effects have to be top notch because they still managed to liquidate the budget before filming was complete. We’re able to see so many varieties of monsters taking on the likenesses of sea creatures and reptilian bats.
A special shoutout has to be made to Pretorius, the best villain in these films. Despite being an original edition, the underrated Ted Sorel crafts a naturally slimy, almost Bond-like villain, even before the physical form dies. From there, Sorel is able to act his way through increasingly heavy make-up. Any actor committed to an ever-increasing amount of prosthetics deserves more commonality.
Combs and Crampton are given ample screen time to over-act, with Combs’ Tillinghast equally succumbing to madness and mutation. His complicated and unsettling relationship with Pretorius is left vague enough for interpretation but present enough in the background to warrant further discussion. Combs is even able to become believably horrifying in the film’s stand-out “brain-sucking” scene towards the third act, completing his Lovecraftian transition into madness.
Crampton of course takes over more agency, starting as a confident psychiatrist, but also developing a more Pretorius-like mind set at the prospect of the Resonator benefiting her own research. Sure, she almost gets objectified as much as she did in Re-animator during the third act. Though to the film’s credit, Crampton is able to save herself by the end and be the lone-survivor of the horrific ordeal.
From Beyond, though a financial flop upon release, is a neon purple drug trip that deserves a wider audience. Gordon’s campy magnum opus is an experience that demands to be on every horror fan’s radar.
Be sure to tune in next Sunday for part 2 of 3.
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