Welcome back to the (Plot)opsy Podcast! It has been a while since the last episode due to some technical issues, but now the show has been appropriately brought back to life! On this episode, I go into some fun facts and trivia about Stuart Gordon’s cult classic debut feature, “Re-Animator.” It is pretty fascinating how the combination of an experienced stage director, an out of print story, and some creative frugality can make for such a memorable classic of horror! I recommend checking out my text review of the movie from last month if you find yourself wanting more.
I have covered just about the entire directorial career of Stuart Gordon over these past two weeks as part of the Stuart Gordon Spotlight, and then some. In this entry, I wanted to take a look at a few of his deeper cuts, that have thankfully been preserved on YouTube. None of these quite merited a post to themselves, but I didn’t want to neglect at least mentioning them.
As a side note, I highly recommend checking out Stuart Gordon’s commentaries over on Joe Dante’s “Trailers From Hell.”
This was a television movie made for a local Chicago station about some die-hard Chicago Cubs fans during the 1977 season. I haven’t watched through the whole thing, but it does mark the first official credit for Stuart Gordon behind the camera. It even got a remake in 2001, on which Gordon got a producing credit.
This is essentially a PSA aimed at children, intended to inform them of how to deal with emergency situations. I don’t know how or why Stuart Gordon did this, but judging from the YouTube comments and the IMDb rating, a lot of people have fond memories of this VHS from their childhood. And, admittedly, it is pretty charming and cute at times.
“Fear Itself” is essentially a more recent version of “Masters of Horror”: it spotlights various horror directors with hour-long, short-form films. Stuart Gordon contributed an episode titled “Eater,” about a Cajun cannibal. It does star Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men,” as well as a couple of previous Stuart Gordon actors in Russell Hornsby (“Stuck”) and the now-deceased Stephen Lee (“Dolls,” “The Pit and The Pendulum”).
Much like “The Dentist,” “Progeny” is directed by longtime Stuart Gordon producing collaborator Brian Yuzna. Gordon was given a story credit on the feature, but it is unclear exactly how much input he had on the final screenplay.
“Deathbed,” not to be confused with “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats,” was a low-budget movie produced by Stuart Gordon in 2002. Apart from having his name attached, he did not write or direct this film, taking a rare back seat role.
Stuart Gordon shares screenwriting credit with longtime writing partner Dennis Paoli and Nicholas St. John on the second of three remakes of the 1956 classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” this time called simply “Body Snatchers.”
Yes, really. Stuart Gordon dreamed up this family classic in cooperation with horror writer Ed Naha (“Dolls”) and his long time producer, Brian Yuzna. He even directed an episode of the short-lived TV series, and acted as executive producer on the sequel “Honey, I Blew Up The Kid.” At least both films are far better than “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” I can certainly give them that.
Thus concludes the two-week spotlight on Stuart Gordon here at Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! If you want to check out all of the previous reviews in this marathon of the macabre, you can check them all out under “Stuart Gordon Spotlight” in the “Themed Reviews” tab on the top toolbar.
Welcome back to the final day of my two week spotlight of the works of Stuart Gordon here at the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! I’ll be wrapping things up with one of Gordon’s least recognized works, 1990’s “Daughter of Darkness.”
“Daughter of Darkness” was written by Andrew Laskos, who was a frequent writer of television series and movies in the 1980s and 1990s. His credits include a handful of episodes of “Remington Steele,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Hotel.”
The cinematography on “Daughter of Darkness” was done by Iván Márk, a man from Budapest who never much broke out of domestic Hungarian films. Still, he accrued nearly 50 cinematography credits by 1990, after which time he has primarily acted as a producer on short films.
Providing the music on “Daughter of Darkness” is Colin Towns, who did extensive work on television music, but also returned to work with Stuart Gordon again for “Space Truckers” in 1996.
Two of the effects crew on “Daughter of Darkness” have gone on to have long careers in film. Craig Reardon has done make-up work on films and television series such as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Volcano,” “Wild Wild West,” “We Were Soldiers,” and “Oz: The Great and Powerful” in the years since “Daughter of Darkness,” and Gyula Krasnyanszky has done pyrotechnics work on miscellaneous films like “47 Ronin,” “World War Z,” “Season of the Witch,” “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,” and the 2011 remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
The cast of “Daughter of Darkness” is highlighted by the presence of Anthony Perkins, who famously played Norman Bates in “Psycho.” “Daughter of Darkness” would be one of his last film performances, as he died just two years later in 1992. The rest of the cast of “Daughter of Darkness” includes Jack Coleman, who has worked extensively on television (“Heroes,” “The Office,” “Dynasty”), and Mia Sara, who is best known as Sloane from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
“Daughter of Darkness” is notably unrelated to 1971’s “Daughters of Darkness,” a Belgian vampire movie that has arguably achieved cult status. However, I wouldn’t doubt that the name was inspired by that film, even if the plot elements are entirely original.
The story of “Daughter of Darkness” centers around a young woman who is attempting to locate her long lost father after the death of her mother, a quest that leads her to a small Romanian town that proves to be full of secrets. She eventually discovers that her father is the head of a small clan of vampires, who are fascinated at the fact that a vampire/human hybrid has proved viable, and soon works the group up into an existential frenzy.
One interesting detail about the vampires in “Daughter of Darkness” is their lack of fangs. Most other traditional vampire traits are retained, but instead of fangs, the vampires have tongues that operate not unlike lampreys. I can’t say that I have ever seen that style used before, but it is certainly unsettling.
“Daughter of Darkness” is a made for television movie, so it didn’t exactly draw a lot of attention to itself. It originally aired on CBS in January of 1990, so it at least got a run on a major network, which isn’t something you see so much nowadays. It currently hold a 33% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and an IMDb rating of 5.2: neither of which are particularly impressive.
