John Waters once claimed that even if he took nothing else away from high-school English, he learned the term "shock value." Stuart Gordon could make the same statement. In 1985, Gordon evoked a mixture of admiration, amusement, and infamy with Re-Animator, a film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story. An entertaining mix of black comedy and visceral horror, the film found the border of good taste and headed straight for the lands beyond. Though Re-Animator was Gordon's first film, in many ways it was simply a continuation of his stage work, begun years earlier at the University of Wisconsin, where several of his productions courted outrage and attracted police attention. From there, he moved to Chicago, where his work with the Organic Theater spanned everything from David Mamet plays to the venerable Cubs drama Bleacher Bums to audience-challenging adaptations of Shakespeare. The Organic balked at producing Re-Animator, however, so Gordon took his vision to Hollywood. Since then, he's primarily written and directed horror and science-fiction films, such as Dolls, Robot Jox, Space Truckers, and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, a fanciful Ray Bradbury adaptation starring old friend Joe Mantegna and first staged by Gordon several decades ago. Throughout, Gordon has returned to Lovecraft adaptations, with Re-Animator's 1986 successor From Beyond, 1995's Castle Freak, and the recent video release Dagon, an atmospheric shocker about an isolated Spanish town and the unspeakable horror that lives in the surrounding waters. In a recent conversation with The Onion A.V. Club, Gordon discussed Lovecraft, theater, and his shocking past.
The Onion: Did you ever think when you did Re-Animator that 20 years later you'd still be adapting H.P. Lovecraft?
Stuart Gordon: Well, I sort of hoped that we would. When we did Re-Animator, our dream was that we'd be able to do a series of films based on Lovecraft's work. You know, kind of patterned after the Poe movies that Roger Corman did. And it's come to pass, which is wonderful.
O: Had Lovecraft adaptations been done before?
SG: There had been several Lovecraft movies, but most of them didn't give credit to Lovecraft. There was one, actually, that was done as a Poe movie called The Haunted Palace, which was actually a Lovecraft story called "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward," but they tried to pass it off as a Poe story.
O: Poe is more of a household name, I guess.
SG: Yeah, and it was Roger Corman and Vincent Price and that whole group. I think they were running out of Poe stories, so they went to Lovecraft. But it's a pretty faithful adaptation of Lovecraft's work. There was also another movie made of "The Dunwich Horror"—I think it was in the '70s—with Sandra Dee, believe it or not. And it was made based on the success of Rosemary's Baby.
O: What kinds of problems do you run into in adapting Lovecraft?
SG: A lot of his stories are difficult to present because they're very internal. He always says this thing, you know, "It was too horrifying to describe." [Laughs.] Or "And then I fainted." It works great when you're reading it, because it leaves so much to the imagination, but when you're making a movie, you have to show something. What we've tried to do is to pick the stories that we think are the most cinematic. You know, the ones that are the most active and have a lot of action in them. Re-Animator was really perfect movie material, because it was so action-packed and had all these incredible and outrageous gore effects and things. But also, the story that Dagon is partially based on is called "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which is, I think, one of Lovecraft's most action-packed stories. It's a chase sequence, mainly, about the guy coming to the town and the whole town coming after him, and I think that translated into really effective cinema.
O: This was originally meant to follow Re-Animator, right?
SG: It was just too weird. You know, we had done the script, and we gave it to the distributor, who had had a big success with Re-Animator, and it was, you know, "This is insane. I don't think we can do this."
O: Was it any weirder than From Beyond, though?
SG: I know, it's kind of odd to me, too, but everybody has their own ideas. We'd have meetings with people, and we would say, "And then the people of the town are turning into fish," and they would laugh, and that would be the end of the meeting.
O: They didn't think fish were scary enough?
SG: Yeah, there was one guy who actually said that to me: "Fish are not scary." I wanted to go get a muskie or something and drop it on his desk and see what he thought about that.
O: The eyes alone are scary enough.
SG: They are. You know, Lovecraft hated fish, and thought they were the most disgusting creatures in existence, and there is something about that. You look at pictures of the creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean, and they are very nightmarish.
O: How would you have made the film differently if you'd made it in '86 or '87?
SG: Well, I think it certainly wouldn't have been set in Spain. It would have been, like the original story, based in New England. And I think actually having more time to think about it was a good thing, as it turned out, because our original approach to the material was to really make it a monster mash and show lots and lots of monsters. And we kind of followed Lovecraft's lead, I think, when we finally made it, which is to show as little as possible. It's hard to imagine a town in America that was that cut off from the rest of the world. But somehow, when you put it on the Atlantic coast of Spain, it becomes more plausible.
O: How did it come to be made in Spain?
SG: It was because Brian Yuzna, who produced Re-Animator—he's got a division, and they're called The Fantastic Factory, and it's a Spanish company that's funding it. He's been doing a series of movies there, kind of patterning them after the old Hammer films. And he called me and said, "I think we can finally make Dagon, but it's going to have to be shot in Spain." We went around for a little bit about whether we should try to still pretend that we're in New England, and I went there and went scouting with him. We found this region of Spain called Galicia, which is right above Portugal, and it's a very, very strange place. It's Celtic, and they play the bagpipes there, and there are all these legends about witchcraft and ghosts and sea monsters. It's a very Lovecraftian place, with a lot of fog and rain, and it suddenly hit me that this was really better than what we'd originally planned.
