Stuart Gordon's Shock Treatment

The 'From Beyond' director may outrage you — in fact, he's made a career doing just that. For him, smashing taboos is just good, unclean fun

Stuart Gordon Credit: Mark Mainz/Getty Images

After Jeffrey Combs sucked the eye out of Carolyn Purdy Gordon's socket, it took the FX guys at least six tries before they got the little jelly ball to land so that it stared up, at the camera. The magic of movies. Too bad it was the first shot director Stuart Gordon had to snip out of From Beyond when the Motion Picture Association of America slapped his new film with an X rating. X means a lot of theaters in the country won't show your movie. It means 14-year-olds can't get in, no matter how much they whine. Gordon still speaks fondly of the eyeball suck-and-plop, however, and of the conversation he had with an MPAA woman. "What on earth," she asked him, "were you thinking of when you zoomed in on his mouth as he was sucking out her eye?"

We're in the editing room of Empire Entertainment in Los Angeles, and as the gory footage runs on a viewing screen behind him, Gordon confesses, "I didn't even tell her that the woman onscreen was my wife and that it wasn't very pleasant for her, either." He takes a deep breath and adds, heartily, "But if your wife won't put up with it, who will?"

Plenty of people. For instance, Combs — who also played Herbert West, the wacko med student in Gordon's rollicking horror farce Re-Animator — not only sucks out eyeballs and munches brains in From Beyond but walks around with a four-inch pineal gland sticking out of his forehead (that is, until someone bites it off).

"Stuart," says Combs, "is the Ozzy Osbourne of directors." "There is a side of me that likes to break through clichés and wake people up," says Gordon. "I find that fun. I think that's part of what art is supposed to do — to make you see or experience things in ways that you haven't before."

Most of Gordon's shenanigans have nothing to do with biting off heads (or pineals). At Chicago's Organic Theater, where he was artistic director for sixteen years, he was famed for his rambunctious originals — sci-fi epics, comedies, musicals, adaptations of big books.

Today, if you go by number of projects, Stuart Gordon is one of the hottest directors in Hollywood: From Beyond opens this fall; Dolls, a fairy tale about killer toys, will be released in January; shooting begins this month on Robojox, a sci-fi epic; and after that comes a voodoo shocker, Gris-Gris. Empire Entertainment, his principal backer, has just announced three more Gordon films (among them Bloody Bess, about a noblewoman turned pirate), and on the other side of the tracks, the director has development deals with both Tri-Star and Disney. (The latter will produce Teeny Weenies, the first film of Gordon's that he'll let his two little girls see.)

He likes to spread himself around, this guy. In person, the bushy, burly Gordon seems gleeful and receptive — a big, friendly child. ("Mikhail Gorbachev comes off that way, too," points out William J. Norris, a former Organic actor who co-wrote Re-Animator.) It's only when someone says, "You can't do that," that Gordon gets ornery.

At the moment, his task is to win an R for From Beyond without — literally — ripping the guts out of it. The first time he submitted the picture, the MPAA pretty much laughed and said, "Are you kidding?" The second time, after Gordon cut the eyeball scene and still got an X, an Empire executive pressed the bearer of bad tidings for details. "I wouldn't know where to begin," was the reply. It didn't help that this was the week the cover of Time featured the report of Attorney General Edwin Meese's commission on pornography and violence.

But Gordon never flinches. "We'll just keep sending it back," he says. "They're freaked out by the movie now. They just have to get used to it."

The approach has worked before. His wife, Carolyn, didn't give in until the fourth time he proposed. He had to fight just to meet her — they made contact their first week at college when Gordon, drunk, dialed her number at random and wanted to chat. (Now she gets hideously murdered in his movies. Think about that the next time you get a crank call.)

Further back, Gordon's mother wouldn't let him go to horror movies, so he made a point of seeing as many as possible. "They became the forbidden fruit," he told a New York science-fiction and fantasy convention, which was swarming with pimply kids whose parents probably thought they were out dribbling basketballs. Forbidden fruit, for many people, is the sweetest.

Stuart Gordon grew up in a poor section of Chicago, where his mother indulged him, but life on the streets was pretty rough. He never quite got over his strict, all-male high school, and by the time he got to college — the University of Wisconsin in Madison — he had thrown himself into the late-Sixties counterculture. Gordon showed up everywhere in jeans, a motorcycle jacket and boots and, more tellingly, formed Screw Theater, a company that railed against middle-class complacency and the Vietnam War.

