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.