Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Chicago-born filmmaker Stuart Gordon’s first film aside from a TV movie about a group of Cubbies taking in a game at Wrigley Field called Bleacher Bums is the bombastic, gonzo H.P. Lovecraft bloodbath Re-Animator.
A closer look at Bleacher Bums, though, reveals a cast that includes not only Gordon’s wife and partner Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, but David Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna, Richard Fire, Roberta Custer, and Dennis Franz – ties that reveal Gordon’s deep ties to the Chicago theater community and the trailblazing importance of his own Organic Theater Company. He founded the OTC with Purdy in 1969 in Madison, WI with a production of “Richard III” so despised by local authorities that it forced the company to move not once, but twice, before finally finding a home at the Body Politic Theater on Lincoln Avenue in the Windy City.
Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” premiered there in 1974. Turns out, the cast of Bleacher Bums is not so much an inventory of Mamet’s troupe so much as the Organic Theater Company’s, while Gordon’s sometimes-aggressive flouting of social conventions and focus on performance, dialogue, and combat stagecraft likewise found their inspiration in his roots here in this era of defiantly independent, unapologetically literate theater.
There’s evidence of Gordon’s background all over Re-Animator, a film that at first glance wouldn’t lend itself to a classical, formalist read. Yet, in a field crowded with quick splatter cash-ins of the newly-plumbed VHS market, Re-Animator which did receive a limited theatrical run demonstrated a keen sense of the absurd. Pauline Kael called it “…pop Buñuel; the jokes hit you in a subterranean comic zone that the surrealists’ pranks sometimes reached, but without the surrealists’ self-consciousness (and art-consciousness). This is indigenous American junkiness…” and “close to being a silly ghoulie classic-the the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is…” Watching it today, it’s lost none of its ability to shock, but what leaps out thirty-five years later is how perfectly-pitched the performances are, how detailed it is in terms of character development, and finally how surprisingly heartfelt it is in its treatment of grief (and with all of grief’s attendant mania). It has the longevity it has because Gordon was always more interested in the human drama than the spectacle.
Gordon followed 1985’s Re-Animator immediately with another Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond, in 1986; it’s one of the weird fiction legend’s eldritch stories about unseen dimensions, elder gods and the madness of human ambition. Gordon’s classical training drew him to stories about hubris – he and frequent collaborator Brian Yuzna earned the “Story by” credit for Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids after all (a kid’s film that plays like a horror movie, as all the best kid’s flicks tend to do) – but something in his nature drew him to stories about abandoned children and the mad scientists who adopt them. There’s a certain infatuation with the horror and intoxication of childhood in Gordon’s work and so many of his non-Lovecraft pictures take place in gothic settings where kids and other half-formed creations are tasked with their own upbringing in worlds tough on little things. He celebrated innocence even in the midst of unimaginable atrocity, and the power of kindness especially in the midst of cruelty. Gordon’s films were fairy tales in the Grimm sense where consequences were bloody, but salvation was possible if not always won.
In 1971, Organic Theater Company staged, with John Heard, Andre De Shields and Bruce A. Young, the three-part science-fiction opus “Warp!”. Based on cosmic stories from the Marvel Universe without the rights to any of its intellectual property, it sought to bring comic books to the stage. After a year in Chicago, it moved to Broadway for eight performances with Neal Adams and Robert Guerra as art and scenic design directors. Gordon understood the cinematic quality of comic books, of course, but also its power as a modern system of fables and mythologies. 1989’s RobotJox, co-written by sci-fi legend Joe Haldeman after their proposed adaptation of The Forever War lost its funding, saw the two butting heads when Haldeman wanted hard sci-fi where Gordon would, according to Haldeman’s autobiographical blog, “change it back to Saturday-morning cartoon stuff.” The problem with hard sci-fi is it’s moored forever to the prevailing knowledge of the time. The great thing about myth is that it’s tied to archetype eternal. Gordon’s sense of stories that speak to something innate in us is seen in stuff like his badly-underestimated Dolls, where a little girl named “Judy” befriends a doll named “Punch” and takes control of her life with the help of a witch and a warlock; the magical properties of community and class of a special white suit in Ray Bradbury’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (which Bradbury himself called the greatest adaptation of his work); the secret inhuman-sharers of Space Truckers, Castle Freak, and Fortress; even his script for Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers which proves that Jack Finney’s tale has something new for each generation’s essential fear of losing their humanity.
Gordon’s best film may be Edmond, his scabrous, uncompromising collaboration with David Mamet, starring William H. Macy as a terrible person who visits a fortune teller that curses him with the promise that he will one day find the place he belongs. The film unfolds with the slow, vicious, insensate menace of a Venus Flytrap setting itself as Edmond takes out his frustrations and obvious inadequacies on the women unfortunate enough to intersect with him. Not every journey of self-discovery, as Oedipus once learned, results in fruitful edification. Gordon’s gift for the unbearable protractions of the guilty heart found expression in his exceptional docu-melodrama Stuck and his grimy revenge-thriller King of the Ants. It’s no wonder, really, that he was as drawn to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, master of the guilty heart, as he was to Lovecraft. He adapted Poe for The Pit and the Pendulum and a Masters of Horror television adaptation of “The Black Cat” (while also naming the baddie in Fortress “Poe”) and, in addition to Re-Animator and From Beyond, tackled Lovecraft with the supremely, wonderfully unpleasant Dagon and another television adaptation, this time of “Dreams in the Witch-House”. On stage, Gordon’s Organic Theater Company debuted Stephen Most’s “Poe”, about the three days the author went missing in 1849; more recently, Gordon wrote and directed a one-man show called “Nevermore” starring his muse Jeffrey Combs.
If it’s only Gordon’s adaptations of Lovecraft and Poe that stand as his legacy, it’s a very fine one of course, but more’s the pity as Gordon was a true artist and activist. He sought to disrupt even in projects perceived by some to be sell-outs or compromises. The first version of the Organic Theater Company was something he called “The Screw Theater,” and their best-remembered production was “Game Show” where the audience was asked to participate in an end-of-days contest that included depradations up to and including rape. Plants were used, of course, but it never failed to inspire a riot. Gordon railed against the class abuses of Vietnam and the corporatization of lives weighed by the value of their output rather than the intrinsic pricelessness of their humanity.
His films, celebrated for their savagery, are each extension of that sense of outraged morality and funhouse parallax. When mad Herbert West reanimates for pride, it’s an abomination, but when earnest Dan reanimates comely lady-love Megan it’s love, baby. In-person, the Gordon I knew only briefly was kind, soft-spoken, generous with his time, and grateful that his body of work had found its own shambling, unholy half-life without him. He was a unique voice, a force of nature, and he’ll be missed.