Personally, I felt like “Daughter of Darkness” was more or less a pretty run-of-the-mill vampire movie. There are a few interesting ideas, like the lamprey tongues, the vampiric class conflicts, and the issues of hybridization within the vampire community, but the end result isn’t particularly outstanding. I did think that Perkins and Sara did pretty good work in their roles, and elevated the film from being totally forgettable, but it just lacked a certain charm and flair to it. There isn’t anything particularly bad about this movie, but it never quite makes itself stand out. Also, the fact that it was made from TV clearly limited Stuart Gordon, who is no stranger to screen gore. I can’t really recommend this movie, as it just isn’t very exciting. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t going to light a fire in anyone either. I’d probably recommend it over any other made for TV vampire schlock that is out there, though. Just be aware that this is a movie that leans a lot more towards the Hammer Films tradition that the modern, sexy vampire craze.
In case you do want to give it a go, the film is currently available on YouTube.
Welcome back! We are at the tail end of the Stuart Gordon Spotlight here at Misan[trope]y Movie Blog, taking a look at 1991’s Edgar Allan Poe inspired “The Pit and The Pendulum.”
“The Pit and The Pendulum” marks yet another collaboration between Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon, a combination that proved successful over the years. Just as with “Dagon,” Gordon specifically takes on the directorial role, leaving all of the writing work to Paoli (at least in the credits).
This adaptation of Poe’s acclaimed short story is by all accounts a heavily altered version of “Pit and the Pendulum,” and even includes a highly modified version of another Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” thrown into the middle. Outside of the setting and the eponymous device, this version of the tale is virtually unrecognizable from the original incarnation. In that way, it is somewhat similar to “The Black Cat,” another Poe adaptation Gordon would take on years later. Both concern themselves very little with the source material, which isn’t inherently a bad thing in my opinion. However, I think both films attempt to add in too much extra content, which is something I will get into later.
“The Pit and The Pendulum” had a famous film adaptation done in 1961 starring none other than Vincent Price, and was notably directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman. In the years since Gordon’s 1991 take on the story, another adaptation was created in 2009 by yet another B-movie notable: David DeCoteau. However, his version was significantly less well-received, holding an astounding 2.9 rating on IMDb at the time of this writing.
The cinematography on the movie was contributed by Adolfo Bartoli, who did a significant amount of work for Full Moon Features throughout the 1990s. His credits include a handful of “Puppet Master” sequels, as well as “Demonic Toys” and “Prehysteria.”
The music on “The Pit and The Pendulum” was unsurprisingly provided by Richard Band, brother of Full Moon Features head Charles Band, who produced the film. Richard Band has contributed music to two Stuart Gordon features since “The Pit and The Pendulum”: “Castle Freak” and “Dreams in the Witch House.”
The set and production design of “The Pit and The Pendulum” was provided by Giovanni Natalucci, who worked on a number of previous Stuart Gordon features like “Robot Jox,” “Dolls,” and “From Beyond.” Personally, given the low budget, I think a splendid job was done creating a believable enough set and appearance for the Spanish Inquisition.
The cast features a score of recognizable faces for Stuart Gordon fans and general film buffs alike, including Lance Henriksen (“Aliens”), Jeffrey Combs (“Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” nearly everything by Stuart Gordon), Oliver Reed (“Gladiator,” “Tommy”), Jonathan Fuller (“Castle Freak”), Stephen Lee (“Dolls”), and Mark Margolis (“Breaking Bad”).
The story of “The Pit and The Pendulum” follows a young couple in Toledo, Spain during the heat of the Spanish Inquisition. They wind up on the wrong side of Torquemada after an incident in which they attempt to save a young boy from being flogged. From that point, the two try to survive a variety of tortures while Torquemada faces challenges to his reign of terror, both from internal and external sources.
This version of “The Pit and The Pendulum” was apparently the result of the second attempt by Stuart Gordon to adapt the work onto the screen. Apparently, years earlier, Gordon intended to make a movie from the story, but with Billy Dee Williams and Peter O’Toole in key roles. This reminded me a little bit of how “Dagon,” which was initially set to star Jeffrey Combs, got put on the back-burner in favor of “From Beyond,” and wound up staying there for over a decade (meriting a recasting).
This adaptation certainly takes a number of liberties with the story of “The Pit and The Pendulum,” but one of the most interesting inclusions was a modified version of the sword of Damocles, an ancient Italian anecdote about the heavy responsibility of leadership, told via the image of a great sword held by a hair above a throne. I thought this worked well here, particularly given the similarities of the images of the hanging sword and the pendulum blade. However, I wish the sword had been used more cleverly and effectively in the story, though it does play in as a plot device.
“The Pit and The Pendulum” was released straight to video by Full Moon Features, meaning it never had the opportunity to make money back in theaters. The budget was estimated at a low $2 million, so it probably did well enough to meet production expectations. Given the method of distribution, the film didn’t get a lot of attention. Nevertheless, it currently holds an IMDb rating of 6.2, and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 56% (critic) and 41% (audience). However, I found that those low numbers were a bit deceiving given: of the 9 critic reviews counted, at least one of the ‘rotten’ reviews admitted that the movie wasn’t bad, but was just underwhelming for Stuart Gordon. I agree that this isn’t great for Stuart Gordon, but on its own, it isn’t an awful horror movie. I’d say it justifies the middling score it has accrued on IMDb, but not the significantly lower metrics from Rotten Tomatoes.
When it comes to positives about “The Pit and The Pendulum,” I have to start with pointing out the performances. Lance Henriksen always plays a great B-movie bag guy, and his Torquemada is no exception. Jonathan Fuller is also pretty solid as the lead in the story, particularly in a few moments where he laughs off torture attempts to throw off his adversaries. Jeffrey Combs, as always, is fantastic in his minimal background role, and just about steals the show in a couple of moments. That said, in spite of the good performances, I definitely had some issues with this movie.
Something about the opening of the film confused me out of the gate: the movie starts with Torquemada ordering the flogging of a long-deceased corpse. It almost plays as physical comedy, watching a dried corpse a la “The Crypt Keeper” being flogged into pieces. I have to assume this was intentional on the part of Paoli, but I don’t understand how this bit of absurdity plays in with the rest of the film tonally.
