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Stuart Gordon, locally groomed master of theatrical science fiction

From January 30 through April 24, UW Cinematheque at the Chazen presents a one-Sunday-per-month 35mm retrospective of the offbeat and imaginative playwright, screenwriter, and director.

From January 30 through April 24, UW Cinematheque at the Chazen presents a one-Sunday-per-month 35mm retrospective of the offbeat and imaginative playwright, screenwriter, and director.

Header Image: A collage of the four Stuart Gordon films in the retrospective. Clockwise from top left: John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his cellmates Nino (Clifton Collins Jr.), Stiggs (Tom Towles), D-Day (Jeffrey Combs), and Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick) plot their escape in “Fortress”; Achilles (Gary Graham) and Alexander (Paul Koslo) face off in their giant robots in “Robot Jox”; the titular character (William H. Macy) brandishes a knife in “Edmond”; and Macanudo (Charles Dance) menaces his prisoners Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff) and John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) in “Space Truckers.”

Though best known for his Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), the late Stuart Gordon (1947-2020) was more than just a horror director. Starting out as a renegade theater major at UW-Madison, Gordon co-founded the Broom Street Theater before moving to Chicago to become a pivotal figure in that city’s theater scene. Always unpredictable, Gordon moved into filmmaking in the 1980s, with his blood-soaked debut Re-Animator establishing him as a unique master of the genre. This semester, UW Cinematheque’s year-long retrospective of Gordon’s career begins with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee series of some of his lesser-known films—the science fiction movies Fortress (1992), Robot Jox (1989), and Space Truckers (1996), as well as his adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmond (2005). All four will be shown on 35mm prints at the Chazen Museum of Art, direct from the Stuart Gordon vault at the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research.

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Full of ingenious practical effects and outlandish villains, Gordon’s sci-fi worlds are just as imaginative, anti-authoritarian, and over-the-top as his horror films. Gordon had an obvious passion for the genre, and returned to it throughout his career. During his time at the Organic Theater in Chicago, Gordon adapted science fiction novels by Bradbury, Vonnegut, and others to the stage; and his own Marvel Comics-inspired sci-fi serial play Warp! had a brief run on Broadway with art production by comics artist Neal Adams. While his sci-fi films conform to genre conventions, Gordon clearly has fun working within the form while adding his own personal touch.

Screening first in the Chazen series on January 30 is Fortress, set in a dystopian future—an authoritarian 2017 America with draconian population control laws. John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his pregnant wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) are caught trying to escape into Canada, and they’re sent to a high-tech private prison controlled by cyborg warden Poe (Kurtwood Smith) and a HAL 9000-like computer (voiced by Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). Inmates are implanted with explosive “intestinators” and monitored at all times, even in their dreams. This being a prison movie, Brennick quickly runs afoul of the warden and stereotypical prison toughs (played by perennial B-movie villains Tom Towles and Vernon Wells). Poe becomes fixated upon Karen and tortures Brennick with a mind-wipe machine to coerce her into a relationship. But when Karen discovers the prison’s secrets, she helps Brennick and his cellmates plan their escape.

Originally planned as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Fortress was Gordon’s biggest film to date in the early ’90s. While it didn’t have anywhere near the budget of contemporaneous sci-fi action hits like Total Recall (1990) and Demolition Man (1993), Fortress still manages to have some impressive special effects. The prison’s subterranean panopticon design is especially effective in establishing space, and the intestinators add an unsettling body-horror aspect to the film. Lambert wasn’t the most charismatic actor even by 1990s action star standards, but Gordon puts Lambert’s dead-fish stare to good use in the scenes where Brennick’s mind has been erased.

The rest of the cast is full of memorable character actors like Smith, Wells, and Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs. Smith, who always relishes playing a villain, gives a quietly creepy performance as Poe. Created to be an emotionless arbiter of punishment, Poe attempts to learn how to love by watching the inmates’ sex dreams. While he’s sadistic and inhuman, there’s also a pathetic quality to him as he clumsily tries to woo Karen. Blending sci-fi, action, and prison movie conventions, Fortress is filled with unpredictable plot twists and explosive sequences.

Inspired by the popularity of Transformers toys, Robot Jox (screening February 27) is a comic-book Cold War metaphor. Set in another post-apocalyptic future where war has been replaced by giant robot fights, the film follows America’s top robot jock Achilles (Gary Graham) as he faces off against Soviet champ Alexander (Paul Koslo). Achilles becomes disillusioned after he accidentally crushes a bleacher full of spectators, but eventually returns to the battlefield for a rematch against the ruthless Alexander. Along the way, Achilles has to deal with espionage, embittered fans, and genetically-engineered robot jocks who are all vying for his title. Special effects legend David W. Allen created the battle sequences with painstaking stop-motion miniatures, giving Robot Jox a pre-CGI charm. While ostensibly a movie for children, Robot Jox is a tongue-in-cheek comment on jingoism, militarism, and spectator sports.

One month later, on March 27, prepare for Space Truckers. Gordon’s final science fiction film is an extremely goofy mix of trucker movie tropes and space adventure. Dennis Hopper stars as John Canyon, a last-of-the-independents space trucker, who teams up with passengers Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff) and Cindy (Debi Mazar) to transport some dubious shipping containers back to Earth. After being captured by a band of space pirates led by a cyborg mad scientist (Charles Dance), they discover their cargo is an army of dangerous bio-mechanoid soldiers that are out to conquer humanity. Shot in lurid, Day-Glo colors, Space Truckers looks like a live-action 1970s comic book, and it follows comic-book logic as well. Hopper’s character is introduced as he’s applying mustard to a hot dog in zero gravity, making it crystal clear this is not a movie interested in a realistic depiction of space travel. Space Truckers gleefully wallows in its B-movie silliness, filled with low-budget special effects and low-brow humor.

The final spring screening in the Gordon series on April 24 is an adaptation of Mamet’s bleakest play, Edmond, a late-career return to Gordon’s Chicago theater roots. Gordon and Mamet worked together in the 1970s on the first production of Sexual Perversity In Chicago (1974), which established Mamet as an up-and-coming playwright. Adapting Mamet’s one-act play Edmond to a feature-length film, Gordon crafts a tense, unsettling personal hell for its titular protagonist. After a tarot reader tells him “you are not where you belong,” a seemingly normal businessman (William H. Macy) leaves his family and enters a nightmarish world of sex, violence, and racism. With little of Gordon’s typical humor, the subject matter makes it a difficult film to sit through if you’re not already a fan of Mamet, but Edmond is still a well-crafted film that reflects Gordon’s skill at directing actors. The film reunites Gordon with a number of actors from his days in Chicago theater, including Macy, Joe Mantegna, George Wendt, and Jack Wallace.

While they don’t have the cult reputation of his ’80s horror films, Stuart Gordon’s science fiction universes are just as imaginative and packed full of the director’s fast-paced and outrageous personal style. Cinematheque’s Sunday series at the Chazen gives Madison audiences a rare chance to delve deeper into highly entertaining B-movies from a master of his craft.

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