He made the national news (and Johnny Carson's monologue) in 1968, when he staged Peter Pan with naked Never Neverland fairies (his future wife, Carolyn, among them). "I thought nudity would suggest innocence," says Gordon, blandly. The inspiration for the production was the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Chicago, where Mayor Daley gave his police license to bust the heads of antiwar demonstrators. In Peter Pan, the pirates became cops; Peter and the lost boys hippies; Wendy, Michael and John straight, suburban kids; and flying became tripping. "'Think lovely thoughts and up you go,'" says Gordon, quoting. "The lines were there. Without changing one word of dialogue, we made a political cartoon out of J.M. Barrie's play."

After the second performance, the police nabbed Gordon and Purdy for public obscenity. The case was dropped, but the university theater department told Gordon that if he wanted to continue directing, he'd have to submit his scripts to a faculty panel and have a professor at every rehearsal. "At which point I said, 'I guess I just graduated,' and left school." He never got his degree — although the college now, in light of his success, claims him as its own.

"Stuart's favorite word of praise," says critic and playwright Terry Curtis Fox, "has always been 'outrageous.' They did The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the Organic, and what's interesting is that Huck is in a lot of ways Stuart. Like Huck, there was a point at which Stuart said, 'All right, then I'll go to hell!' This is a man who put his wife onstage nude at every conceivable opportunity."

In Screw Theater's darkest hour, help arrived from Paul Sills, director of Chicago's acclaimed Story Theatre troupe, who read of Gordon's troubles and invited the company to take up residence in a Chicago church. "They had an enlightened congregation," recalls Sills, "and they let Stuart tear all the pews out."

From Sills, Gordon learned to choose strong stories and develop original projects with a resident acting company. According to playwrights who worked with the theater, now renamed the Organic, actors, not writers, had the most power in shaping material; among Gordon's quirks is a mistrust of words. Despite his counterculture impulses, he wanted a genuinely popular theater — a theater that would appeal to both highbrows and lowbrows.

"I have never separated art from having a good time," says Gordon. "My feeling is that something is a classic because it has pleased audiences for many years. There's a wonderful book on Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess, where he makes the point that Shakespeare was concerned with selling tickets the same as any other producer. He knew he couldn't just have people reciting poetry, so he had scenes of people plucking out eyes or tearing out tongues; he has a woman making love to a jackass. You have to grab people. Roosevelt said the first job of a president is to get elected. The first job of a producer is to get an audience."

At first, audiences were lean, and at the end of every week, the company would divide up the meager booty. The commercial breakthrough was Warp, a muscular three-part sci-fi adventure in which characters traveled through space, time and alternative dimensions (making wisecracks all the while). In his sixteen years at the Organic, Gordon oversaw thirty-seven original plays and adaptations, among them David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago; Bloody Bess; Terry Curtis Fox's Cops (which Gordon will direct for Tri-Star with Jim Belushi); Bleacher Bums, an improvised ensemble comedy set at Wrigley Field that has been playing in Los Angeles for seven years; and E/R Emergency Room, which became a TV series. The theater helped launch the careers of John Heard, Joe Mantegna, Andre De Shields and Dennis Franz of Hill Street Blues.

A friend of Gordon's once dubbed the place "the take-off-your-clothes, scream and bleed theater." William J. Norris says, "Stuart's big line was 'If it can be done on film, it can be done onstage, only better.' And all the bruised bodies and broken bones were a testament to the fact that sometimes you can do it and sometimes you can't."

By the time Gordon left to pursue filmmaking in 1984, the Organic had a budget of over $1 million a year and attendance that cut across class lines. All that was missing were nibbles from Hollywood. While Gordon was casting around for a film project, a friend mentioned six stories by H.P. Lovecraft written under the general heading Herbert West, Re-Animator. Gordon, who has lots of doctors in his family, began to haunt the Cook County morgue.

Re-Animator became a Gothic horror comedy about a dedicated young med student who gives life (or a crazed, blood-frothing version of it) to corpses. Poor Herbert: every time he injects his Day-Glo-green reanimating fluid into the brain of something dead, it gets up and tries to bash his head in. Some gratitude. This means the whirling corpses must be killed all over again (with bone saws, axes, et cetera). Re-Animator has a headlong pace and a giddy sense of its own absurdity (though it never condescends to the genre), along with wicked, straight-faced turns by Combs, Bruce Abbott as his sweet, frazzled straight man and David Gale as a plagiarizing neurosurgeon whose head gets hacked off — his body spends the rest of the film dragging his noggin around, brains dripping.

The show stopper of Re-Animator is the infamous scene in which actress Barbara Crampton gets trussed to an operating table and given head by... the head. (Writer Dennis Paoli called up Gordon in the middle of the night and announced, "I've just written my first visual pun!") As Crampton remembers, "Stuart approached it like any other scene. He just said, 'He's gonna pick up the head, and it's gonna lick your ear and lick your breasts and then make its way down between your legs, and then Jeffrey [Combs] is gonna come in.' And I said, 'Oh, c'mon, Stuart, are you kidding?' And he said, 'No, seriously, it's gonna be great, really.' He was totally serious." She adds, "There's something a little off about Stuart. But that offness is part of his genius."

