UW Cinematheque concludes its 2022 Stuart Gordon retrospective at the Chazen with a horror-tinged Sunday matinee lineup.
Balancing horror with sex and humor, the late Stuart Gordon (1947-2020) built a thoroughly entertaining and defiantly low-brow body of work. UW Cinematheque concludes its year-long retrospective of the locally groomed writer and director with a four-film program of Sunday matinees at the Chazen Museum Of Art this month, bringing together vastly different films from Gordon’s oeuvre.
The fall series begins on October 9, at 2 p.m., with Gordon’s final film Stuck (2007), and culminates with a pre-Halloween screening of the cult classic From Beyond (1986) on October 30. All films in the series will be screened from Gordon’s personal 35mm collection courtesy of the Wisconsin Center For Film And Theater Research. Since most of Gordon’s films never had the privilege of wide theatrical release, it’s a rare chance to see them on the big screen.
Based on a true story, the taut, cynical thriller Stuck proves that late-period Gordon still had the ability to shock an audience. Driving home drunk and high, nursing assistant Brandi Boski (Mena Suvari) hits a homeless man, Thomas Bardo (Stephen Rea). Instead of reporting the accident, Brandi goes home and parks the car in her garage, with Thomas stuck halfway through her windshield. The rest of the film is a slow-motion battle of the wits, as Thomas tries to escape while the increasingly desperate Brandi tries to cover up the crime.
Along with Gordon’s other late-period films King Of The Ants (2003) and Edmond (2005), Stuck depicts ordinary people’s capacity for evil. While all these are not exactly horror films, at times they manage to be more disturbing than Gordon’s genre work due to their real-life settings and grimy, low-budget feel. Gordon once stated in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine that, “as you get older you start realizing that real life is scarier than anything you can dream up, that the things that people actually do to each other are far more bizarre and horrifying than anything that Lovecraft could dream of.” Though Stuck is openly indebted to Misery (1990), Gordon portrays Brandi not as a monster, but as a sympathetic, albeit self-centered character who is capable of doing monstrous things. Featuring impressive performances from both Suvari and Lea, Stuck is a potent swan song from a master of suspense.
Screening the next Sunday, October 16, the loosely Edgar Allan Poe-adapted The Pit And The Pendulum (1991) graphically depicts the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Accused of practicing witchcraft by the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (Lance Henriksen), innocent Maria (Rona De Ricci) and her husband Antonio (Jonathan Fuller) are imprisoned and tortured. Torquemada grows increasingly infatuated with his beautiful captive, and Maria has to learn magic from kindly witch Esmerelda (Frances Bay, a David Lynch/Adam Sandler regular) in order to survive. Written by Gordon’s lifelong friend and collaborator Dennis Paoli (who visited the Wisconsin Film Festival this year), The Pit And The Pendulum manages to be a well-researched depiction of the Inquisition while also brimming with Gordon’s signature gallows humor.
The film begins with the inquisitors exhuming a skeleton and sentencing it to 20 lashes, which seems like a typical Paoli and Gordon joke but is actually based on historical records. Gordon repertory players Jeffrey Combs, William Norris, and Steven Lee serve as comic foils to Henriksen’s deathly serious method acting, and the great Oliver Reed is clearly enjoying himself in a cameo as a drunken Italian cardinal. Gordon uses the hypocrisy and fanaticism of the Inquisition as a commentary on the rise of the religious right during the Reagan and Bush years as well as his eternal struggles with the MPAA ratings board.
The Pit And The Pendulum was a return to horror for Gordon, who had spent the previous couple years developing Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989) for Disney before stress-induced health issues led him to drop out as director. The film also reunited Gordon with producer and horror mogul Charles Band, whose Empire Pictures had produced Gordon’s first four films. While Band is best known for churning out cheap straight-to-VHS junk like Puppet Master (1989), he always gave Gordon artistic freedom. The Pit And The Pendulum’s period ambience benefits from being filmed in an actual 15th-century castle owned by Band, an ingenious cost-cutting method that Gordon would use again for the truly terrifying Castle Freak (1995) (sadly not included in this series).
Combining two short stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Dagon (2001), screening October 23, is an atmospheric, fast-paced piece of gothic horror. After a boating accident off the coast of Spain, wealthy tech geek Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his girlfriend Bárbara (Raquel Meroño) find themselves stranded in a gloomy, remote fishing village. They quickly discover the town is populated by half-human fish-people who worship the ancient pagan god Dagon and make masks out of outsiders’ skin. Racing through the rain-soaked streets, Paul tries to rescue Barbara from being sacrificed to Dagon while fending off murderous villagers and the advances of tentacled temptress Uxía (Macarena Gómez).
Though slightly marred by the lead actors’ woodenness and some very dated CGI effects, Dagon is one of Gordon’s most unsettling works. The Spanish coast is a surprisingly good substitute for Lovecraft’s gloomy New England setting, making Dagon feel more faithful to the writer’s vision than Gordon’s other adaptations. By using all handheld cameras and purposely not subtitling the Spanish cast’s dialogue, Gordon immerses the viewer into Paul’s panicked point of view, making the plot’s many twists and turns all the more surprising. As Gordon’s final horror film, Dagon is an underappreciated entry in his filmography.
Finally, the kinky, outrageous experiment in body horror, From Beyond, concludes things on Devil’s Day, October 30—a fan favorite due to its over-the-top aesthetic. Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) have finally perfected the Resonator, a device that gives humans access to the fifth dimension by stimulating the pineal gland. Unfortunately, the fifth dimension is full of nightmarish creatures, and the experiment ends with Pretorius getting his head bitten off and Tillinghast going mad.
Tillinghast is rescued from a mental institution by psychologist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), who wants him to recreate the experiments to find out what happened. Along with police escort Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree of Dawn Of The Dead), he returns to the laboratory. When they switch the Resonator back on, Dr. Pretorius’ head returns from the fifth dimension with a new terrifying body. Transformed into a classically Lovecraftian monster, Pretorius’ sadistic urges have become a desire for power and human flesh.
The excessive pineal stimulation begins to affect our “heroes” as well; Dr. McMichaels becomes drawn to both the Resonator and Pretorius’ bondage gear, while Crawford sprouts a pineal antenna in his forehead and develops an insatiable hunger for brains. After a bloody escape from the mental institution, Tillinghast and McMichaels try to overcome their urges to destroy the Resonator before Pretorius becomes all-powerful.
Filmed quickly reusing the set of Dolls (1987), From Beyond is clearly an attempt to one-up Gordon’s breakout debut Re-Animator (1985), using another Lovecraft short story as its basis, and bringing back both Crampton and Combs as the stars. Gordon also had the most difficulty getting the film passed by the MPAA ratings board. Presumably, it was payback for everything Gordon got away with in his unrated debut. Packed full of gruesome special effects and copious amounts of slime, it’s one of Gordon’s most popular and enduring films.
From his days as a hippie provocateur at UW-Madison to his canonization as a Master Of Horror, Stuart Gordon was always unpredictable. Bloody, transgressive, and wickedly funny, Gordon’s films transcend their B-movie limitations thanks to his rapport with actors and penchant for strong storytelling.