Stuart Gordon and the Serpent’s Egg
In 2009, at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles, Stuart Gordon debuted the play Nevermore… An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, written by longtime friend and collaborator Dennis Paoli and starring longtime friend and collaborator Jeffrey Combs. The play centers on a public performance given by Poe, during which he reads from his work, recounts his biography, and grumbles about the misfortunes life has dealt him. As the evening progresses, so does Poe’s drinking, and what began as an earnest night of recitals slowly becomes a somber study of one man’s demons. In many ways, Nevermore is the greatest possible summation of Stuart Gordon’s artistic career to date.
If you clicked on today’s headline with glee, it’s no doubt because you’re a fan of Gordon’s seminal work as a horror film director. And while we’ll certainly get to Re-Animator, From Beyond, The Pit and the Pendulum and more, we need to start this story almost two decades before – at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Gordon’s hometown of Chicago. Gordon and wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon were among those who protested the convention, and the couple, students at the University of Wisconsin, decide to stage a bit of social commentary on the convention by mounting a production of Peter Pan in which Peter and the Lost Boys became hippies, Wendy and kin became suburbanites, and Captain Hook and the pirates were replaced by Mayor Daley and the Chicago police force. Instead of sprinkling pixie dust on the proceedings, Tinkerbell offered LSD, inducing a psychedelic light show projected upon several naked bodies. For their efforts, the Gordons were arrested on charges of obscenity (later dropped), but Stuart Gordon had established himself as an avant-garde young voice in the world of theatre.
Following up on the success of Peter Pan, Stuart and Carolyn founded the Organic Theater Company. Former chief critic for the Chicago Tribune Richard Christiansen, in his book A Theater of Our Own: A History and Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago, declares of the Organic “in a time of exploding creativity, it was the quintessential Chicago theater group” and notes that “it produced more than a few duds, but it also presented a handful of Chicago-born masterworks that were both supremely of the moment and way ahead of their time.” Among those early triumphs were productions of Animal Farm, Candide, and Gordon’s own Warp!, “the world’s first science fiction epic-adventure play in serial form”. Along with Warp! and Animal Farm, the Organic also staged productions based on works by Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, and Kurt Vonnegut, more signs that Gordon possessed a particular love of science fiction – but sci-fi on a very humanistic level, which is not surprising given that he cites 2001: A Space Odyssey as his favorite film of all time. Also key to the success of the Organic (still going strong today) was the caliber of talent which it attracted and continues to attract. Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, Meshach Taylor, and John Cameron Mitchell (whose Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a must-see) all got their start at the Organic, as did up-and-coming playwright David Mamet, who with Stuart Gordon’s guidance, shaped a series of sketches into his first hit play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago (in which Carolyn Purdy-Gordon starred).
It was the success of the Organic productions that would soon steer Stuart Gordon in the direction of filmmaking. First came 1977’s Mantegna-Franz led Bleacher Bums (co-written by the ensemble, including Gordon and Paoli, and directed by Gordon), then, in 1982, a series of emergency room stories formed the basis for the improvisation-driven E/R – Emergency Room. A Gordon-directed production of Bleacher Bums would be filmed for television, and the runaway hit E/R would not only go on to become a television show featuring George Clooney (no, not that one – this one) but also became a “catastrophe of success” for Gordon and the Organic. Organic’s board of directors suddenly wanted every production to be the next E/R – something Gordon certainly wished too, but the realities of any art form dictate successes and failures. Gordon offered to the board that the company branch out into film with Dennis Paoli and Gordon penning an adaptation of another sci-fi work – a genre in which the Organic had been very successful – to be directed by Gordon. The board rejected the idea, a decision which ultimately led Gordon to part ways with the Organic, move to the west coast, and make the film himself. A film called Re-Animator (1985).
After the death of his father, Stuart began to have dreams about his father coming back to life. In some of these dreams, the visage of this father would be horrific, but as he recalls, “It didn’t matter – I wanted him back.” This idea first attracted him to H.P. Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West – Reanimator. “Horror movies are about defeating death,” says Gordon, a sentiment he believes applies to the resurgence of the genre post-9/11. “There’s so much fear in the world that you want to have a way to exorcise it. You want to conquer death and get it out of your system.” Indeed, in Re-Animator, brilliant young scientist West (portrayed by Jeffrey Combs in a star-making performance) does conquer death, but not without a price. Roger Ebert gave the film three stars and Pauline Kael claimed “the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is. It’s like pop Buñuel; the jokes hit you in a subterranean comic zone that the surrealists’ pranks sometimes reached, but without the surrealists’ self-consciousness.”