I don’t think anything about this film took me aback as much as the inexplicable inclusion of actual witches, who are shown to be capable of telepathy. I assumed that the inquisitors were wrongfully accusing people of witchcraft, not persecuting an actual subset of witches within the Spanish population. I’m sure there were some Pagans and such in the area in real life, but even real Pagans aren’t actually magic, as the witches are portrayed in this film. I just can’t wrap my head around the logic of their inclusion, outside of providing a handful of minor plot devices to move the story along. It just seemed so astoundingly unnecessary to me: like the old saying goes, “when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.” Why on Earth are the people accused of witchcraft in this movie actually witches? It makes more sense for the story that Torquemada is just randomly persecuting people on the slightest whim. Does the fact that these accused witches are actually magic mean that the inane selection process used by Torquemada’s men actually works? I mean, come on. That’s not only outlandish, but it is counter to the entire story.
Something else that bothered me about the story (in relation to the inclusion of actual witches in it)is what the ultimate message of it was. It obviously takes a strong stance against Torquemada’s religious violence in the Inquisition, but it is unclear why that is. Maria could be representative of the purer, better form of Christianity, which initially seemed to be the case, but then she developed witchcraft-based telepathy. What are we supposed to make of that? Is witchcraft/paganism the right way to go, as they were wrongfully persecuted by the Christians? Are the Catholics on the right track, as the Vatican attempts to shut Torquemada down? The only thing that is clear at the conclusion is that Torquemada is bad, and everything else is left muddied.
Worse yet, one of the great and defining strengths of “The Pit and The Pendulum” was its reality-based sense of terror and dread. This adaptation, with its inclusion of magic, telepathy, witches, etc., managed to turn what should be something realistically suspenseful into a tale that borders on being fantasy-based and generic.
Personally, I think that this story would have worked better in a shorter form, similar to the hour-long format of “Masters of Horror.” Paoli clearly struggled to flesh the story out enough for a feature: he wound up making additions that weakened the film, and ultimately inflated the movie just enough to throw the pacing off and void the suspense. To be fair, though, Paoli was tasked with making a lot out of very little, as the short story source material isn’t exactly rife with plot details. For what he had to work with, he did manage to build a narrative around a very narrow tale.
Overall, “The Pit and The Pendulum” is entertaining despite its lack of focus and general bizarreness. The performances are all pretty great, and I liked the production design for sure. I feel like the script tried to do a little too much, and the third act just didn’t play as strongly as it should have. The sleep spell (and all of the witchcraft) was beyond out of place here, and Torquemada’s hallucinatory (?) confession scene just didn’t feel satisfying enough. This would have been a more interesting and compelling story without the supernatural elements in it, given that it is never well developed and is just completely unnecessary (or worse, antithetical) to the story.
I don’t recommend going out of your way for it, but it is a good enough watch for horror fans. If you happen to stumble across it, there is plenty here to make it worth your time in entertainment. Otherwise, this isn’t a must-find essential entry in Stuart Gordon’s filmography.
Welcome back to the two-week spotlight on director Stuart Gordon! Next up is 2007’s “Stuck,” a strange thriller pulled straight from tabloid headlines.
“Stuck” was co-written by Stuart Gordon and a fellow named John Strysik, who previously worked on 2002’s “Deathbed,” which Gordon produced. The story is loosely based on a incident that occurred in 2001, in which a woman hit a homeless man with her car, and then hit him in her garage, assuming he was dead. The screenplay changes a number of details significantly, but the general premise is based on the outlandish tale, which received a good deal of press coverage at the time.
The cinematography on “Stuck” was provided by Denis Maloney, who rejoined Stuart Gordon after working together on “Edmond” a couple of years beforehand. The music for “Stuck” is also provided by a returning crew member from “Edmond:” Bobby Johnston, who also worked on Stuart Gordon’s “King of the Ants” some years earlier.
The cast of “Stuck” includes some notable faces from Academy Award Best Picture winners, notably Mena Suvari of “American Beauty” and Stephen Rea of “The Crying Game.” The accessory cast includes Lionel Mark Smith (who also appears in Gordon’s “Edmond” and “King of the Ants”), Russell Hornsby of “Grimm,” and Stuart Gordon’s wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, who once again plays a curt medical professional (as she did in “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond”).
The reception of “Stuck” was pretty mediocre: it has a 72% critic score and a 55% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 6.5 rating on IMDb. However, the box office totals on the film were particularly awful: it grossed less than 100,000 dollars in a brief theatrical run on a estimated budget of $5 million, making it a financial failure.
Personally, I feel like “Stuck” is a pretty solid low-budget thriller, and builds suspense well throughout the film. I didn’t think there were any glaring flaws, but there also isn’t much about the film that makes it stand out from a crowd.
“Stuck” does feature some really good performances, particularly from Rea and Suvari. However, just like the rest of the film, they don’t really leave a lasting impression. I also found that the characters didn’t seems very realistic, which is odd given the source material is (theoretically) reality. I will say that you can’t help but empathize with Rea’s character, and that Suvari’s character becomes increasingly despicable as the story goes on, to the point that she is damn near demonic by the end of the film.
“Stuck” still has a little bit of Stuart Gordon’s trademark style despite the shift in genre, with some cringing gore moments (notably a sequence where a dog chews on someone’s exposed bone) and a little bit of dark comedy interspersed throughout. Oddly, though, judging by the trailer it was marketed as a straight comedy, which is not even close to accurate, and almost certainly blindsided any audiences going in based on that summary and hook. The trailer almost feels like a parody cut of out-of-context moments from the film, and is surreal to see after watching the actual movie. Here is another look at that:
Overall, I appreciate that “Stuck” is yet another attempt by Stuart Gordon to step outside of his usual genre boundaries. I found it to be a little bit better than “Edmond,” which takes a similar tone and atmosphere, and it is certainly leagues better than the train-wreck that is “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” It certainly doesn’t belong in the top tier of Gordon’s works as far as entertainment value goes, but it is also more of a clear-cut thriller than most of his other works. I enjoyed it, particularly for its small budget, and think that the criticisms of it are a bit harsher than is merited. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a pretty solid watch with some good performances.