The final punch line is not the scene itself but critic Pauline Kael's delirious account of it, which is said to have appalled the strait-laced New Yorker editor William Shawn: "Barbara Crampton, who's creamy pink all over, is at her loveliest when she's being defiled; lying there in the morgue with the head moving around on her, she's like a nude by Fragonard or Boucher floating on a ceiling."

Now that's criticism.

The highbrows and lowbrows went nuts for Re-Animator; it was the folks in between who missed out on not just one of the best horror films of the decade but one of the best farces. The movie didn't do as well as expected at the box office (although it's been boffo on videocassette) largely because, executives at Empire think, it was released without a rating — the alternative to an X but for all practical purposes the same thing, since it means that no one under eighteen gets in. (Studios prefer no rating to an X, which signifies pornography in people's minds.)

"They never even said, 'You'd have to take this out or take that out,' " recalls Albert Band, executive vice president of Empire. "They said, 'Blehhhhhhh.'"

Although the MPAA insists that it's not in the business of censorship (it's administered by the film industry, not the government), an X rating (or no rating) means a measurable loss of revenue. It's not just that some major theater chains won't show X and unrated pictures; scores of newspapers and TV stations won't even run ads for them. The final impact is on ticket sales. "It's well known," says G. Michael Ridges, president of Empire, "that exhibitors will often turn the other way and sell tickets for R-rated movies to your average 14-year-old, but with X or unrated films, enforcement is very strict." That enforcement cuts deeply into Empire's target audience.

Empire, an exploitation house with higher pretensions, has provided Stuart Gordon with a home to experiment in film the way the Organic allowed him to experiment onstage. The stakes are higher, however, and, unlike the Organic, Empire isn't a not-for-profit company. With From Beyond, the studio did not intend to make the same mistake twice. It couldn't afford to.

Empire Entertainment is the child of 34-year-old Charles Band, who combines the gee-whiz enthusiasm of a Marvel Comics buff (he's even made a deal with Fantastic Four artist Jack Kirby to create two new characters) with an uncanny instinct for hawking his low-budget schlock. He jumped on the video bandwagon early, joining forces with video-industry giant Vestron. Largely as a result of that partnership (and the spectacular returns on low-budget sleaze in video), Band had the funds to take a swing at the moon.

"Charlie," according to an associate, "wants to be a mogul, a Sam Goldwyn. There's no way he wants to be [schlock-movie titan] Roger Corman. He wants to be much more respectable than that." Last January, Band surprised Hollywood by paying $20 million for Dinocittà, Dino De Laurentiis's massive studio complex outside Rome (where Band's father, Albert, a producer, director and former assistant to John Huston, moved the family in the late Fifties). The company now has a whopping production schedule; its motto is "A thousand films by the year 2000." ("I wish it were 'A hundred good films by the year 2000,' " says one Empire insider.)

How can Empire, with no real blockbusters behind it, throw around such money? It hinges on "presales." Most Empire productions evolve in a curiously backward fashion — first a concept, then the artwork, then the sale of foreign and video rights, then a script. Pre-selling is Empire's art, and its posters, designed to Band's specifications, its glory. The posters send the message to overseas distributors that Empire understands its target audience and knows how to bait the trap. Screaming titles like Decapitron, Erotikill, Berserker and Breeders, they boast leggy women, fearsome creatures, kinky action and playful hints of sadism; each is calculated to plug directly into a pulp lover's subconscious.

The problem is that the movies themselves have largely sucked. (Remember Troll? Eliminators? Terrorvision?) Band realizes that, and he's been trying to upgrade his screenplays and spend more money on talent. But cash flow is tight these days, even with Vestron pumping in millions for video rights. Empire has sold a lot of movies it hasn't yet made, and the money has been spent. Now, more than ever, it needs a big hit. And the man who seems most likely to come up with one is Stuart Gordon.

Unless, of course, his movies get released without ratings.

The ratings board, unfortunately, is more likely to sanction clean, bloodless violence — death without sting — than Gordon's lavish gore. Sylvester Stallone can mow down scores of Vietnamese, have audiences cheering the killing and get an R. But a film by Stuart Gordon will never make murder look clean, easy and fun.

"Violence," says Gordon, "should horrify. If it doesn't, there's something wrong with it. It should not be seductive. If you're going to show violence, you should show a lot of the stuff that goes along with violence — the suffering, the blood, the mess. When I staged my first fight scene, I did some investigating and found that most serious fights last one punch, and the person who throws it usually breaks his hand. The other guy's jaw breaks."