O: You were lucky when you started that you kind of caught the tail end of companies that could finance and theatrically distribute genre films in America. Can you talk about the difficulties of getting your films made these days?
SG: Well, most of my films are financed through international sales, so the money comes from about every country in the world, each of them paying for the rights to distribute it in that country. Most of my stuff is not very mainstream: There are audiences for it, but it's not the kind of thing that a big studio is going to put money into. It's a little too strange.
O: Do you see smaller films having an easier time getting theatrical distribution in the future?
SG: No, if anything, I think it's working against smaller films. The big companies seem to have control of everything now. I was talking to a friend the other day who said that an independent company has to be somewhat allied with a studio, which means it really isn't independent at all. So it's hard times for small movies.
O: Particularly for genre films.
SG: Yeah, although I think there's always an audience for them. The thing that's great is, I get to go to a lot of film festivals and see movies that are being made all over the world, and some of them are really wonderful. And occasionally one will break out, like The Others, which was also shot in Spain, and there's a huge audience. You look at the top 10 highest grossing films of all time, and eight or nine are genre movies.
O: Do you feel your own films are reaching their proper audiences through video now?
SG: Yeah, they seem to. It takes a little longer, that's the only problem. When you have a theatrical release, there's so much publicity that people know about the movie. When something goes direct to video, it becomes a word-of-mouth thing, and it usually takes a couple years.
O: But it does happen. Space Truckers is on HBO a lot these days.
SG: Yeah, it's true. I think eventually people discover the movies. And I read somewhere that something like 80 or 90 percent of all movies are seen on video or on television rather than in theaters.
O: How did you first become involved in theater?
SG: Well, it was at the University of Wisconsin that I really got interested in it, kind of officially—there's a line from one of Vonnegut's stories where he says, "I was the victim of a series of accidents, as are we all." And that's kind of what happened to me. I wanted to take a film course, and in those days, there was only one, and it was full. So I took an acting course, and the requirement of the acting course was that you had to be in a play, or at least audition for a play at the university. And the play they were doing was Marat/Sade [Peter Weiss' famously brutal retelling of an asylum encounter between Jean-Paul Marat and the Marquis de Sade —ed.], and I got cast as one of the inmates. It really opened up my eyes to the potential of theater, because I had always thought that theater was sort of like a bad movie, where you just sat in a balcony and watched tiny little figures move around overacting. And Marat/Sade is a play where the audience is a character in the play, and so you were in this environment with these people who at some point could just jump off the stage and come after you. That gave it a real kick. I wrote a play after that, where I took those ideas and went further with them, and it was called The Game Show. It was done in Madison, and in this play, we locked the audience in the theater, and it was kind of a show patterned after Let's Make A Deal, where people from the audience were brought up on stage and humiliated, and beaten, and raped in one case. They were plants from the audience that had to suffer most of the abuse. But the audience didn't know that, and every performance ended with the audience rioting and attacking the actors to get out of the theater.
O: Spontaneously, or was there a cue for that?
SG: Spontaneously, and what was sort of amazing was that it always happened at the exact same spot in the play. It was almost like I had written, "And then the audience riots."
O: Was this reviewed?
SG: It was reviewed, and it was a big sensation. There was a lot of argument about whether this was an ethical thing to do. I mean, it was an illusion—the doors were not chained, or the chains on the door were breakaway chains, and if the audience had hit the door, it would have opened easily. But they believed that this was really happening. It ended up being produced in Chicago, too.
O: With Organic?
SG: It was before Organic. One of the critics from the Chicago papers said, "This is the most exciting piece of theater I've ever seen, and it should be closed immediately."
O: They still talk about your Peter Pan production in Madison. Were you arrested for that?
SG: I was. My wife and I were both arrested on obscenity charges.
O: Nude and psychedelic was the idea.
SG: Yeah, and also political. It was 1968, and it was really done as a response to the Democratic Convention that had just happened in Chicago, where the police had rioted and beaten up protesters. And we did a production of Peter Pan where, without changing a line of James Barrie's dialogue, we turned it into kind of a political cartoon about that situation. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys became the hippies and yippies, and when they flew off to Neverland they did it by dropping acid. That was the pixie dust, and the thing that got them there was a psychedelic light show projected on naked women dancers to the strains of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." That got us arrested.
O: You got off on the charges?
SG: We did, because our defense attorneys discovered that the guy who brought charges against us was a convicted child molester.
O: I have a question written down here that says, "How do you differentiate between a good shock and one that might turn your audience against you?" Apropos of The Game Show, I'm not sure that's even a relevant question, but is that a concern for you? Keeping the audience on your side?
SG: I really don't think of it in those terms, exactly. My feeling is that I'm always looking for ways to get under people's skin, to throw something at them that they're not prepared for, to surprise them and to go someplace where they don't think you're going to go. Sometimes people hate it, and some people really enjoy it. I'm one of those people who enjoy it. I'm tired of movies where I know everything that's going to happen in the first five minutes.