Welcome back to Misan[tope]y Movie Blog’s two week spotlight on Stuart Gordon! Today, I’ll be highlighting the children’s film “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit”
“The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” united one of the most acclaimed horror directors, Stuart Gordon, with one of the undisputed masters of science fiction writing in history: Ray Bradbury. Unfortunately, their collaboration was not to be a science fiction horror classic, but a family-friendly adaptation of a short story about a white suit.
“The Magic White Suit” by Ray Bradbury was published in 1958 in the Saturday Evening Post, and was eventually retitled and popularized as “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” Prior to the film, it was adapted by Ray Bradbury himself as both a traditional stage play and a musical, both of which had influence on the film version.
Ray Bradbury himself wrote the screenplay adaptation of his own work, marking another rare instance in which Stuart Gordon directed a film with no direct influence on the writing.
The cinematography on “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” was provided once again by long-time Stuart Gordon collaborator Mac Ahlberg, his second-to-last work with Gordon before his death in 2012.
The story of “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” follows five down-on-their-luck men who happen to share the same suit measurements. They are ultimately assembled together for the purpose of buying an impeccable white suit, which they split the cost of and share. The rest of the film follows their developing friendship around the suit, as well as the way the suit affects their lives positively.
The cast of “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” is actually pretty impressive, boasting veterans like Joe Mantegna (who worked again with Gordon on “Edmond”) and Edward James Olmos. Clifton Collins Jr. reunited with Stuart Gordon after appearing in “Fortress,” and joins Esai Morales and Gregory Sierra to round out the central cast. The accessory cast includes cameos by comedy legend Sid Caesar and Howard Morris, as well as character actor Mike Moroff as a heavy.
Pedro Gonzales Gonzales also makes a quick cameo as a bitter landlord during the film’s first act. Apart from being a prolific actor, is also Clifton Collins Jr.’s grandfather. Collins used to use the name of “Gonzales Gonzales” in his honor. In another bit of trivia, Joe Mantegna starred in one of the stage adaptations of “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” prior to the making of the film.
Despite having a Ray Bradbury writing credit and an impressive cast, “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” wound up getting buried, only receiving a direct-to-video release and garnering very little attention. That said, it currently holds an 80% critics score and a 75% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and has a 6.6 rating on IMDb.
Personally, I think that this movie is absolutely wretched. First off, there is a pretty significant change to the original story’s ending. Normally, I don’t much mind changes to a story in an adaptation. However, in this case, the ending alteration completely changes the meaning of the story. In the original, it is revealed that the central character doesn’t need the suit to succeed, but just lacked the confidence that the suit gave him. It is an uplifting sort of message that dispels the idea that the suit was somehow supernatural, but that it revealed something positive within the men who wore it. In the movie, however, this key revelation is skipped. Instead, the lesson is changed to be about friendship, and how the suit brought the men together. Honestly, you can tell that this wasn’t the intended ending: instead of dismissing their obsessive materialism, the story endorses it, and loses some of its charm along the way.
Perhaps most egregious of the film’s flaws is the fact that it relies heavily on stereotypes to try to drudge up humor. Outside of the racial caricatures, the only other attempts at humor come in the form of loud noises and cartoonish, flailing physical comedy, which gets to be a pretty tired schtick after a while.
Worse yet, none of the characters manage to develop meaningfully, or even have any characterization at all outside of, at best, one trait. One of them is dirty, one of them is smart, one of them can sing: they might as well be cartoon dwarfs for all of their depth.
A couple of things that I will commend about the film are the theme song, which is alarmingly catchy, and the opening title animation, which is done interestingly colorful with sand art. There are also a few moments throughout the film where street art is integrated into the story, which is also pretty cool to see.
Probably the thing that bothered me the most about this film was the unfortunate squandering of some real acting talent. Olmos spends most of the film frenetically bouncing around, while Mantegna and the others basically function as “The Three Stooges,” decades displaced in time and using long-expired humor.
Overall, I just could not stand this film. I am generally not a big fan of family and children’s films, primarily because they tend to debase to the audience. There is a way to do family fare without descending into content that amounts to solely loud noises and flailing arms, and this film does not rise to that challenge. It basically represents everything that is wrong with most family comedies, with an extra side of unappealing racial stereotyping. I mean really: would it have been too difficult to portray Latino characters as something more dignified than live-action cartoons? Or hell, why not actually cast a full cast of Latinos for the movie (looking at you, Italian-American Joe Mantegna)?
There is absolutely no reason to seek out this movie. There isn’t any genuine entertainment value to it outside of Sid Caesar’s quick cameo, and even that isn’t really impressive. I will say that Stuart Gordon deserves some props for trying something outside of his usual film fare, but this was an experiment that just didn’t go quite right. As for Ray Bradbury’s writing, I don’t know what the hell happened here, but this film is absolutely awful.
Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog, and the continuing two week spotlight on writer/director Stuart Gordon. Next up is “King of the Ants,” Gordon’s take on the crime thriller genre.
“King of the Ants” is based on a novel by Charlie Higson, who also adapted it into the screenplay used for this film. The novel has a 3.87/5 star rating on GoodReads.com, which is generally pretty solid score. It was his first novel, of which he has currently written over 15, and is rapidly pushing 20.
The cinematography on “King of the Ants” was provided by Mac Ahlberg, one of Stuart Gordon’s most steadfast collaborators, and a man who Gordon affectionately referred to as “The Professor” since their first project together on “Re-Animator.” “King of the Ants” would be their last work together, as Ahlberg would pass away in 2012 at the age of 81.
“King of the Ants” was produced and released by The Asylum, a production company that is now best known for the “Sharknado” films and a long series of “mockbusters,” made to imitate larger-budget contemporary blockbusters to leech off of their secondary market sales. However, back in 2003 The Asylum was a pretty typical b-movie studio, years before they made their name with CGI monster movies and legally dubious imitation flicks.
