Stuart Gordon isn’t among the most well-known or revered horror filmmakers around; in some circles, he’s downright reviled. The Chicago native has drawn ire his whole career, even here in the pages of the Reader. None other than Dave Kehr, a measured and thoughtful critic even at his most vitriolic, called Gordon’s breakthrough Re-Animator “ludicrous and inept,” describing it as the “kind of flat-footed stuff that gives garbage a bad name.” The director’s next two films didn’t fare much better, and somewhere along the line, the Reader essentially stopped reviewing his films altogether.
But something tells me Gordon is alright with this. Interestingly—and, for some, infuriatingly—enough, he’s the type of filmmaker who doesn’t merely disregard negative critique, but wears it like a badge of honor. Before turning to cinema, he staged highly subversive political theater at the University of Wisconsin and in storefront theaters around Chicago. His company Organic Theater produced radicalized versions of Peter Pan and audience-goading Shakespeare adaptations, and his work got so thoroughly beneath peoples’ skins that it occasionally incited small riots. Gordon’s penchant for taking extreme liberties with established material followed him to filmmaking, where his various takes on H.P. Lovecraft have been maligned by fans as gratuitous, self-serving, and generally disrespectful to the writer. And yet Gordon soldiers on, sticking to his puerile guns and cementing his reputation as a supreme shlock artist. You can catch my five favorite Stuart Gordon films below.
5. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998) I tend to discover Gordon’s films under unique circumstances, and this one crossed my radar around the time of Ray Bradbury’s death, when I somehow stumbled upon the whole thing on YouTube. Bradbury wrote the script, adapting his own short story, and it’s probably the sweetest, most fanciful thing Gordon’s ever directed, though there are definitely traces of his subversive political past, particularly in the minority characterizations and class commentary.
4. Dolls (1987) As a kid, I used to sneak off to the horror section of my local video store and investigate the films I was too young to rent. The VHS cover for this bizarre item always scared me, and I imagined it being a horrific film; when I finally caught up with it as an adult (yet another unlikely YouTube discovery), it wasn’t quite the horror odyssey I envisioned, but it is an inventive, delightfully ludicrous romp that features some of the most elaborate murder sequences this side of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. (Interestingly enough, the film was shot in Italy, and Gordon does make vague references to the country’s fascist past.)
3. From Beyond (1986) The spiritual successor to Re-Animator and another loose, intensely personal Lovecraft adaptation. The rampant sexual imagery and overt obsession with human bodies brings to mind David Cronenberg, but Gordon’s cartoonish, batshit style gives the seemingly horrific material a comic book feel. The director doesn’t merely commingle comedy and horror on screen, he illustrates the short gap between humor and fright, and in his most inspired sequences, somehow manages to merge them together.
2. Stuck (2007) The Lovecraftian monsters of Gordon’s 80s classics take on a human shape in this scuzzy shaggy-dog story, a comedy-exploitation pastiche that ranks among the most underrated films of the 00s. The film’s exaggerated reality, casual horror, and unabashed cynicism are admittedly pretty tough to swallow, but it’s a much more purposeful exercise than initially meets the eye. The desperation and absurdity that consumes the material and the characters becomes more nuanced and more genuinely hilarious as the story unfolds.
1. Re-Animator (1985) An obvious choice, sure, but this is maximal horror filmmaking at its finest. Gordon throws everything at the wall here; miraculously, most of it sticks. Tasteless and brash, the film has survived on its cult reputation, but this is a tremendous structural accomplishment. Every crude joke and ultragory sequence arrives with symphonic precision; madcap as it seems, nothing is out of place. Lovecraft provided the film’s source material, but Gordon’s method of adaptation is to put everything in a blender and see what comes out. Re-Animator—despite being a film about dead things that come back to life—is indeed an exercise in reanimation, a film awash in its own maelstrom of pop art viscera.