The Big Question is a semi-regular outing where multiple Daily Grindhouse contributors and friends offer their answers to some burning question. The results…may surprise you.
This week’s big question is…
What Is Your Favorite Moment From A Stuart Gordon Project?
With the recent death of Stuart Gordon, we look back at his long legacy in the arts. Whether it was his work in theater in Wisconsin and Chicago (writing, directing, and/or producing all manner of plays including a lot of collaborations with David Mamet), his groundbreaking horror films, bizarre sci-fi movies, grim noir pieces, screenplays and stories for a variety of titles many aren’t even aware of (HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, for example), and even a handful of TV episodes—he made a lasting impact on the arts for decades (and for decades more to come).
While his isn’t the longest filmography amongst the Masters Of Horror, it’s an incredibly diverse list of impressive entries all with memorable scenes, performances, visuals, and more.
With all of that being said, out of all of his works—
what is your favorite moment in a Stuart Gordon project?
It could be a scene, a performance, a particular f/x shot or gag, a line reading, or what have you. What’s the moment from one of his many works that sticks out to you and you love dearly?
Brett Gallman — “Prostitute Meat ‘n’ Greet” in CASTLE FREAK (1995)
If Stuart Gordon’s work has a defining quality, it’s the demented playfulness running through most of it. No matter how dark or twisted it might get, there’s an undercurrent of impish glee inviting viewers to revel in the horror. It’s a tricky balance that Gordon especially harnessed for CASTLE FREAK, a Lovecraftian old dark house riff that initially carries the pretense of a refined, gothic throwback.
As it usually is with old dark house pictures (particularly ones directed by Gordon), something is just a little off. Not only does an inhuman creature prowl the grounds, but the family dynamics here are completely haywire, leaving patriarch John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs) estranged from his wife (Barbara Crampton) and daughter (Jessica Dollarhide).
Exuding his signature smarmy asshole energy, Combs knocks everything slightly askew before upsetting the entire apple cart during the film’s crucial sequence. In his self-destructive dedication to making things even worse, John trawls the nearby town for a prostitute and brings her home, which would be a bad move even if you didn’t have a mutant relative dwelling in the dungeon of your 12th-century castle. Up until this point, the mangled, freakish Giorgio (Johnathan Fuller) has lurked about, mostly obscured by shadows and suggestion.
He formally introduces himself here by taking the ill-fated hooker captive and chewing a chunk right out of her breast in a moment that’s as gross as it is silly. It’s also a purely Stuart Gordon moment, one that allows CASTLE FREAK to pivot from gothic elegance to grindhouse gore outbursts. Few filmmakers straddled that uneasy line as well as Gordon, who wanted to leave audiences both revolted and delighted, and this moment in CASTLE FREAK is an indelible snapshot of his approach.
Jeremy Lowe —”Toy Stories” in DOLLS (1987)
There simply isn’t any killer doll movie that singularly captures the terror and creepiness of children’s toys as much as Stuart Gordon’s DOLLS, a strange and bizarre descent into the disturbing world of the late ’80s.
The story set up is classic: A group of travelers spend the night in an old mansion owned by a doll maker and his wife. As expected the travelers are rude and as such the creepy dolls come to life to teach them some manners.
DOLLS is as campy as it is unnerving. It’s fun time capsule into the time of ’80s horror—a time when not everything had to make sense, but it was still damn scary to watch. DOLLS is an extremely underrated and under appreciated cult classic.
Between the masterful use of cinematic tension, a tremendous score, and a truly unique killer doll design, Stuart Gordon created a true masterpiece. DOLLS came out two years before the original PUPPET MASTER, and you can see the obvious influence it had on that film and all other killer doll movies since.
Bill Bria — “If you gotta go, go with a smile…” in FROM BEYOND (1986)
Much has been made about the fact that Stuart Gordon helped bring H.P. Lovecraft back into the popular consciousness but, even more than that, he granted the author arguably more popularity than Lovecraft had ever achieved while he was still living. Much has been made of how Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations are loose ones, taking character names, titles, and situations and then basically veering off into his own imagination past that point, but to my mind, there has yet to be a more quintessentially Lovecraftian moment in all of cinema than the ending of Gordon’s FROM BEYOND.
(SPOILERS from here on out)
Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs at his most entertainingly unhinged) is wrestling in pure ‘80s methocel-laced effects fashion with his ex-mentor, Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel), over a device the two have invented called the Resonator, which opens up a doorway to a dimension full of undefined yet clearly hostile extrasensual beings that seduce and pervert the human mind, particularly the normally dormant pineal gland. With Crawford and Pretorius having been transformed into creatures that barely resemble human beings, Crawford hangs on to the last of his humanity and stalls Pretorius so that Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton, in one of her greatest performances) can set a bomb to blow up the Resonator and escape.
