Interview with Horror Film Director Stuart Gordon

By Wil Forbis
August 1st, 2002

In 1985, Stuart Gordon hit the scene with "Re-Animator," a mind-bending comedic horror film based on a short serial novel by the father of pulp horror, H.P. Lovecraft. With its blend of over the top gore and witty punch lines, the film immediately caused people to take notice. A year later, Gordon followed up with "From Beyond," a film also based on a Lovecraft short story. Since then, he's kept active with numerous fantasy works like "RoboJox," "Fortress," and "Space Truckers" as well as writing the Disney hit, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Gordon's recent effort, "Dagon" just hit DVD stores and he's about to begin shooting the crime-noir thriller "King of the Ants."

Wil Forbis: I understand you started out doing theater in Chicago. What was the Organic Theater and "Warp?"

Stuart Gordon: The Organic Theater was a collective of actors, writers and artists who worked together on a continuing basis to create original material. "Warp" was a science fiction trilogy that we did. We opened in '71 and ran it for a year and then took it to New York. It was three full-length plays that were inspired by Marvel Comics.

Wil Forbis: Really? Which superheroes?

Stuart Gordon: Well, we weren't able to get the rights to any of the characters from Marvel, so we created our own. But I would say that Warp was very influenced by comic books like "Dr. Strange" and "Thor." But there were superheroes as well. It was interdimensional. There was a mild mannered bank teller who discovered that he is Lord Cumulus, avenger of the universe.

Wil Forbis: Which is sort of indebted to Thor.

Stuart Gordon: Right.

Wil Forbis: I was big fan of the Steve Ditko issues of "Dr. Strange." I read those as a kid and then got into Lovecraft and realized how much "Dr. Strange" pulled from H.P. Lovecraft.

Stuart Gordon: Yeah, absolutely. I just picked up an old "Dr. Strange" and it basically was "The Shadow over Innsmouth." It was great.

Wil Forbis: As far as doing theatre in Chicago in that period - the late sixties and early seventies - that was a political time and a political location, with the Democratic convention of '68. Did that find it's way into what you were doing in the theater?

Stuart Gordon: Well, I was at the University of Wisconsin in 1968, and we did a production of "Peter Pan" and used it as a political allegory to what was going on in the Chicago convention. I ended up getting arrested for it as a matter of fact.

Wil Forbis: That's always a sign of good art.

Stuart Gordon: (Laughs) Well, we must have been hitting some nerves, that's for sure.

Wil Forbis: You've just released a new film to DVD, "Dagon," which I saw and absolutely loved. I realized that there's a couple of pretty interesting themes that run through the film. One of them is very Lovecraftian and has to do with the fact the he really had a kind of "fishophobia," didn't he?

Stuart Gordon: Yes he did. He hated fish. If someone served fish at a dinner party, he was out the door. He would not be in the same room with a fish.

Wil Forbis: What drove that?

Stuart Gordon: I dunno. He talked about the smell being one of the biggest problems he had with fish.

Nope, I can't bring myself to say it.

Wait, yes I can! "Anyone need a hand?"

Wil Forbis: So there was no deep psychological root?

Stuart Gordon: Oh, there may be, but who knows? He was very fearful about a lot of things. He was very reclusive. He did not like to leave Providence, Rhode Island. He was raised by his maid and aunts, so that might have had something to do with it.

Wil Forbis: Is Providence a fishing town?

Stuart Gordon: It is, it's right near the ocean. It's kind of hard to get away from fish when you're living in New England. But he was also very fearful of other races, other religions. He had lots of phobias.

Wil Forbis: That's probably good for a horror author.

Stuart Gordon: That's the thing, he used his phobias. Fear of things that are different or unknown is sort of a central theme to a lot of his stories.

Wil Forbis: I've read some of your past comments where you discuss how you'd been shopping this film around for fifteen years and the studios would say, "Make it a werewolf or a vampire and it'll be green lit right away."