The music in “King of the Ants” is provided by Bobby Johnston, who also worked on “Edmond” and “Stuck” for Stuart Gordon, making him one of the most consistent elements in Gordon’s more recent film efforts.
The cast of “King of the Ants” includes a handful of recognizable faces, including George Wendt, Daniel Baldwin, and Ron Livingston. The lead was given to a relative unknown in Chris McKenna, who has since popped up in a good number of television roles. The accessory cast includes Lionel Mark Smith (“Edmond,” “Stuck”) and Vernon Wells, who provide some some of the comic relief as enforcers beneath Daniel Baldwin. In the background, you might spot Ian Patrick Williams (“Dolls”) in a small role, similar to his ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ part in “Re-Animator.”
The story of “King of the Ants” follows a house painter who becomes a low level criminal after a happenstance encounter leads him to consider new professional options. He ultimately kills a federal investigator over a mistaken assassination order, which lands him in hot water with his criminal employers. From there, things get more than a little out of hand, ultimately leading to a climactic, revenge-fueled rampage.
As with most films backed by The Asylum, “King of the Ants” was released straight to video, meaning it didn’t get a theatrical run. It subsequently didn’t get much attention, but what it got was generally positive. It currently holds a 100% critic score and a 57% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a 6.3 rating on IMDb. The critics’ score is a little misleading, given only 9 critic reviews were counted, but that is still undoubtedly solid.
“King of the Ants” is outside of Stuart Gordon’s usual style, but this film works astoundingly better than either “Edmond” or “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” as far as experimentations outside of his comfort zone go. This film is also a little more down to earth and relateable than “Stuck,” but the atmosphere feels very similar. Given what Stuart Gordon’s films have looked like in the 2000s, I can’t help but wonder if he has been trying to have a Cronenberg-esque late career change of style. The two film-makers have always had some similarities, though Cronenberg has certainly accrued more critical acclaim over his career. Whether intentional or not, it is probably a good thing that Gordon has tried some different kinds of movies, though I think his skill set at this point is very well catered to the horror genre over any others at this point. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing him take on a couple of more thrillers like “Stuck” or “King of the Ants” in the future.
I particularly enjoyed the accessory cast in “King of the Ants”: shockingly, even Daniel Baldwin isn’t too bad here. Ron Livingston is always nice to see, even though he doesn’t get a whole lot of time on screen. However, the person who steals the show the most is probably George Wendt, who leads a sort of motley crew of odd enforcers under Daniel Baldwin.
As far as negatives go, there was one sequence that really didn’t fly with me. During a sequence where the lead character is being repeatedly hit in the head, a weird nightmare scene pops up periodically. It didn’t really work for me, and it seemed thrown in for the sake of a gross out gag (a grotesque humanoid monster eats its own poop at one point). It just wasn’t necessary in any way for the film, particularly given how realistic and harsh the rest of the violence was in the movie. Also, given how low-budget this film was, I can’t help but wonder if the money spent on those effects could have been used better elsewhere.
There is arguably an issue with the main character not behaving like the average Joe he is supposed to be. Personally, I think he just declines rapidly in regards to his morality, and is not a character that you are supposed to be behind or supporting by the end of the film. I do think that a couple of staged of his moral degradation were missed, but the audience also isn’t exactly privy to his moral standards when the story starts: we just assume he is an average Joe, because that is what he appears to be.
Probably the biggest issue with “King of the Ants” is the low production quality, which makes it look particularly cheap. Oddly, even when working on a shoestring budget, this is an issue Stuart Gordon hasn’t ever had before. However, if “King of the Ants” had the production quality of either “Stuck” or “Edmond,” it would be one of his best films without a doubt. It might be a petty criticism, but appearance matters in a visual medium, and I have to dock it some points for its lackluster presentation.
Overall, I thought that “King of the Ants” was a pretty solid flick, particularly for a movie coming out of The Asylum. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to people despite its handful of flaws, because it mostly makes up for the problems that arise. I definitely wish that the production quality was higher, but it is still entertaining and impressive in spite of that issue.
Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog’s two week spotlight on the works and career of Stuart Gordon! Today, I’m taking a look at the most acclaimed and beloved of Stuart Gordon’s movies, 1985’s cult classic “Re-Animator.”
“Re-Animator” marked the first film directing work for Stuart Gordon, and was additionally the first writing collaboration for Gordon and Dennis Paoli, which would prove to be a long-running partnership. A third writing partner was present in William Norris, who never worked on any other films.
Before “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon was working for the Organic Theater Company in Chicago. He noticed that many of his actors were doing movies, and decided he wanted to try his hand at one as well. He decided to go with the horror genre because of the low budget required, and the generally high profitability of genre movies.
The source material, “Herbert West: Re-Animator” by H. P. Lovecraft, was published in parts over multiple issues of “Weird Tales” magazine. It was long out of print when Stuart Gordon got the idea of doing a movie, meaning that in order to read it, he had to request access to an original copy in the Chicago Public Library. The movie essentially “re-animated” the story from obscurity, and renewed popular interest in Lovecraft’s works.
The screenplay of the “Re-Animator” film differs greatly from the content of “Herbert West: Re-Animator.” Ultimately, the original story only provided the characters and some details for the screenplay, which significantly altered the plot to make it more cinematic.
Brian Yuzna and Bob Greenberg both acted as producers on the picture, and would go on to collaborate extensively with Stuart Gordon on future projects. Yuzna even helmed two sequels to “Re-Animator”: “Bride of Re-Animator” in 1989, and “Beyond Re-Animator” in 2003.
The cinematography on “Re-Animator” was provided by Mac Ahlberg, who would go on to frequently collaborate with Stuart Gordon on films like “Dolls,” “Robot Jox,” and “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” A handful of shots were completed by Robert Ebinger, who was dismissed after only a week of shooting on the behest of Charles Band, whose Empire Pictures was backing the movie.
