Not far removed from any discussion involving Stuart Gordon is the King of the B’s Roger Corman. The former is to H.P. Lovecraft what the latter was to Edgar Allan Poe. During the span of just four short years beginning in 1960 with The Fall of the House of Usher, Corman directed his eight film Poe cycle, anchored by the legendary Vincent Price, who bowed out of only The Premature Burial.
Fast forward a quarter of a century and Re-Animator signalled the commencement of Stuart Gordon’s own Lovecraft cycle. Unlike Corman’s lightning speed, Gordon would take twenty years to reach the conclusion of his with the first episode for the Masters of Horror anthology Dreams in the Witch-House. In keeping with Corman however, his cycle would exploit the talents of two actors – regular Jeffrey Combs (Re-animator, From Beyond and Castle Freak), and Ezra Godden who succeeded him for Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House.
Gordon’s discovery of the horror genre possesses a touch of irony that feeds directly into this Poe-Lovecraft connection. Whilst William Castle can claim to be the first filmmaker to terrorise the then young, future Master of Horror, the embodiment of this terror was Vincent Price. “When I was a kid my parents would not allow me to watch horror films, and of course that was the one thing that I wanted to see more than anything else. I snuck to see one with my brother called The Tingler, and it scared me so much that I jumped out of my seat, and I ran from the theatre leaving my brother behind. He’s still giving me a hard time about it.” In these years of youthful innocence, it was not only the horror cinema that impressed itself upon the young Gordon. Along with that initial fright followed by a speedy retreat, he made his acquaintance with H.P. Lovecraft, which in hindsight was a significant encounter for both men. Recalling his first encounter with Lovecraft paints a picture of the terror of the written word that is capable of offering just as potent a scare as the visual intimacy of film. “I was a teenager when I first read Dreams in the Witch-House. It was in the middle of a pretty hot summer in Chicago, and that story terrified me so much I closed all the windows to stop the Witch getting in.” But the story of his introduction was to be Gordon’s final dance with Lovecraft onscreen, as two years later he and Jeffrey Combs would rendezvous with Poe for Gordon’s second outing for The Masters of Horror anthology, The Black Cat.
The seed of Gordon’s creative career was borne out of the theatre, and stretching beyond the borders of the horror genre and Lovecraft. It may even have been borne out of a strange case of convenient misfortune that would define horror and Lovecraft as the source of his affection for the genre rather than the source of his creative interest and inspiration. “At the University of Wisconsin I wanted to take a film class, but they only had one back in those days and it was full. I couldn’t get in and so instead I took an acting class, but one of the requirements was that you had to be in a play that was being done that semester. The play they were doing was Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. It is the story of a play being put on by inmates of an insane asylum, which I remember was done to great affect by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Peter Brook’s.” Despite the towering influence of Lovecraft on Gordon’s creative output, Weiss remains an important chapter in his creative journey, and whose play Marat/Sade Gordon boldly states “changed my life.”
Whilst shaped by literature, film and the theatre, Weiss’ influence internationalises Gordon’s creative influences. Having emerged from the Organic Theatre in Chicago to direct Re-Animator, it is not surprising that theatre should be present at the roots of his creativity. Regular collaborator Barbara Crampton has cited her observation of the theatrical influence on Gordon as a filmmaker, but for Gordon the film and theatre connection has always been intertwined. He explains, “When I was doing theatre People used to say that I was making movies on stage without using film.” He recalls, “We would do all kinds of theatrical or filmmaking effects on stage. We used a lot of blood effects as well, even using squibs and such things. Theatre is a great training ground for film, and one I will still go back to. I am doing a play right now called Taste.”
Arguably theatre affords a storyteller an opportunity to explore fear with a more potent sense of the “real.” Whilst film has proven itself capable of creating an immersive experience and horror cinema in particular ritually seeks to plug itself into its audience’s imagination to motivate a projection of fear into the empty space, the silver screen presents a barrier between our world and the world of the film. But in the space of the theatre there is a raw intimacy that exists between the players and their audience. “People make such a big deal about 3D, but theatre is real and it is happening right in front of you. It is happening with living people who are interacting with you. I love being able to explore that in the theatre. Looking back that was the thing about Marat/Sade that opened me up to the possibilities of theatre because you are witnessing a performance being performed by the inmates of an asylum, and at any moment they could go berserk and leap off stage into the audience and start killing everybody. That is a very real and palpable tension.”