Stuart Gordon: Yeah, this was just too odd for them.

Wil Forbis: Why do people fear the fish monster?

Stuart Gordon: We had one guy who said fish aren't scary. I wanted go and get one of those anglerfish or monkfish and flop it on his desk and say, "Does this not scare you?"

Wil Forbis: I think one thing about fish is that you can't tell their expression. A happy octopus looks about the same as an unhappy octopus.

Stuart Gordon: True, they're kind of inscrutable. I discovered working on this movie that octopi are very smart. There was an octopi in an aquarium in Seattle, and when the caretakers would come in every morning, they would discover that all the other fish in the tanks on either side of him had disappeared. They couldn't figure it out so they finally set up a video camera. They discovered that at nighttime, the octopus would crawl out his aquarium and through this chickenwire mesh that was on top - they've got no bones so they can just go through this stuff - climb across to the other tank, eat the fish, and then go back to into his own tank before morning.

Wil Forbis: Another theme that runs through "Dagon" is a fear of genetics - a fear of the maladies your ancestors can pass onto you. And that can be traced back to Lovecraft's personal life, can't it?

Stuart Gordon: Sure, because both of his parents ending up being committed to an insane asylum.

Wil Forbis: Didn't his dad end up going mad by contracting a sexual disease?

Stuart Gordon: Yeah, but I think Lovecraft's fear had more to it than that. His mother also went crazy. He was sure that he was going to go insane at some point in his life.

Wil Forbis: "Dagon" was shot in Spain, and almost all the actors are Spanish. Did that cause any problems with communication on the set?

Stuart Gordon: Not really. There were enough people that spoke English and most of the actors did. The only guy who really had a hard time with English was Paco Rabal. I think this was the first movie he had ever shot in English. So he had to learn it phonetically for the film. It turned out that he was a big Lovecraft fan too. So we had lots of great discussions about Lovecraft.

Wil Forbis: I wanted to talk about Rabal because he was a very distinguished European actor.

Stuart Gordon: Oh yeah, he was the Spanish cinema. He started working with Luis Bunuel in the '50s and had worked with every big Spanish director since then.

Wil Forbis: And yet he consented to be in an American horror film, a genre that, at least in America, is not at the top of the ladder.

Stuart Gordon: Well, it really was because he was a Lovecraft aficionado. He really liked the script and he liked the character.

Wil Forbis: And he got into it to the point that he had the prosthetic flesh and the oozing blood.

Stuart Gordon: Oh, he had the best death scene in the whole movie! I think he appreciated that too.

Wil Forbis: They often talk about how jazz musicians are appreciated more in Europe than in the States. Do you think genre horror films get more of a serious take on that side of the Atlantic?

Stuart Gordon: Well, they do take horror films very seriously and a lot of great films are coming out of Spain right now. "The Others" was made there. There's another film called "The Devil's Backbone" that was shot there. A movie called "The Nameless" was a big success there and the director is doing the next picture for Fantastic Factory. It's a movie called "Darkness" which Miramax is co-producing.

Dagon's Macarena Gomez blast out the evil eye!

Wil Forbis: What about the actress who plays the mysterious siren of "Dagon"? She really seems to fit the phrase "haunting beauty."

Stuart Gordon: Macarena Gomez is her name. She's got that kind of combination of innocence and evil. She's a wonderful actress and also has an extensive dance background. She was a ballerina originally. And she got to use a lot of that. All the underwater stuff where she has to act while swimming, that was all dance-like in a way.

Wil Forbis: A lot of the Lovecraft stories that you've adapted are pretty short. I think it's well commented that your version of "From Beyond" is really like a sequel to the story.

Stuart Gordon: Well, the original story is kind of like the pre-title sequence. And then we just kept going with it.

Wil Forbis: So how do you come up with all the additional material you need to flesh out the movie version.