She does so, but barely, as Crawford and Pretorius burn with their Resonator, the doorway to the other dimension finally closed. All is not well, however, as McMichaels is found by some bystanders with a gruesomely broken leg, and that’s not the only thing about her that’s broken. “It…ate him…” she says ominously, echoing Crawford’s use of the phrase from early in the film, and then she begins to laugh hysterically. The look on Crampton’s face as McMichaels veers between total fear and insane glee is one of the most unsettling images in a film filled with them. It’s a pitch perfect encapsulation of the mixture of unknowable dread, ecstasy and terror that Lovecraft’s works became known for, and the horror, comedy, and disturbing tone of the moment is one that only Stuart Gordon could bring to the screen intact.
Stephanie Crawford — “Funeral For a Friend” in SPACE TRUCKERS (1996)
Something I’ve long admired about Stuart Gordon was his ability to balance aggressive, larger-than-life stories about life and death (often, of course, accompanied by wonderfully horrific practical effects) and his skill at finding the small, real moments of any given character with his actors. Gordon was able to expertly wield both his empathy and extensive theatrical experience on film sets, and thanks to that, even when things are exploding, the characters’ responses—outlandish or subtle—always felt exactly right for what the story needed.
In 1996’s SPACE TRUCKERS, an almost obscenely fun and charming movie, Dennis Hopper is a (space) trucker, just trying to make his way through life by doing a good job delivering square-shaped pigs and maybe finding someone to fall in love with. Instead, he gets pulled into a crazy adventure, which includes a cyborg (space) pirate, played by Charles Dance, whose striptease reveal of his “upgrades” to Debi Mazar is my second favorite moment as it reminds me so much of Anne-Marie Johnson’s “revealing of her true self” pre-coital scene in I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA.
That said, my favorite scene involves Hopper’s character meeting up with some old trucker friends in a (space) diner: He’s still independent, but they all sold out to the big (space) trucking corporation and sport NASCAR-level logoed uniforms. Still, they’re friends, and he’s devastated when he finds out from them that another one of his old friends was recently killed.
“All they sent back was his dick.” One friend solemnly intones.
“They’re using a tennis ball cap as a coffin,” another helpfully adds.
That’s returned with “Cremation would’ve had more dignity if you ask me.”
It’s hilarious, gruesome, and delivered and accepted with such funereal sorrow that it perfectly sets the stage for what kind of movie we’re in for. Gordon’s work was often as hilarious as it was original as it was unnerving, and he somehow packed it all into a short, goofy scene.
Jay Alary — “Romanian Holiday” in DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS (1990, TV Movie)
I was saddened to hear of Stuart Gordon’s passing this week (this past decade has not been kind to beloved horror auteurs), but he left behind an incredible legacy of plays and films. One of his lesser-known films, DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, a network TV movie from 1990, won’t be remembered as his best work, but it’s remembered fondly by me for an important reason. It was broadcast on CBS in early 1990, at a time I clung to my childhood love of horror during a difficult transition.
My dad, AKA The Candyman, was a candy salesman; we moved around frequently as he earned promotions in the company, moving from town to town, up and down Western Canada (I can boast that I’ve lived in all three prairie provinces). By 1990, we had lived in Winnipeg for a year, but I was miserable: mostly friendless, so I retreated into my love of horror movies, TV shows, and Nintendo. I loved Anthony Perkins ever since I saw him in PSYCHO, so when I saw an ad for DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, I was excited!
Mia Sara (one of my many film crushes) plays a woman who travels to Romania to delve into her dead father’s Romanian roots. Perkins plays her father, a centuries-old vampire, leader of a cabal of vampires. The film’s setting of Communist Romania during the Ceau?escu era is refreshing, particularly as it was filmed in nearby Hungary for an authentic Eastern European look (no creaky Dark Shadows-like sets), as the vampires must be particularly careful about their actions in a police state (it reminded me of the ‘80s Twilight Zone episode “Red Snow”—a vampire tale set in the Soviet Union). Sara is serviceable in the lead role and Perkins provides another off-kilter performance, one of his last before he died of HIV-related pneumonia in 1992.
The most memorable aspect of the movie is that the vampires don’t have traditional fangs—they all have razor sharp teeth that emerge from their tongues! It’s a quirky detail I remember best about the film–I have no idea if Stuart Gordon came up with the idea or if it was already in the script written by Andrew Laskos, a veteran TV writer-producer (this was his sole contribution to the horror genre), but I loved it. DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS was released on Region 2 DVD in the UK, so Gordon completists and I will have to check it out!
Matt Wedge — “Decorum in Death” in KING OF THE ANTS (2003)
It’s all about the little things.
KING OF THE ANTS is a movie filled with unforgettably grisly images that include a man beaten into brain damage with a golf club and the decapitation of George Wendt (of all people) playing a crucial part of the plot. But for me, a moment that truly encapsulates Stuart Gordon’s ability to mix the comedy, horror, and tragedy of being a human being that takes another human life is far less gory and much more heartbreaking.