From Beyond doesn't waffle in its commitment to making you retch. Based on a Lovecraft story, it's about scientists who want to go beyond the five senses and who discover a dormant sensory organ in the brain — the pineal gland. When they stimulate it with a machine called a resonator, they come in contact with a feverish, wildly sexual dimension, and, like drug addicts, they're drawn again and again to the forbidden fruit. The first to pass entirely into the beyond is Dr. Pretorious (Ted Sorel), a brilliant sadist who spends the rest of the movie turning into squiggly, slimy creatures and trying to maul a lady psychiatrist (Barbara Crampton). Pretorious wants to go further, to feel things more deeply, than any human who's ever lived (or died).

From Beyond has little of Re-Animator's gung-ho momentum or puckish wit. Gordon is shackled by the pace of his grisly special effects, which unfurl while the actors stand frozen in their tracks. Trying for a tone of crawly sexual menace, he forsakes the comic invention he's famous for. (At the Organic and in his first film, he nurtured his actors' improvisational instincts and compulsively added slapstick business.)

This is a much straighter horror film, freakishly unnerving and loaded with grotesque sexual imagery — the flesh conforming to the most depraved human urges. On the surface, Gordon seems to be condemning sexual liberation, but the movie is really a Lovecraftian warning: in a repressed culture, normal desires have a way of swelling up and overwhelming you.

"I don't think it's an accident that all H.P. Lovecraft's stories are set in Massachusetts, the center of Puritanism," says Gordon, who, along with Dennis Paoli, has vowed to film as much of Lovecraft as he can. (Next comes The Lurking Fear.) "Lovecraft was examining the Puritan mentality, which on the surface is very proper and strait-laced and moral and underneath is possessed by demons."

Indeed, it's the witch-hunting impulse that fascinates both author and director — the sadistic (and deeply sexual) urge to punish anyone who steps out of line. A favorite story of Lovecraft's concerns the Order of Dagon, an early free-love settlement wiped out by Puritans. And Gordon thinks the witch-hunting impulse is among us again, most visibly in the shape of Ed Meese. He likes to shake up the Meeses.

Gordon inhabits a place where trash, art and politics intersect and where the giddy smashing of taboos is a large part of the fun. He reserves the right to probe the boundaries of taste, because "good taste" is how societies repress what they don't want to confront — even if those impulses wind up tearing them apart from the inside.

"There is something about Pretorious that I like," says Gordon. "In Frankenstein movies, they always say, 'He delved into things that man was not meant to know,' and that was his big sin. I don't believe that. I believe that man can know as much as he can know and that he should try to know as much as he can. Where Pretorious becomes a monster is that he does it at the expense of other people."

There isn't enough of Pretorious in From Beyond, and he's the juiciest, most frightening character. In Gordon's work, the obsession with transcendence is a legacy of the drug culture that helped to shape his talent. "What people wanted in the Sixties was to be transformed, to become something better than they were, and it meant you were going to lose something in order to do it. In a sense, From Beyond is about that, too. The problem — and this may be one of the lessons of the Sixties — is that that usually ends in the person destroying himself. Although, when you look back at it, a lot of the people who are gone now achieved some truly spectacular and wonderful things."

What's refreshing about Stuart Gordon's work is that you can squeal, gag and laugh your way through it and then sit down and talk — if you're so inclined — about Puritanism, the philosopher Descartes (some of Pretorious's lines are almost direct quotations), the lessons of the Sixties or the number of gallons of slime the FX people used (160, if you're interested).

This time, he did it his way. With From Beyond, Gordon gracefully wore the MPAA down, giving up about thirty seconds of graphic footage but cleaving stubbornly to the film's major shocks. Oh, sure, he cut away from a masturbation scene; obscured some lower-frontal nudity during the whipping of a woman; pared down a shot of his wife poking at Jeffrey Comb's pineal gland with a pair of forceps (the gland plays peekaboo); trimmed the brain-eating scene (you still get the idea); took a few frames out of a head being twisted off..... And, after the fourth submission, Empire had its precious R. From Beyond is now playing in major markets and will wind up in your neighborhood sooner or later.

In their modest home in North Hollywood, the Gordons have a big, friendly dog, a cat and a barbecue in the back yard. Outside, police surveillance helicopters sometimes circle overhead, their lights traversing the lawns of the Gordons' neighbors in pursuit of fleeing suspects. Inside the house, however, you find a normal, all-American family — except that your normal, all-American husband doesn't cast his wife as a bitch or torture her in his movies.

"I hope we keep acting that part of our personalities out on the screen and not in real life," says Carolyn Gordon.

After all, a lot of couples don't have that luxury.