Stuart Gordon: Well, in the case of "Dagon" we used a lot of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" which is one of Lovecraft's longest stories. In "From Beyond" we combined elements from his other stories. There's a creature Lovecraft created called the Shoggoth which is sort of a protoplasmic being that can change from one thing into another. In "From Beyond" that was the thing that ate Pretorius. The Shoggoth is discussed a lot in a Lovecraft story called "At the Mountains of Madness" and he talks about how it accidentally achieved intelligence. So we got the idea that the way the Shoggoth got intelligent was that it ate someone and then got the brainpower of the person it had just devoured.

Wil Forbis: I can certainly look at those movies and see where you drew things from other Lovecraft stories. But I don't recall any Lovecraft story that has an S&M bimbo being whipped and chained (as per "From Beyond.") So obviously you're pulling some of this stuff out of your head.

Stuart Gordon: Oh, Lovecraft does talk about such things, he just doesn't get specific about it. He'll talk about there being a scandal about someone. He doesn't tell exactly what was going on but he makes allusions. And a lot the time you get the impression there was some weird sexual stuff.

Wil Forbis: Looking through his work one realizes that female characters are pretty limited. Do you make a concerted effort to beef up their roles?

Stuart Gordon: Yeah, one of the first questions that you ask is whether you can bring a woman into the story. It's kind of limited if all the characters are guys. And again, Lovecraft talks about women, but it's very veiled. In "Shadow Over Innsmouth," he talked about a woman who is the daughter of the guy who runs the town of Innsmouth. With that idea we kind of fleshed out the character of the mermaid for "Dagon."

Wil Forbis: I understand you're also a big fan of movie composer Bernard Herrmann?

Stuart Gordon: Yeah, very much so.

Wil Forbis: It seems when he was composing a lot of his great horror/sci-fi scores, by that I mean "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or "Fahrenheit 451," it was an era when those films were allowed to take themselves pretty seriously. And the scores represented that. I don't think Bernard Herrmann was ever "talking down" to the listener with his music. Do you ever find in the modern age working with composers that they have an attitude of "I'll throw together some cliches in a minor key and call it a day?"

Stuart Gordon: Well, I wouldn't work with a composer like that. I've been very lucky and worked with some terrific composers. Richard Band ("Re-Animator") was great. I worked with Carles Cases in "Dagon." In Spain he's considered one of the great composers. He also is a big Bernard Herrmann fan.

I've worked with others as well that were terrific. Colin Towne and Fredrick Talgorn have down a couple of scores for me. And they're both terrific musicians. They regularly have their symphonic pieces performed by classical orchestras.

Wil Forbis: Let's talk about your next film, "King of the Ants."

Stuart Gordon: This is a bit of a departure for me. It's not a horror movie, per se. But it does have some horrifying elements. It's about a house painter who becomes a hit man.

Wil Forbis: That must result in a wage increase.

Stuart Gordon: Yes, yes it does, definitely.

Wil Forbis: Does it feel different to stretch into another genre?

Stuart Gordon: It's different in that it's not really supernatural or science fiction. The film is character driven; it's got a great script and great suspense. The project I compare it to is "Psycho." It's got the same sort of twists and turns.

Wil Forbis: Who's in it?

Stuart Gordon: George Wendt is one of the main roles. There's Ron Livingston and it looks like Daniel Baldwin is going to be joining us.

Wil Forbis: Speaking of horror - the Wes Craven "Scream" films were just implicated as being the motivation for several killings over in Europe. The attackers wore the "Scream" mask and used similar weapons. It kind of re-opened the debate over there about how much responsibility violent films have for the actions of their viewers. Have you ever had any fears that your work would have that kind of effect on a person?

Stuart Gordon: Well, it's funny, the movie that keeps getting mentioned whenever there's problems like this is "Child's Play," which is kind of interesting, because you can't get more fantastical than the idea of a killer doll running around. I think it's the difference between someone who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. If it weren't the movies it would be something else that was setting them off. I think the movies are big scapegoats for the real problems, which are often lack of parental love or control. When I was a kid there were kids who jumped off their roof thinking they were Superman. I don't think you can blame the movies for this.

