The underrated horror master died yesterday at age 72, leaving behind a filmography that’s rewarding but not for the weak of heart.
Stuart Gordon has passed away, and with him goes one of the most unique (and underrated) voices in horror. Gordon’s films were often outrageously violent, but also surprisingly funny and unexpectedly poignant at times. Horror comedy is a challenging tone to maintain, but Gordon did it particularly well, leaving audiences both giggling and cringing at the same time.
Gordon was also a diverse filmmaker. Though he focused predominantly on horror, he directed a critically acclaimed adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” starring a largely non-white cast, an adaptation of David Mamet’s play Edmond, and the crime thriller King of the Ants. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Gordon, along with producer and frequent collaborator Brian Yuzna, was responsible for creating the story that would eventually become the smash hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. He was even slated to direct it, before dropping out due to illness. Had Gordon been able to stay on, this jarring shift in tone would have rivaled Bob Clark directing Porky’s and A Christmas Story the same year.
As we continue muddling through a lockdown (and if you don’t find any of the suggestions in our Quarantine Film Festival appealing), here are some of the true gems in Gordon’s filmography. Be mindful that most of them require a strong stomach for gore and goo, but are rewarding for even the casual horror fan.
Stuck (2007): Gordon’s last feature film, the sadly little seen Stuck was inspired by the horrifying true story of a Texas woman who, after accidentally colliding with a homeless man, left him to die in her garage, wedged in the windshield of her car. Starring Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea, Stuck is darkly funny, focusing on the absurdity of such an unthinkable situation (how did either the character or the real-life woman think she could get away with this?), and how dire circumstances can turn even decent people into monsters. Though it premiered at Cannes, and received largely positive reviews, Stuck received virtually no theatrical release, and was promoted almost entirely by word of mouth. It’s currently available on Shudder, so why not join in the chorus?
Castle Freak (1995): Fans of the Flop House podcast will know that Castle Freak became a favorite in-joke for the hosts and listeners alike, thanks largely to the misconception that the titular freak tears off his own penis in one scene (it’s actually his thumb, though shot in a way that suggests otherwise). Despite that, the film itself is a surprisingly straightforward, serious, and even tragic story about a troubled family who rent an Italian castle that comes with its own murderous monster lurking in the catacombs. While well made and with excellent performances by Gordon regulars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, take this recommendation with reservations, as Castle Freak often crosses the line into exploitation, particularly during an act of grotesque violence against a sex worker. Currently available on Shudder, it’s a hard watch at times, but a valuable entry in Gordon’s overall filmography.
Dolls (1987): If you prefer something on the silly side, then consider Dolls, in which visitors to a mansion in the English countryside are beset upon by murderous dolls. A cable television mainstay in the late 80s, Dolls, like a lot of horror movies in the same era, offered audiences the tantalizing prospect of watching the most obnoxious characters imaginable killed off one by one, in a number of gruesome but ultimately satisfying ways. Like the Child’s Play movies, it’s implausible that grown adults are consistently both outsmarted and overwhelmed by toys that barely come up to their knees, and yet Dolls is so gleefully its own thing that it’s impossible to not enjoy it. Currently available on Amazon Prime, it’s a fun, if not particularly scary watch.
From Beyond (1986): When I described Gordon’s films as “gooey,” I was talking mostly about From Beyond, his most viscerally horrifying film. Based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, as were several of Gordon’s films, gore and other bodily fluids are in such abundance that it practically leaks out of your television screen. Jeffrey Combs stars as a scientist who, after experimenting with a device that allows humans to explore an alternate reality, starts growing what appears to be an asparagus spear out of his forehead. It sounds ridiculous, but somehow it works, as does the baffling plot involving brain eating creatures from another dimension, flesh-hungry bees, and phallic worm monsters. Similar to Hellraiser, released a year later, there’s also an uncomfortable sexual element to everything, which may turn off potential viewers as much as the violence. If you’re looking to be a Gordon completist, however, it’s a must-see, so since you’re aggressively washing your hands already, why not check it out for free on Pluto TV, or for rent on Amazon?
Re-Animator (1985): Gordon’s first feature film, and, let’s face it, his best. Also based on a Lovecraft story (and perhaps responsible for Lovecraft works finding their way back into the public consciousness), Re-Animator stars Jeffrey Combs, in a career-best performance as Herbert West, an arrogant medical student who invents a formula that raises the dead. As hundreds of horror movies ranging from Frankenstein to Pet Sematary and everything in between have taught us, raising the dead never leads to anything good, but they don’t often lead to anything quite as outrageously macabre as Re-Animator.
If you’re wondering “Gena, isn’t this the movie where a man uses his own severed head to perform oral sex on a woman?” Well, no. He almost does, but is stopped at the last moment by the heroes. There’s plenty else to be thoroughly squicked out over, however, but there’s also a lot to laugh at, not to mention find genuinely unsettling. In addition to just being his best crafted film all around, it’s also the best example of Gordon’s skill for balancing horror and humor, and ability to understand just how far he could push things with his audience. If you somehow haven’t seen Re-Animator yet, stop what you’re doing, right now, and watch it on Shudder.