The music on “Re-Animator,” which drew significant influence from the score of “Psycho,” was composed by Richard Band, brother of Charles Band and ultimately a frequent member of Stuart Gordon’s movie team.
The effects on “Re-Animator” were all done as simply as possible to keep the budget low, meaning that no optical special effects were used. There are a number of shots that appear to be done with special effects, but were actually executed with the creative use of lighting, camera angles, and practical effects. It has been estimated that the production used 30 gallons of take blood in total, which was used creatively in tandem with raw meat to do most of the gore in the film. Stuart Gordon has a fantastic quote about the use of cheap effects, taken from the “Re-Animator” DVD commentary:
“The audience will accept very simple special effects if they like the story and are involved.”
The cast of “Re-Animator” features a handful of actors who would return to work with Stuart Gordon again in the future. Of course, Jeffrey Combs leads the way as Herbert West, who would become one of the most consistent figures in Stuart Gordon’s later films. Barbara Crampton later popped up in “From Beyond” and “Castle Freak,” and Robert Sampson appeared in 1989’s “Robot Jox.” Bruce Abbott returned for the first sequel to the film, but never reunited with Stuart Gordon on any of his later movies. David Gale would unfortunately die only a few years after “Re-Animator,” though he also appeared in Yuzna’s sequel, “Bride of Re-Animator.”
A number of notable actors appear in the background of “Re-Animator,” such as Stuart Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, as an ER doctor. The first reanimated corpse is played by Peter Kent, who is best known as a frequent stunt double and stand in for Arnold Schwarzenegger in films like “The Terminator,” “Total Recall,” “The Running Man,” “Predator,” “Last Action Hero,” and “Jingle All The Way.” Also in the background is Ian Patrick Williams, a member of the Organic Theater in Chicago with Gordon at the time, who would later appear in the Stuart Gordon films “Dolls” and “Robot Jox.”
“Re-Animator” follows the story of a medical student who becomes embroiled in experimentation on the re-animation of corpses after a mysterious new student transfers into the school and leases a room in his home. This relationship winds up causing significant problems for the pair as they are forced to butt heads with the school administration and simultaneously have to deal with the violent, erratic behavior of their creations.
Notably, the creative team behind “Re-Animator” decided to release the movie unrated after getting an NC-17 from Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating board. Amazingly, the movie still managed to get advertised widely and booked in theaters, a major accomplishment for a film without a stamp of approval from the MPAA, and something that is unlikely to happen nowadays.
The infamously radiant reanimation fluid used in the film was made up of a chemical mixture used for certain kinds of road flairs, and was apparently highly toxic. Given the short life span of its luminosity, it had to be frequently replaced in order to maintain a consistent glow from shot to shot.
All of the dead bodies were meticulously made up based on professional input from forensic pathologists in the Chicago area. Specifically, the coloration of the makeup was done using direct comparisons to actual autopsy photos of corpses. The vivid coloration on the bodies is meant to imitate the actual coloration effects that occur after death.
The humor in “Re-Animator” was something that wasn’t initially planned, but has wound up being a defining aspect of the film. Stuart Gordon has said that it was added in party due to his experiences working with forensic pathologists while doing research for the film, noting that they had some of the darkest senses of humor of any people he had ever met. In many ways, this integration of humor into horror influenced what would eventually define Stuart Gordon’s style. Here is another relevant quote from the director about what he learned about humor and horror from making “Re-Animator”:
“Laughter is the antidote for fear…you can build tension and then relieve it with laughter…but if you do both at the same time they cancel each other out.”
“Re-Animator” interestingly used many of the same locations and crew as “The Terminator.” The movie was eventually screened for Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, on the recommendation of his body double, who plays the first revived corpse in “Re-Animator.” Arnold apparently loved it, enough so that he later recommended Stuart Gordon for the directing job on “Fortress.”
The inclusion of the “laser drill” in the movie was a bit of science fiction when “Re-Animator” was made, but today laser surgery is standard practice in medicine in general, and specifically in autopsies (as is depicted in the film).
The most infamous scene in the movie is undoubtedly the decapitated head attempted rape sequence, and is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing Stuart Gordon has ever filmed. The original actress cast for Barbara Crampton’s role apparently dropped out due to the inclusion of the scene, and it caused David Gale’s wife to walk out of an early screening of the movie in shock.
“Re-Animator” was highly regarded by critics at the time, and still holds an impressive 94% Rotten Tomatoes critical aggregate rating. Audiences have been a little less receptive to the film, giving is a 7.3 on IMDb and a 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is regarded as both a horror classic and a cult classic regardless.
Personally, I think that one of the most fantastic aspects of “Re-Animator” is the ending, in which Bruce Abbot’s character revives Barbara Crampton over a black screen, with only the reanimating agent in a syringe visible. It then closes on an iconic scream from Crampton. I have mentioned this ending before, way back when I covered Uwe Boll’s “House of the Dead,” which manages to botch a very similar concept for the ending.
“Re-Animator” is now regarded as a classic of the horror genre, and has influenced many other films since its release. On top of the eventual sequels, “Re-Animator” also inspired a musical adaptation, which was apparently pretty highly acclaimed.
Overall, “The Re-Animator” is more than deserving of the reputation that it has garnered. The effects are fantastic, the performances are great, and it has set the tone for the careers of both Stuart Gordon and star Jeffrey Combs. It is a must watch for horror movie fans, b-movie aficionados, and arguably film buffs in general. For fans of the genre, this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.
However, I think it is hit-or-miss for people not already ingratiated into the genre: particularly, the infamous “head” sequence is likely to turn a subset of people off who might otherwise enjoy the movie. As effective as the scene is at disturbing the audience and drawing a reaction, that has to be weighed against the potential for the effect to turn people away: you want an audience to cringe and turn their head, but you don’t want to go so far as to push them out the door.
So, as far as a recommendation goes, it is an emphatic ‘yes’ for horror fans, and an indecisive ‘maybe’ for general audiences, with a clear caveat of the content that pops up in the film. If you think you can handle it, give the film a shot.
Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week spotlight of Stuart Gordon is his 2007 installment in the “Masters of Horror” television program: “The Black Cat.”
“The Black Cat” takes story beats and details from a short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, and blends them with details of the author/poet’s personal life, playing with the idea that he had difficulty differentiating reality from his dark imagination. This peculiar adaptation was co-written by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon, the writing pair behind “Re-Animator,” “Dagon,” “From Beyond,” “Castle Freak,” and a previous Poe adaptation of the short story “The Pit and The Pendulum.”
The characterization of Edgar Allan Poe in “The Black Cat,” while incorporating a handful of true details (his wife’s consumption, for instance), is certainly highly fictionalized to suit the needs of the story. There are also a few elements that clearly send up to Paoli and Gordon’s previous work, most notably the eponymous black cat itself. “Re-Animator,” their most famous collaboration, features a notable segment with a zombie cat puppet who attacks Jeffrey Combs (who plays Poe here), which seems to be lampooned throughout this adaptation of “The Black Cat,” something that I definitely appreciated.
“Masters of Horror,” the television program which produced and aired “The Black Cat,” assembled various horror directorial and writing icons to create hour-long original works to comprise the show. It ran for two seasons on the Showtime premium channel from 2005-2007, during which time Stuart Gordon contributed two episodes: “The Black Cat” and “Dreams In The Witch House.”
The cast is led by long-time Stuart Gordon contributor Jeffrey Combs, who plays the famed author and poet Edgar Allan Poe. He would later take up playing Poe on stage as well, in the one-man play “Nevermore…An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe” which saw wide acclaim, running in 2009 and 2010.
The rest of the cast includes Elyse Levesque of “Stargate Universe,” Aron Tager of “You Kill Me” and “Billable Hours,” character actor Patrick Gallagher, Christopher Heyerdahl of “Hell on Wheels” and the “Twilight” movie series, and Eric Keenleyside, perhaps best known for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dreamcatcher.”
The story of “The Black Cat” follows Edgar Allan Poe as he deals with his alcoholism, writer’s block, and the slow disintegration of his wife’s health. As everything around him begins to fall apart, he begins to believe that his wife’s black cat has cursed them, and is the source of their troubles. He then takes a series of increasingly drastic actions.
Personally, I thought Jeffrey Combs was pretty fantastic playing E. A. Poe. However, the writing on this is far from ideal: it tries to meld aspects of both Poe’s personal life and the original short story of “The Black Cat,” and the result is just a tad strange for those familiar with the sources.
The whole film of “The Black Cat” has a greyed, desaturated look to it that I am sure was meant to give it a dark, aged appearance. It did help to make the blood stand out, but I thought it was a little bit overdone, and that it should have been toned down a little bit. It ultimately served to mute all of the details, which didn’t do the movie any favors.
I really like a lot of the shots, but the whole thing doesn’t come together quite as well as I had hoped. In comparison to “Dreams In The Witch House,” Stuart Gordon’s other contribution to “Masters of Horror,” this doesn’t feel like as complete of a work. Even though Jeffrey Combs is fantastic in the lead role, he isn’t able to cover for the weaknesses of the story. I actually think that this is a rare case where the original source material would have been better off with less alterations. This would have meant that Poe himself wouldn’t be included, but I think that the faux-biopic aspect of the film is part of what muddies it so much, and causes it to lose focus. Having Poe as a book-ending mechanism might have worked out, but I think taking Occam’s razor to the script would have been the best method to correct the issues with the story.
I still like “The Black Cat” as a film. It has some really enjoyable moments, mostly powered by Combs, and it is certainly better than what you would typically find in television horror. It also well represents Stuart Gordon’s style, more so than most of his more recent work, which is really fun to see. As far as recommendations go, despite my criticisms, this gets pretty solid approval from me for entertainment value. It certainly could have been executed better, but the ultimate result is certainly entertaining, and that isn’t a result to be argued with.
Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog’s two week spotlight on writer/director Stuart Gordon! Next up is 2001’s “Dagon,” which sees Gordon dive back in to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft.
“Dagon” is a loose adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the only one of his works to be published as an independent book (as opposed to a section of a magazine) in his lifetime, with a whopping printing of 200 units. The film adaptation changes some major details from the story, most notably the location (from New England to Spain), and the nature of the creatures (from frog-like to octopus-like).
“Dagon” once again reunited Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon on what would be one of their longest-running projects (taking over 15 years to ultimately see to the screen). Paoli took sole writing credit on “Dagon,” which was unusual given how often the two have acted as writing partners. “Dagon” was initially written to be made as a follow-up to “Re-Animator” in the 1980s, and was intended to have Jeffrey Combs in the lead. However, for a handful of reasons, “From Beyond” ultimately got precedence, putting “Dagon” on the back-burner for what wound up being well over a decade.
The cinematography on “Dagon” was provided by Carlos Suarez, an acclaimed Spanish cinematographer who has been working since the 1960s, but has never really branched outside of his home country.
The music on “Dagon,” which is only used sparingly in the film, was composed by Carles Cases, another Spanish member of the crew who has never particularly branched outside the world of Spanish-language cinema.
The special effects on “Dagon” were provided by DDT, an acclaimed Spanish special effects outfit that has worked on films such as “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” where their skill in creating creatures has been excellently showcased.
A number of members of the production design and art team from “Dagon” would later work with producer Brian Yuzna on “Beyond Re-Animator,” the second of two dubious sequels to Stuart Gordon’s initial 1985 adaptation.
The cast of “Dagon” is led by Ezra Godden, who would later reunite with Stuart Gordon years later for “Dreams in the Witch House.” The British actor modeled his character of Paul on a combination of Woody Allen and Harold Lloyd, creating a sort of oddly comic and out of place protagonist. The cast also features the acclaimed Spanish actor Francisco (Paco) Rabal in one of his last on-screen performances before his death, as well as the first film role for actress Macarena Gomez.