Re-Animator was borne out of a response to push beyond the edge of the bounds the genre had reached by the mid-eighties. In order to understand these limits, producer Brian Yuzna sat Gordon down to “take a look at what was happening in the world of horror.” To gauge their response Gordon remembers, “He showed me every horror film that had been made in the last ten years, of which there were some great films.” On the subject of creating a response by looking at a decade of horror cinema, if Re-Animator were to be made this year, would the last ten years of horror cinema radically alter the film. “I honestly don’t think it would be all that different, and the reason that people are still watching it is that it hasn’t dated that much. It’s still considered to be one of those films that is pretty extreme and out there, and because there’s a sexual component to it, for me it is interesting that it has not been remade. But that is the reason that it is still considered to be too feral a film for a mainstream audience.”
Whilst Lovecraft’s source material had aged with the passage of time, Gordon and company discovered that its themes had retained the vibrancy of youth, remaining timeless and deceptively fresh. “When we first started working on Re-Animator we set it in the period that the story was written in. The actual stories cover twenty five or thirty years, and begin at the turn of the twentieth century. But as we continued working on it we realised that the ideas in the story were not dated, and there was something very fresh and modern about them and whilst set over a long period of time, it seemed like it all happened in a couple of weeks.”
One of the threads, if not the ideological one running through the history of horror is the quest to conquer death, the pursuit of immortality and a desire to cast death firmly into the shadow of life. If the vampire has become a figurehead for this thematic drive, then standing side by side is Frankenstein. But in the years preceding Re-Animator Frankenstein had been cast into the vampire’s shadow. As Gordon explained, “That’s the reason I did Re-Animator. Everyone was making all of these vampire films back then and I was just growing tired of them. I said to someone, “I wish someone would do a Frankenstein movie” and they said, “Well have you ever read Herbert West Re-Animator by H.P. Lovecraft?” I had read a lot of Lovecraft but I had never heard of that story.” To drag Frankenstein out of the vampire’s shadow, the discovery of this unfamiliar Lovecraft story would take Gordon onto a journey into the shadows of the library archives. “It turned out the reason I didn’t know of it was that it was out of print, and so it took me a long time to find a copy.”
In spite of Lovecraft’s lack of affection for Herbert West Re-Animator, it immediately struck a nerve for Gordon. “It was a good read and I thought it would make a great movie, and because he wrote it as a serial in six instalments, we were originally thinking it could be a television mini-series.” Returning to the discussion of the influence of the present day on Re-Animator if it were made this year, bearing these original intentions in mind it is more probable the change in the landscape of modern television could be the most significant influence. “Nowadays it is possible it could get made. I was just watching Penny Dreadful and there is a Frankenstein character in that. He actually looks a bit like Herbert West – I mean he’s very young. But back in those days the idea of doing anything like that on television meant that you instead ended up turning it into a film.”
The attitudes of the time whether misguided or not afforded cinema one of its enduring masterpieces. But from the obsessive and impulsive characters of Re-Animator and horror cinema, we should not ask why they engage in a dance with death, sex and violence, but why we ourselves are continuously drawn to stories that put our greatest and most penetrating fear on centre stage? “We think about it all the time” explains Gordon. “We are always thinking about our own death, and it is a subject that we really can’t discuss too often. It’s kind of morbid actually to have a conversation with somebody about the fact that we are all going to die. So whilst it is something that is very hard to talk about, it is something that horror films explore.”
Gordon takes a moment to remind me of Stephen King’s sentiment that, “They are rehearsals for our own death.” If horror films are a rehearsal then the only conclusion is that we are transfixed with the end, and that fascination is where the popularity of the genre derives. It touches upon the most common place fear, and the reason horror has endured and will continue to endure is that it explores one of our most primitive and enduring instincts – the survival instinct. “I think that the horror genre is the most popular of all, and I believe it will always be popular. The idea that people are still watching Re-Animator thirty years after we made it is extraordinary, although that’s not particularly rare with horror films. People are still re-watching the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff.” It seems that the genre that is transfixed with death is the genre that has attained immortality or at least that is the concluding thought that emerges from Master of Horror Stuart Gordon. “Long after the movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture have been forgotten, we are still watching horror films.”
Re-Animator will be released as a limited edition two-disc Blu-ray Steelbook and a two-disc DVD right now 2014 courtesy of Second Sight Films. It is also available to download now and is available VOD.