In January 1986, I interviewed Stuart Gordon for the London listings magazine Time Out to coincide with the UK release of Re-animator. At that time, no-one had ever heard of Stuart Gordon, so I didn’t get much space.
With my customary lack of perceptiveness (I once interviewed Amy Irving, diligently steering clear of her private life in the belief she wouldn’t want to be thought of as Mrs Steven Spielberg, only to find news of their rupture splashed all over the tabloids the very next day), I was totally unaware the film I’d seen had been shorn of its most notorious scene (the severed head giving head) by the BBFC. Though, to be fair, the press notes didn’t mention this and the internet didn’t exist back then, so I’m not sure how I ought to have known. And why on earth did this interview take place at the National Theatre? The answer to that is lost in the mists of history…
It was in one of the most dilapidated and furthest-flung reaches of that mosntrous edifice known as the National Theatre that I met Stuart Gordon, creator of an unnameable motion picture called Re-animator. His greeting to me was not unfriendly, but one could only guess at the unspeakable depravity festering behind that bearded and amiable countenance…
The film was awarded a Special Critics’ Prize at Cannes. So the French liked it? “They loved it!” exclaimed Gordon. “They said I’m the next Jerry Lewis!” He chuckled. It was a sound that lodged in the very marrow of my bones…
HP Lovecraft wrote Herbert West – Re-animator in 1921/22. It was first published in serial form in a little-known magazine called Home Brew. Lovecraftians will already be aware that West doesn’t reanimate Donald Duck; he reanimates corpses. “The story covers a 20-year period,” explained Gordon. “In the film it’s compressed into two weeks. There were a couple of episodes so gory we couldn’t include them. There’s one episode in which West revives a black boxer, and the guy goes running out of the house, and comes back on all fours carrying a baby’s arm in his mouth…”
Re-animator is Gordon’s feature debut, though he has a healthy track record as a theatre and TV director. Brian Yuzna, his producer, arranged for Empire International Pictures to provide post-production facilities in exchange for distribution rights. Empire is the haunt of the Band brothers; Richard Band composed the Psycho-esque score, while Charles is busy mutating into a Roger Corman for the 1980s, building up a stock company of film-makers and actors who specialise in science fiction and fantasy.
Gordon and Yuzna have both been signed up for further forays into Lovecraftland. Poe has been much plundered for the screen, notably by Corman in the 1960s, but adaptations of the old HP have been rarer. Gordon put this down to the author’s tendency to write things like, “‘And then, the unspeakable horror… the unmentionable… the dot dot dot…’ And if you’re making a movie, you’ve got to show something on that screen.” As well as all his ultimate abominations, Lovecraft also displays an inordinate fondness for italics and names with lots of consonants strung together, such as Cthulhu.
Lovecraft was raised by maiden aunts in Rhode Island and grew up into a hypochondriac with a morbid fear of fish. “Whenever someone tried to serve him a plate of fish, he would run out of the house,” said Gordon. “There’s a story of his that we’re going to be doing called The Shadow Over Innsmouth, about a town in which all the people are turning into fish…”
Re-animator is short on fish, but long on mad doctors (two) and zombies (lots). It also features a severed head with a crush on the heroine and a headless torso with a lot of guts. Gordon, although he confesses to a weak stomach, did his research in pathology rooms and mortuaries.
“I found that the way death was portrayed in the movies is very inaccurate. The way that they portray dead people is to paint them white with dark circles under their eyes. That’s not right… The first time I looked in a morgue, they were opening these large lockers, and all of them were jammed with bodies – no white sheets – and the smell is not to be believed. And the colours of the bodies were like rainbows. Just as each person is an individual in life, the same is true of death, depending on how you die. And the attitude of a doctor to a dead body is that it’s toxic, it’s disease-ridden, it’s garbage or shit…”
Gordon reckons Psycho is still the scariest movie ever made. “When I really start to get scared is when I realise that the director is capable of anything… I also don’t like the idea of those films in which, as soon as they have sex, people are murdered. My feeling is they should have sex after they’re murdered…”
My ears were again assailed by that unearthly chuckle, and I sloped off into the howling night. Life is a hideous thing, as Lovecraft himself once wrote, and even now my tormented brain echoes dementedly with Stuart Gordon’s parting words: “Dead people just wanna have fun.” Dot dot dot.
ETA: Gordon and Yuzna eventually filmed The Shadow over Innsmouth (combining it with another of Lovecraft’s short stories) as the 2001 film Dagon.