Although, when I read that Jeffery Dahmer had all these heads in his refrigerator I was hoping they weren't going to find a copy of "Re-Animator" in his apartment.

Wil Forbis: (Laughs) Did they?

Stuart Gordon: No.

Wil Forbis: I'm pretty much a First Amendment guy - I certainly don't think films should be held legally responsible for these sorts of murders. But you can take the argument to a general moral level and start to wonder whether directors are starting to shirk their roles here.

Stuart Gordon: I actually think the argument is stronger in the other direction, which is that horror movies are a way to get violent impulses out of your system. A way to express these things in a manner that doesn't hurt anyone.

Wil Forbis: I know there've been studies done and they kind of go both ways, but they do seem to have substantiated that some people become more aggressive after seeing these films.

Stuart Gordon: I don't like the films that make violence look fun or easy or cool. If you're going to show a violent sequence then you should show all the costs of the violence. You should show all the pain and the suffering and the blood. It always astonishes me that if you show blood in a film they want you to edit it out. I think you have to be honest about it. I think violence in a film should be shocking and disturbing.

Wil Forbis: Would you argue that all the blood and gore in "Re-Animator" is sort of a metaphor for the psychic damage that occurs during the act of killing someone?

Stuart Gordon: Well, I think when you kill someone, there usually is a lot of blood. I've seen photographs of real victims and there's tons of blood. When they show someone in a movie being killed and there is none, then I think they're making it like a video game or something. It becomes very easy. It's completely unrealistic.

You know what the most violent movie of all time is? The movie with the highest body count? Star Wars.

Wil Forbis: Really? With all the storm troopers?

Stuart Gordon: They blow up an entire planet on that film. And they blow up the Death Star. How many thousands of people were working on that thing? And that got a PG rating. It's very clean.

Wil Forbis: Well, we found out that they're all clones, so they don't have any parents.

Stuart Gordon: Yeah, so we can kill them. If they're clones then it's easy to kill them. It's kind of like dropping a bomb on Hiroshima. You're up in a plane; you don't see any of the damage that's being done.

Wil Forbis: That's true, and I suppose if you looked at your average Imperial soldier in Star Wars you'd find that he's just some guy trying escape his bum job on a desert planet somewhere. He's not expressly signed on to the evil manifesto of the Empire.

Stuart Gordon: I dunno. That movie is kind of like our wars these days where we're safely up in our bombers dropping tons of explosives on these countries.

Wil Forbis: Do you recall the old Star Trek where they find this planet on which the people conduct this sort of computer based war and then they tally up the damages and certain people have to report to extermination chambers? And in the end, Kirk destroys the system thereby forcing them to fight war as it should be fought - with blood and sticks and weapons - where the repercussions stare you in the face.

Stuart Gordon: Well, I'm not big on any sort of war.

Wil Forbis: There's another subject that kind of touches on this. Are you familiar with Robert Altman's comment, after the September 11th attacks, where he accused Hollywood movies of showing the terrorists "how to do it."

Stuart Gordon: Again, I think that's nonsensical. First of all, I don't recall any movies where they did that particular scenario. I think it was a situation where a lot of action movie people where looking at each other going "Wow, that's an amazing idea. Why didn't we ever think of that?"

Wil Forbis: I agree, there's no film that actually shows planes flying into the World Trade Center. But a film that took a lot of heat a couple years ago was "The Siege" in which Arabs fanatics attack America. And there is one scene in that film where the fanatics drive a busload of explosives into the FBI building and blow it up.

Stuart Gordon: Well, if you look back, terrorist attacks have been going on for years and years. There were situations where they drove trucks into Marine bases, years before September 11th.

Wil Forbis: Or, "the Siege."

Stuart Gordon: Right. Films reflect the times. And, unfortunately, we're living in some pretty violent times.