Like many of the best neo-noir films, KING OF THE ANTS focuses on an aimless drifter–in this case, house-painter/possible budding psychopath Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna)–drawn into a criminal conspiracy. Tricked into murdering a prosecutor (Ron Livingston) by a sleazy low-level gangster (Daniel Baldwin), Sean follows through with his horrible deed in the clumsiest of ways.
In an agonizingly drawn out scene, Sean’s initial attempt to kill the prosecutor only results in the man’s painful injury, leading Sean to improvise by dropping a refrigerator on him in a bleakly funny moment that is part mercy killing and part Looney Tunes absurd cartoon violence. But the part of this whole sequence that really sticks with me nearly 20 years later is the fact that Sean covers the prosecutor’s face with his hat, before slamming a large kitchen appliance on it.
This small act of obscuring his victim’s face feels like the last relatable human thing Sean does in the movie–even though he could have chosen to, you know, not actually kill a defenseless person. Everything after that point feels like a personal apocalypse for Sean. If only he had chosen to do the right thing, he would have definitely wound up in prison, but he would have had his humanity intact. Instead, he made things easier on himself by making his victim faceless to ease his conscience as he embraced his truly dark side. It’s a stunning moment in a brutal, chilling look at the worst, most violent impulses of those walking amongst us.
Jon Abrams — “Cat Scratch Fever” in RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
Are horror fans more often than not cat people? I’d be curious to see some polling on that. In my own very informal survey of the landscape, there appear—in my social circle, anyway—to be more horror fans who are also cat owners. Then again I’m very vocally a dog guy, so I may be disproving my own thesis. But further: In horror films themselves, there’s no small amount of demonic cats, to be sure, but I can easier name heroic cats—Jonesy from ALIEN, General from CAT’S EYE—than the alternative. Even those demonic cats are beloved for making their films all the more eerie and thereby successful.
So I’d love to talk to cat people about Rufus in RE-ANIMATOR, a justly beloved film from a justly beloved filmmaker which is maybe not so amenable to cat-people sensibilities.
Rufus, a black cat owned by Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) , first appears while disrupting an intimate moment between Dan and his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). Rufus shows up next when Megan discovers him chilling out in the fridge belonging to Dan’s creepy new roommate, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). West claims he found Rufus that way, which is a dubious claim and either way, it’s not too sensitive to either Megan or the cat-people in the audience.
Then comes the scene. You know the one.
Dan is woken in the night by an ungodly sound, as if somebody has a Katy Perry record on rewind. It’s coming from the basement. Dan pounds on the door, looking for West, who doesn’t answer. Dan picks up a baseball bat and busts through the door, tumbling down the stairs. The sound happens again, louder. Suddenly, West bursts out of the darkness, grabbing for something clutching at his back and shouting Dan’s name, first telling him to save himself and then begging Dan to “get it off of me!” The two men manage to knock the fiend aside and it disappears into the dark.
West picks up a croquet mallet (awesome) and pummels a shelf in frustration. As the overhead light swings back and forth, alternately illuminating and darkening the scene like something out of a noir film, West and Dan manage to corner the creature. It leaps from the dark and knocks Dan off his feet. Dan gets to a standing position, grabs it, and hurls it like a shotput into the basement wall, where it drops, leaving blood and gore to drip to the floor after it. Dan looks down.
Again, I have no idea how this plays to diehard cat people. To me—a guy who loves kittens and likes grown cats just fine, despite a minor allergy and shared animosity with a few very specific dickhead cats—it’s one of the funniest fucking scenes I’ve ever seen, no exaggeration. I remember clearly seeing this scene for the first time. In retrospect everything about it is inevitable, but in the first viewing, it feels like it comes out of fucking nowhere. It’s hysterical and you instantly want to watch it again. And again, and then show it to everyone you know. What amazes me is how, even without the shock of first discovery, it works every time.
The stop-start pacing of it all, the absolute seriousness from Abbott and Combs, and the incredibly abrupt resolution—it’s an incredible comedy scene. It only becomes creepy when Dan, looking down at his briefly-reanimated cat, now a puddle of fur and viscera, turns to West, who points and screams “Look out!”—making Dan jump and so too any audience reared on horror scenes and expecting another sudden re-animation and attack. But Rufus is gone, for real this time, and West then starts giggling. It’s clear now to Dan (and to us) how truly off West is. And it’s one of the finest and most memorable scenes in an absolute horror classic.
What about you, gentle reader?
What is YOUR favorite moment from a Stuart Gordon Project?
Please let us know in the comments below!
Thank you, Mr. Gordon. For all of it.
Tags: anthony perkins, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott, Castle Freak, Charles Dance, Chris McKenna, Daniel Baldwin, Daughter Of Darkness, Debi Mazar, Dennis Hopper, Dolls, From Beyond, George Wendt, Jeffrey Combs, Jessica Dollarhide, Jonathan Fuller, Kari Wuhrer, Ken Foree, King Of The Ants, Mia Sara, re-animator, Ron Livingston, Space Truckers, Stephen Dorff, Stuart Gordon, Ted Sorel, Vernon Wells