The story of “Dagon” follows four Americans on a boating vacation, where they suddenly and mysteriously become shipwrecked just off of the Atlantic coast of Spain. In their search for medical help on shore, it quickly becomes clear that they have stumbled upon a peculiar and hostile village with a number of hidden secrets.
In the DVD commentary for “Dagon,” both Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon mention the concept of the story being a “battle of the gods.” Dagon was not just an invention of Lovecraft, it was based on a fish-god of the same name mentioned in the Old Testament as being the deity over the Philistines. Appropriately, there are a number of sequences showing conflict between Christianity and the Dagon-worshippers: notably, an extensive flashback sequence that depicts the revolution of the town from being Catholic to following the sea-god Dagon.
Apparently, Stuart Gordon was worried that there would be issues with finding Spanish extras willing to desecrate Christian symbols for this sequence. Hilariously, the cast and crew were more than happy to oblige, and reportedly destroyed all of the spares off-screen as well, claiming it was therapeutic.
Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli include a number of small details throughout “Dagon” that become more noticeable upon re-watching the film. For instance, none of the native islanders are ever shown blinking, a detail pulled from the source material that is meant to point to their “fishy-ness.” There are also a number of repeated phrases and actions on the part of Paul: he frequently mentions “two possibilities,” and is often faced with dichotomies throughout the film. Paul is also shown experiencing stomach pain, which becomes more intense and pronounced as the film goes on. Ultimately, the source of the pain is revealed to be a set of gills that have developed around his ribs. Personally, I would think that the sensation of growing gills would differ a little bit from a stomach cramp, but I have also never experienced a transformation into a fish-person.
Those with a keen eye will notice that the Godden’s character of Paul wears a sweatshirt throughout the film bearing the name “Miskatonic University.” That fictitious school features prominently throughout Lovecraft’s works, and is directly featured in Stuart Gordon’s previous Lovecraft film adaptation, “Re-Animator.”
“Dagon” reportedly had a total budget of 4.2 million euros, a total that it didn’t even come close to meeting in a limited Spanish theatrical run. The movie currently holds a 6.3 rating on IMDb, and has Rotten Tomatoes scores of 56% from both audiences and critics, a rare case of consensus. No matter how you cut it, “Dagon” was not a successful feature.
Criticisms that I have seen of the movie have claimed that it was too specifically catered to fans of Lovecraft, while others have claimed that despite its attempts, it proves that Lovecraft’s style simply can’t be adapted to film in a way that is simultaneously successful and faithful.
Personally, I have a few issues with the film, but none of them specifically relate to the adaptation. I think that the changes made by Paoli were sensible, and that there is nothing inherently prohibitive about this story that would prevent it from making a good movie. Hell, I think Stuart Gordon came pretty close here to having one of his best films.
Unfortunately, there are definitely issues with “Dagon.” First off, Ezra Godden’s Woody Allen act is just distracting, and completely fails to extract any laughs. Worse yet, his development into a hero seems to happen inexplicably, and his final twist even moreso. I could see exactly how Jeffrey Combs might have managed this character, and if things had turned out different, I think he could have nailed it. Godden struggles to convey intensity, and never seems genuinely terrified. Combs has an ability to portray those things, while also pulling off a side of humor. Godden tried to do that, but he doesn’t have the same kind of balancing capabilities or the comedic chops to do so. While none of the performances were outstanding (Gomez was also distractingly awful at times), no one had the same amount of screentime or responsibility as Godden, and he just couldn’t keep it all together.
Apparently, there was some internal debate on the production over whether or not Dagon should be shown in the conclusion. There were a handful of poor decisions here that wound up just about sinking the movie for me. First, Gordon relented, and allowed Dagon to be shown on screen at all. Second, Dagon was depicted solely with low-budget, 2001 CGI. Third, CGI was used inexplicably and interchangeably with (really good) practical effects throughout the film. Computer generated special effects, with rare exception, age horribly, and that is absolutely the case with “Dagon.” Worse yet, there was no reason to have a full shot of a giant monster at all in this movie: Lovecraftian horror is atmospheric, and relies a lot on what you don’t see, and I believe Stuart Gordon knows that. This movie could have been pulled off with only a glancing shot of Dagon (“Cabin in the Woods”, “Cloverfield”) or just by showing the results of his actions. However, I think I understand why that decision was ultimately made.
“Dagon” was a low-budget production, and in 2001, I imagine the computer effects featured were expensive. For whatever reason, it was decided at some point in the production that certain aspects of the film needed CGI. My guess is that the effects shop pushed it, and showed off the capabilities of their CGI department, and maybe even cut the production a good deal. At that point, I imagine the “in for a penny, in for a pound” logic took over, and decisions were made to get everything possible out of the money that was sunk into the effects. Thus, we get a number of CGI shots that look awful now, but were probably impressive then, including Dagon himself. Regardless of what the logic was, it still looks awful, and cheapens the look of the movie as a whole. Those kind of missteps are like a pin in a balloon for me, and can sink my opinion of a pretty good movie pretty quickly.
Overall, “Dagon” is not one of my favorites in Stuart Gordon’s filmography by a long-shot. There are a lot of things I like about it: the location, the monster designs, and the practical effects, for instance. However, the moments of poor CG just about spoil the whole thing for me, and most of the acting is really disappointing (or at worst, grating). There is a general lack of genuine intensity, and the whole movie feels hollow for it. If this movie had happened in the late 1980s with Jeffrey Combs (and probably Barbara Crampton, I would assume), I’m sure that the result would have been stronger on all fronts. Not only would the cast have been more capable, but the option and temptation of adding the extensive computer generated effects wouldn’t have been there due to technological and financial constraints. Worst case scenario, they would have attempted a practical solution to include Dagon at the end of the movie anyway, and I would be willing to bet that it would still look better (and certainly age better) than what made it onto the screen in 2001.
All of that said, “Dagon” is still a pretty fun horror movie, and doesn’t deserve the generally scathing reviews that it garnered. The upsides are very strong, and there is certainly some entertainment value to the movie. “Dagon” is worth giving a shot, but I wouldn’t put it on the top of my Stuart Gordon list by any means.