Stuart Gordon’s Shock Treatment
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.