With Re-Animator and its follow-up, From Beyond, Gordon established a unique auteurship and a repertory-like cadre of accomplices including scribe Paoli, pro-active actors Combs and Barbara Crampton, and wife Carolyn; the group would go on, in one form or another, to make the Lovecraft-inspired Castle Freak, Dagon, and Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House as well the Poe adaptations The Pit and the Pendulum and Masters of Horror: The Black Cat, along with numerous other titles. (If you’re interested, Poe was Lovecraft’s idol.)
Since I’m not particularly well-versed on Lovecraft’s work, I asked dear friend and author (The Panama Laugh) Thomas Roche – a dedicated fan of both Lovecraft and Gordon – to offer a few thoughts on why Stuart’s adaptations work so well:
“Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations capture the essence of HPL’s tightly-controlled off-screen terrors in which reality is far too awful to consider without madness being the inevitable result — and so it can only be hinted at. The over-the-top gore in Re-Animator seems like it might be counter to Lovecraft’s Puritan tautness, but it’s merely the visual expression of HPL’s wonderfully and self-consciously purple prose. And without the visual language of terror in Re-Animator, the visceral effect of the original would have been utterly at sea in the film world of the 1980s.”
Given where we are in our tale today, Stuart Gordon’s pick for our fright film festival, 1973’s Theater of Blood starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, seems almost predetermined. Gordon offers the reasoning behind his choice: “While many prefer Vincent Price as the Abominable Dr. Phibes, my favorite role was when he played the crazed Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart. In this film he kills the critics who have slammed his performances in methods taken from the Bard’s most gruesome scenes: a pound of flesh, baking babies in pies and so on. As an occasional victim of nasty reviews, I can certainly relate to this film.”
Theater of Blood is the kind of film I imagine members of the Royal Shakespeare Company indulging in at the end of a long run. Like Gordon’s work, it’s a visual treat, with each death staged appropriately and building upon the previous. There are exquisite layers within the film – from actor Lionheart’s hammy soliloquies juxtaposed with masterful voice-over readings from Price himself to Lionheart’s Marat/Sade-like company of players to puns on Shakespeare’s words. The result is a trippy, gore-driven, tongue-in-cheek thrill ride through iambic pentameter that perfectly captures just how grisly Shakespeare’s plays really are. Indeed, you could say that the Bard was the original “exploitation playwright” with subjects ranging from murder and rape to incest and insanity. Joe Bob Briggs tells us that the film was Vincent Price’s favorite of his works and that the production, shot in England with a cast of stellar British stars, was something of a tribute to Price’s career. It is, without doubt, an absolute love letter to Price’s abilities, Shakespeare’s words, and the majesty of the gore film.
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass
Featured Glassware: Bernadotte Flute by Villeroy & Boch
Our drink today, a thinly-veiled variation on the Holland House, takes its inspiration – at the clever suggestion of Mr. Gordon – from Theater of Blood on two distinct levels. First, Lionheart’s homeless band of cohorts, labeled “Meth Drinkers” in the credits, seems to subsist solely on a diet of violence and a “purple drink”. The actual name for the drink has been borrowed from Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar, as he rallies the Senators of Rome to join him in his plot to assassinate the emperor:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg,
Which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell
Much like dictators, critics – theatre and otherwise – tend to “grow mischievous” in their reviews, and so we offer the Serpent’s Egg as a way to “drown” their mischief, if you will – a good stiff drink with a splash of purple, reflective of both the prose of Lovecraft and the sustenance of Edward Lionheart’s merry troupe. Purple, the color of good judgment and peace of mind – comforts seldom to be found in bad notices, so we offer them here in liquid form instead. And yet, let us not be unkind to all critics and their critiques. Take, for instance, the words of F. Kathleen Foley in her Los Angeles Times review of Nevermore:
“Gordon, Paoli and Combs are all buddies who have worked together before on various horror projects. This marks a pinnacle for their collaboration, a fitting memorial to a misunderstood genius that, one suspects, will have a life far beyond this one.”
Sometimes, it seems, the critics know what they’re talking about.
Esoterica: Perhaps Stuart Gordon’s most successful mad scientist tale, co-written with friend and fellow Lovecraft devotee Brian Yuzna is the tale of a man who creates a device which accidentally miniaturizes his children. Yup, I’m talking Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
More: I couldn’t fit this organically into the piece, but be sure to check out Stuart Gordon’s most recent work – his adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmond, starring William H. Macy, Stuck with Stephan Rea and Mena Suvari, as well as King of the Ants – which has moved more into the realm of personal, human-based horror and is quite riveting. I’m anxious to see much more.
Even More: Here’s Jeffrey Combs in Nevermore: