Category Archives: Stuart Gordon Spotlight

Works from writer/director Stuart Gordon

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Robot Jox”

Robot Jox

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week spotlight on writer/director Stuart Gordon is 1989’s ridiculously fun giant robot movie, “Robot Jox.”

“Robot Jox” was co-written by the acclaimed Hugo and Nebula winning sci-fi author Joe Haldeman, best known for the 1974 novel “The Forever War.” Reportedly, he is not a fan of the ultimate product of “Robot Jox” that made it to the screen. In 2008, he was quoted as saying:

Some people enjoy [Robot Jox], but to me it’s as if I’d had a child who started out well and then sustained brain damage

This opinion can almost certainly be attributed to frequent clashes between the author and director/co-writer Stuart Gordon over what the direction and tone of the film should be, which caused much of the production to apparently become a nightmare. Gordon wanted an audience-friendly story that could act as a visual, action-packed spectacle, whereas Haldeman was more interested in the story being a serious, harder sci-fi war drama. These visions proved, of course, to be generally incompatible.

Charles Band and his company, Empire Pictures, produced “Robot Jox,” just as they had done for Stuart Gordon’s earlier films “Dolls,” “From Beyond,” and “The Reanimator.” However, “Robot Jox” proved to be a much larger project for the company: the budget reportedly eventually hit $10 million, making it the most expensive undertaking by far for the b-movie outfit.

“Robot Jox” suffered significant delays on its release date due to the (perhaps predictable) bankruptcy of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, which left it in limbo for a couple of years after the film was finished shooting.

One of the most distinguishing aspects of “Robot Jox” is its inspiring, top-notch score. The music on the film was provided by Frédéric Talgorn, who also worked on the Stuart Gordon film “Fortress,” as well as the animated “Heavy Metal 2000.”

The cinematography on “Robot Jox” was once again provided by frequent Stuart Gordon collaborator Marc Ahlberg, who had a handful of credits to his name in 1989. Included among these is the hilarious sci-fi boxing movie “Arena,” also a product of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. It is worth checking out for die-hard b-movie fans in need of a deep cut: I have often summed up the film as “Rocky in Space.”

The extensive visual effects and stop motion work in “Robot Jox” was supervised and directed by David Allen, who worked the stop motion on b-movies such as Larry Cohen’s “Q” and “The Stuff,” IMDb Bottom 100 feature “Laserblast,” and Stuart Gordon’s own “Dolls.” Apparently, his work ran into multiple delays due to weather, as he insisted on filming against open sky. Stuart Gordon has stated that the weather issues caused the Mojave desert stop-motion filming to stretch on for “a year and a half…[because] everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.”

robotjox8 robotjox9The box office results on “Robot Jox” proved to be nearly as unfortunate and disastrous as the production process. On the rumored $10 million budget, the movie barely grossed $1.2 million in its limited theatrical release. Audiences at the time weren’t particularly thrilled with the movie, though it has certainly gained cult acclaim in the years since its release. It currently hold a 5.2 rating on IMDb and a 41% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, through you would certainly get a different response from a group of bad movie lovers today.

The story of “Robot Jox” takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where international conflicts are settled through competitive combat utilizing large, piloted robots. A particular pilot, Alexander, has been causing havoc on the United States, defeating nine pilots in a row as the story begins. The meat of the story follows Achilles, an American pilot who is burned out following a traumatic bout with Alexander that proves fatal to a group of spectator civilians. He is forced to deal with the disdain from his fellow pilots and people for his decision to withdraw from competition, and has to make hard choices that will have global consequences.

The popularity of “Robot Jox” has significantly grown in the years since its flubbed theatrical release. It has recently been featured on the internet review show “Best of the Worst” by RedLetterMedia, it has inspired the Bad Movie Fiends Podcast to name it’s positive review scale “1-5 Jox” in honor of the film, and it even had sound bites remixed into a Nine Inch Nails track by Trent Reznor. Its cult status has even gotten it 35mm theatrical screenings at a couple of the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters in recent years. The release and popularity of Gullermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” has also brought increased attention and viewership to the cult classic in the past few years, drawing many comparisons between the films by bringing giant, piloted robots back to the big screen.

“Robot Jox” does a pretty decent job of building up the desensitized and callous dystopian society that surrounds the plot. I wouldn’t quite call the details subtle, but the hostile and unempathetic behavior of the average person in the world is always noticeably in the background. Personally, I think this makes the peaceful ending all the more impressive and optimistic, but I am sure that many out there would disagree.

robotjox1Something that I noticed through reading reviews of “Robot Jox” is that even most of the negative reviews admit that the film is oddly endearing and fun to watch. Most of the complaints strike me as anachronistic gripes about the use of stop motion, or express issues with the overacting in one breath, only to ironically praise it in the next. This is clearly regarded as a classic good-bad film for a reason.

Personally, I think that the stop motion work in “Robot Jox” still looks pretty good for what it is. The method has fallen out of favor in recent years due to the expense involved, and because of the increasing availability of more (ironically) “realistic” computer-generated effects. At the time, however, this was as good as a live action giant robot movie could get effects-wise.

robotjox2My personal favorite sequence of “Robot Jox” is probably during the pilot training program, in which about 20 people are forced to climb an electrified jungle gym in a strobe-lighted room. It is at once clever, ridiculous, unnecessary, and perfectly placed in a movie filled with outlandish concepts and designs.

As iconic as the last shot of “Robot Jox” is, I feel like the ending probably turned off many typical action movie fans at the time. Conventional logic would have Achilles defeat Alexander, and Alexander pay for his murderous asshattery with a gruesome death. However, the ending winds up showcasing growth on the parts of both men, and they are able to bond over the camaraderie of being driven combatants who struggle to find meaning outside of the fight. The more I think about it, the more I like it. It helps that the acting is hilariously over-the-top and melodramatic, and that it ends on a freeze-frame. You just can’t ask for anything better than that.

Speaking of which, the over-the-top performances in “Robot Jox” define the movie just about as much as the robots themselves. Particularly, Michael Alldredge as “Tex” and Paul Koslo’s Alexander steal the show, chewing every bit of scenery that they can get their hands on. Gary Graham is perfectly melodramatic as Achilles, and clashes with Koslo’s Alexander in just about every way you can imagine. Keen eyes might also spot Stuart Gordon regulars such as Jeffrey Combs and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon filling in background roles.

robotjox6 robotjox5 robotjox3Overall, “Robot Jox” is one of the better good-bad movies out there that hasn’t quite seeped into the public consciousness yet. It isn’t on the level of “Troll 2,” “The Room,” or “Birdemic,” but it may very well be on its way. It is a fantastic showcase of Stuart Gordon’s peculiar style, which is particularly unusual given it is outside of his usual genre of horror. Despite the poor reception at the time, the second wind of this film in the secondary market is more than deserved, and I hope to see a blu-ray release at some point in the future. In any case, many regard this as their favorite Stuart Gordon movie, and I certainly get where they are coming from. It goes without saying that this is a strong recommendation from me: “Robot Jox” will serve for any of your potential bad movie nite needs without any doubt. If you go in knowing what this is, you won’t suffer the disappointment that 1990 theatrical audiences did. Just stop worrying, and love the Jox. Crash and burn.

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Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Dreams in the Witch House”

Dreams In The Witch House

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Welcome back to the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the spotlight series on horror writer/director Stuart Gordon is “Dreams In The Witch House,” a short H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that Gordon created for the television program “Masters of Horror.”

“Masters of Horror” was a television series on Showtime that ran for two seasons from 2005-2007, specifically featuring short films (under 1 hour) developed by notable horror directors and writers. Apart from Stuart Gordon, the series spotlighted such notables as Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen, John Landis, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Clive Barker, and many others. “Dreams In The Witch House” aired in the first season of the show, and Stuart Gordon later returned to the second season of the program with an episode adapting the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Black Cat.”

“Dreams In The Witch House” is based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story published in 1933, and is Stuart Gordon’s fourth film adaptation of his works. Dennis Paoli once again returns as Stuart Gordon’s writing partner on “Dreams In The Witch House” and “The Black Cat”, but to date these two “Masters of Horror” episodes are the last works they have collaborated on.

The effects on “Dreams In The Witch House” were provided by the KNB EFX group, an Emmy and Academy Award winning outfit that has worked on productions such as “Django: Unchained,” “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” “Army Of Darkness” “Drag Me To Hell,” “Kill Bill,” “Casino,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Grindhouse.” They undoubtedly provide one of the strongest aspects of the film, particularly with the incredibly creepy human-faced rat effect and the concluding “chest-burster” sequence.

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The cinematography on the film was provided by Jon Joffin, who has done extensive work on television movies, and worked on a number of early episodes of “The X-Files.” The production design for the movie was provided by one David Fischer, who is best known for his work on “Friday the 13th Part VIII” and “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.” Last but certainly not least, the music for “Dreams In The Witch House” is provided by Richard Band, brother of Charles Band, who also scored a number of Stuart Gordon’s earlier films, including “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” and “Castle Freak.”

The cast of “Dreams In The Witch House” is led by Ezra Godden, who re-teamed with Gordon after working together on another of his Lovecraft adaptations, “Dagon.” The human-faced rat, Brown Jenkin, is played by a Ukrainian magician named Yevgen Voronin, who was cast based on his facial structure, and has done no acting work before or since. Chelah Horsdal was given her role because she exuded an atmosphere in her audition that was both “maternal and vulnerable,” making her more than believable for her part of a struggling single mother. She has since appeared in television shows such as “Hell on Wheels” and “Arrow,” and has been getting consistent work over the past few years. The old man character, Masurewicz, was initially going to be played by long-time Stuart Gordon collaborator Jeffrey Combs, but he unfortunately had to back out at the last minute. His replacement was Campbell Lane, who proves to be capable (though unremarkable) in the role.

“Dreams In The Witch House” follows a young physics doctoral student who is working on completing his graduate work. The story starts when he decides to rent a room in a secluded house so that he can focus on his work, but his accommodations quickly prove to be much creepier than he initially suspected. He befriends a young mother who is also a tenet in the home, but slowly starts to lose his grip on reality as he repeatedly sees a small creature that appears to be a rat with a human face. The apparent hallucinations become more vivid and disturbing as time goes on, and the promising young mind begins to consider that his research may have other-worldly applications.

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“Dreams In The Witch House” is not as over the top or fun as many Stuart Gordon movies, but it is pretty solid for what it is. It is certainly better than your average TV horror film for sure, at the very least. It does have your typical Lovecraft downer ending, which probably didn’t sit well with many, especially given the fact that it involves a particularly bloody child sacrifice. A bloody baby death is something you do not get very often in any genre, and many people found that to be a particularly upsetting aspect of the movie, (including Stuart Gordon’s wife, interestingly enough).

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Among the complaints I have seen about this film are that it doesn’t have enough true scares or horrifying moments. I think there is at least a case to be made there, but I feel like Lovecraft stories shouldn’t rely on shocks or jump-scares, but are more crucially reliant on atmospheric horror: something I think “Dreams In The Witch House” nails down pretty well.

The DVD commentary track for “Dreams In The Witch House” offered some fantastic insights from Stuart Gordon, including the following quotes:

“A good actor can make you believe anything, a good effect sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t”

“In horror…you always have to find a different way to get under people’s skin”

“[the actors I use] are not afraid to make themselves look ridiculous…if the character isn’t scared, why should the audience be scared? If you have an actor who won’t be afraid, you need to get another actor”

According to Stuart Gordon, “Dreams In The Witch House” was regarded as his ‘truest’ Lovecraft adaptation by many in attendance when he screened it at the Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, OR. Lovecraft fans are definitely split on Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, particularly over his often apocryphal inclusion of nudity in the features, and sometimes dramatic alterations from the source material.

Overall, this is a pretty well crafted short film, especially considering the limited time and budget devoted to it. Gordon clearly enjoys Lovecraft and this story in particular, and has said that he wanted to do this adaptation since the 1980s. For those that might complain that Gordon’s works are too often tongue-in-cheek, this is the perfect work to show that he can take on horror without any side humor.

“Dreams In The Witch House” is a pretty strong recommendation from me. It is definitely a slight departure from the usual Stuart Gordon fare in that there is little to no comedic element to be found, but it is a pretty fantastically creepy and unsettling Lovecraft adaptation that is easy for any horror fan to enjoy.

Interestingly enough, the source material for “Dreams In The Witch House” inspired another adaptation: a Lovecraftian rock opera of the same name, which can be checked out in part on YouTube. I’ll recommend checking that out as well, if only for the novelty of the thing.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “From Beyond”

From Beyond

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week spotlight on the career of writer/director Stuart Gordon is 1986’s “From Beyond.”

“From Beyond” is the spiritual follow-up to Stuart Gordon’s smash debut, “Re-Animator.” It would be the second of Stuart Gordon’s eventual four H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, and reunited much of the same cast and crew that created the cult classic predecessor. Gordon went back to Lovecraft again for inspiration on his later films “Dagon” and “Dreams in the Witch House,” but neither of those films got the same kind of attention as “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.”

As mentioned, multiple players from “Re-Animator” return for “From Beyond,” most notably Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. Apparently, producers on the film opposed Crampton’s casting due to her youth, but Stuart Gordon specifically fought to let her have the role. Also in the cast is Ken Foree, who later pops up in the Gordon-penned movie “The Dentist,” and Stuart Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon. Ted Sorel, a character actor who never saw much success,  rounds out the cast, playing the mad doctor who loses himself in the “beyond” world.

Stuart Gordon shares screenwriting credit on “From Beyond” with two of his most frequent career collaborators, Brian Yuzna and Dennis Paoli, who were both involved with other Stuart Gordon-associated films such as “Re-Animator,” “The Dentist,” and “Castle Freak.”

Charles Band, the primary producer on the flick, is best known for the “Puppet Master” series of films. He specifically arranged for “From Beyond” to be done back to back with “Dolls” on the same sets as a cost-saving maneuver, in true Roger Corman tradition.

The cinematographer on “From Beyond” is Marc Ahlberg, who was also a frequent collaborator with Stuart Gordon for many years. Apart from working on Gordon movies such as “Dolls,” “Re-Animator,” and “Space Truckers,” he also did such notable gems as “Good Burger,” “Evil Bong,” and Joe Dante’s “The Second Civil War.”

The music in “From Beyond,” as was the case with “Re-Animator,” “Dolls,” and later “Dreams In The Witch House,” was provided by Charles Band’s brother, Richard: a veteran B-movie music master who additionally worked on the “Puppet Master” and “Demonic Toys” films with his brother.

The special effects on “From Beyond” were provided by Mechanical and Makeup Imageries, who also worked on the Stuart Gordon films “Dolls” and “Robot Jox,” as well as other b-films such as  “Ghoulies,” “Troll,” and “Trancers.” As was the case with “Dolls,” it is clear that the special effects team had an absolute blast with this movie. Outside of a few cheesy effects to create the translucent “beyond” world, the creatures and mutants manifested via practical effects look like they were a dream to create, and look pretty fantastic for a lower-budget feature. The effects reminded me of some of David Cronenberg’s movies, such as “Videodrome” and “Scanners,” in the use of imaginative visceral entities and squibs.

frombeyond4“From Beyond” follows the story of a young physics graduate student, who is working with a cruel and obsessive professor on creating a device (the resonator) aimed at expanding human perception. When the initial test of the resonator is successful, a creature from a “beyond” dimension kills the professor, leaving the student apparently insane. A controversial psychiatrist decides to take the student on as a patient, intrigued by his experiments and their potential applications for the treatment of schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and other brain-related diseases. She convinces him to once again operate the resonator, resulting in further other-worldly shenanigans.

Outside of the effects work, the biggest strength of “From Beyond” are the performances. Particularly, I thought Barbara Crampton knocked her role out of the park, which is both a heavier and more dynamic character than the role she was given in “Re-Animator.” Jeffrey Combs is once again a blast, and gives the same 110% performance that anyone should expect from him. There is a particularly great moment where he is confronted by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon’s character while frantically eating a handful of brains. Boy, is that a sequence for the Jeffrey Combs career highlight reel.

frombeyond2 frombeyond1“From Beyond” was a financial failure on release, making back less than half of its $4.5 million budget. However, it was generally well received by audiences and critics, currently holding a 6.8 rating on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 69% (audience) and 71% (critic).

While I think “From Beyond” is pretty enjoyable, it certainly isn’t without flaws. With so many returning players from “Re-Animator” and all of the other obvious similarities between the two films, it feels like there was too much of an effort put towards trying to replicate “Re-Animator,” rather than trying to create a work to stand on its own. It feels like an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle, and result of that is a number of moments that feel artificial and forced, and steals away some of the charm that the movie might have otherwise retained.

Something else that I certainly found off-putting about “From Beyond,” and something that also feels imitative of “Re-Animator,” is the amount of uncomfortably forced sexuality. There is an attempt to explain it away in dialogue as being a side-effect of the resonator, but I am quite curious if that was actually part of the source material. One of the biggest popular complaints about Gordon’s adaptations of Lovecraft are his insertions of nudity and sexuality into the tales, and I can’t help but wonder if that was the case here. There is certainly a way to use eroticism as a way to enhance a horror movie, but Gordon has never been able to find that balance if you ask me, mostly because most of his notable sex scenes are massively uncomfortable and non-consensual. That might have been what he was going for, but I feel like the emotions conjured from the inclusion of that kind of scene somewhat clashes with the traditional, squibby horror that makes up most of “From Beyond” and “Re-Animator.” Personally, I find it at best clashing and distracting, and at worst a potential detriment to the entire genre by turning both creative people and audiences away from the films.

frombeyond5The only other minor gripe I have about “From Beyond” is that the pacing of the story feels oddly stilted, and a number of moments feel like they could function as endings. It still functions fine, but it starts to feel a bit repetitive towards the end of the film.

“From Beyond” is a movie I expected to like more than I actually did. It is still pretty enjoyable, particularly the performances of Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Ken Foree, but it really lives in the shadow of “Re-Animator,” which is unfortunately a comparison that the film constantly draws thanks to the casting and style. I would be interested to see how someone would feel about this film if they hadn’t seen “Re-Animator” first, as I get the feeling that this is a case where the film’s context almost certainly dooms it. In any case, this is a somewhat more serious Stuart Gordon movie that is still a good bit of fun, and is worth checking out if you enjoyed any of his other films.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Space Truckers”

Space Truckers

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Welcome back to the Misan{trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the Stuart Gordon Spotlight is 1996’s blue-collar sci-fi flick, “Space Truckers,” featuring the one and only Dennis Hopper.

Stuart Gordon both directed and co-wrote “Space Truckers,” sharing writing credit with one Ted Mann. Mann has primarily done television writing and producing on shows such as “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” with his most recent high-profile credit being the 2012 mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” which starred Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton.

The cast of “Space Truckers” is undoubtedly headlined by the presence of Dennis Hopper, though it has more depth than you might expect. Charles Dance (“Last Action Hero,” “Game of Thrones”) plays one of the primary antagonists, Stephen Dorff (“Blade,” “Public Enemies”) plays a sidekick rookie trucker, and Debi Mazar (“L.A. Law,” “Entourage”) rounds out the main cast as the quasi love interest. In the background you might spot Jason O’Mara in his first theatrical credit, character actor Sean Lawlor, Shane Rimmer of “Dr. Strangelove,” and George Wendt of “Cheers.”

spacetruckers8 spacetruckers5The cinematography on “Space Truckers” was done by Marc Ahlberg, his fifth of an eventual seven collaborations with director Stuart Gordon. His career included an assortment of B-movies going all the way back to the 1950s (“Arena,” “Evil Bong,” “Trancers,” “Ghoulies”)and he worked all the way up until his death in 2012.

The plot of “Space Truckers,” interestingly enough, revolves around the secret development of a killer robot army intended to overthrow the Earth’s government. Dennis Hopper’s character is unknowingly tasked with hauling the robots to Earth, a trek which ultimately (and fortunately) features a number of unexpected obstacles.

spacetruckers6I initially got the idea of doing a Stuart Gordon Spotlight after seeing “Space Truckers” on a list of killer robot movies when researching potential flicks for my Killer Robot Week, which is why I didn’t cover it last week. Speaking of which, however, the robots featured in “Space Truckers” are much sleeker than what I expected. They were designed and constructed by Cannom Creations, who provided work for movies such as “Cocoon,” “Cocoon 2,” “Cyborg,” and “Blade.” Despite a couple of questionable / cheesy effects work, the robots themselves are pretty solid, and are fortunately mostly portrayed with practical effects. Instead of constructing actual robots like “Evolver” or “Chopping Mall,” the robots in “Space Truckers” are much more similar to the xenomorphs from the “Alien” franchise, in the sense that they are suits that feature humans inside to make their motions more realistic.

spacetruckers1 spacetruckers3“Space Truckers” was a massive financial failure, grossing less than $2 million on a reported budget of $25 million. It was likewise loathed by audiences and critics alike: it currently has a 5.1 rating on IMDb, which looks downright impressive next to the Rotten Tomatoes scores of 9% (critic) and 27% (audience). I am a little surprised at how hated this film was: from my perspective, it is very clearly a b-movie comedy, and I found it to be plenty enjoyable for being that. Just judging from the marketing I saw for the film, however, it appears that this was a difficult movie to pitch to audiences. Particularly in the secondary market, there was a clear attempt to make this appear to be a space drama akin to “Armageddon.” Just check out this DVD re-release cover:

spacetruckers11To be generous, that doesn’t exactly convey the tone of “Space Truckers” accurately. It does seem that people are looking back more fondly on this film in retrospect, as the IMDb score might indicate. Personally, I thought this movie worked pretty well: the idea was to make a blue collar sci-fi film, and I think this pulled off that concept. It isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, and a lot of jokes land flat, but it is a notch higher than your typical television sci-fi movie. However, at a budget of $25 million, perhaps the product should have been more impressive than that.

In general, “Space Truckers” manages to nail the atmosphere it set out for. It conveys a self-awareness without winking, acknowledging its outlandish premise through the set design (square pigs, beet cans in space, etc) and dialogue (“Did you hear something back there that sounds like there’s something back there?”). It could have used a bit of comedy script-doctoring to help with the laughs, but it is still a fun watch in my opinion.

spacetruckers12As far as criticisms go, there are certainly problems with “Space Truckers.” I mentioned the lack of effective comedy in the script, but there are a few other things worth mentioning. First off, the general passage of time is very unclear between the prologue and the main story. The film opens with a demonstration exercise of the developed killer robots, in which Charles Dance’s character is nearly killed. When the main story starts, Dance has managed to turn himself into a cyborg and take over / build a gang of space pirates, which I assume would take some time. However, the killer robots are just then being shipped to Earth as the main plot begins, being hauled by Hopper’s character. How long has it been since that training exercise that nearly killed Charles Dance’s character? Have the killing robots just been sitting in storage for years? What sense does that make? It is later revealed that Saggs (played by Shane Rimmer) was able to conquer the Earth without any help from the robots at all…but why would he do that? Any way you cut it, some explanation of the passage of time should have been included.

spacetruckers7The only other major issue I have with the film is also related to the writing: the love triangle between Hopper, Dorff, and Mazar feels very forced, and makes Hopper’s supposed protagonist much less likable. He is essentially forcing Mazar to marry him in exchange for passage to Earth, which is incredibly fucked up, and is not-at-all made up for by his eventual faux-redemption in the conclusion. The age difference and history between Mazar and Hopper is also a little perplexing: it is established that they have known each other for years, and that Hopper has proposed multiple times to her. When he asks about Mazar’s mother, he is shown a picture of her which is “20 years back,” which was from when Mazar was either very young or before she was born. So…how old is Mazar’s character supposed to be, and how old is Hopper? How long has Hopper been pursuing her? It just gets creepier the more you think about it.

Despite those issues, this is a pretty strong recommendation as a good-bad watch. It is almost certainly one of the lesser Stuart Gordon movies, but it is still quite a bit of fun. I wouldn’t go in expecting “Re-Animator,” because this is a comedy at its core, and that should be kept in mind. There aren’t any huge squib explosions here, and you shouldn’t be anticipating them. It is dumb fun, and might justify turning your brain off for a little bit to get maximum enjoyment.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Dolls”

Dolls

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Today, I’m starting a series of posts spotlighting the career of acclaimed horror writer/director Stuart Gordon, and the many cult classic films he has produced. Arbitrarily, I have chosen to kick off this celebration with 1987’s “Dolls.”

Stuart Gordon directed “Dolls” on the order of Charles Band, who was executive producing Gordon’s next planned feature: an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation called “From Beyond,” which was to be Gordon’s follow-up to the hit “Re-Animator.” Charles Band is now best known for a number of horror franchises that clearly drew inspiration from “Dolls”: “Puppet Master,” “Demonic Toys,” and “Dollman,” but Band has been a prolific B-movie writer and producer since the late 1970s.

In true Corman-esque fashion, Charles Band proposed that Stuart Gordon could direct “Dolls” on the same sets that had already been arranged in Italy for “From Beyond,” thus saving the production a significant amount of money. After reading the Ed Naha penned screenplay, Gordon agreed to the arrangement, and made “Dolls” and “From Beyond” back-to-back on the same sets.

dolls6Ed Naha, at the time of writing “Dolls,” only had a small handful of writing credits under his belt. The previous year, Charles Band was a driving force behind getting “Troll,” a now-infamous film which Naha wrote, to the screen. Before that, Naha only had two writing credits on a couple of unnotable Roger Corman movies. Since 1987, Naha has continued writing on B-movies, including films like “CHUD II” and “Omega Doom.” He later worked with Stuart Gordon again on “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids!,” and reunited with Band on a number of films, including “Dollman” and “Dollman vs Demonic Toys.”

Ed Naha has cited the 1944 horror film “Curse of the Cat People” (the sequel to the 1942 horror classic “Cat People”) as one of the biggest influences on the screenplay for “Dolls.” Specifically, the idea of using the point-of-view of a scared child, who easily sees evil and shapes in shadows, is a borrowed mechanic from that film. Of course, where the “Cat People” movies tend to toy with the question of whether the supernatural threat is real or imagined, there isn’t a whole lot of room for doubt in the “Dolls” screenplay.

According to Ed Naha, he wrote the entire screenplay for “Dolls” based on a single concept image given to him by Charles Band, which was later re-purposed for the poster: an eerie humanoid doll holding its detached, realistic eyeballs in its hands. The image is even incorporated briefly into the film, when the audience is first presented with a victim who has been “dolled up.”

dolls3“Dolls” notably features as a producer Brian Yuzna, a frequent collaborator with Stuart Gordon who would later go on to direct “The Dentist,” “Bride of Re-Animator,” and “Beyond Re-Animator.”

“Dolls” is an interesting horror movie that borrows many elements from classical fairy tales (specifically, as Gordon has mentioned, from “Hansel & Gretel”). While it is as dark as most horror films you will find from the era, it also has a distinct element of whimsy, as well as moments of genuinely humor (which isn’t particularly unusual for Gordon movies). Stuart Gordon claims to have spent an extensive amount of time reading about fairy tales, including the book “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettleheim, while working on the film. Gordon also still had young children at the time he was making “Dolls,” which may have somewhat inspired the tone and direction of the movie.

dolls2The story of “Dolls” follows a young child, her father, and her wicked stepmother as they become stranded on a remote road, and seek shelter in a seemingly abandoned house. They find the house to be occupied by an eccentric elderly couple who specialize in making toys, and things quickly begin to go awry from there.

The cast of “Dolls” has some definite ups and downs. Stephen Lee manages to add some decent comic relief as a “young at heart” stranded hitch-hiker who befriends the young girl, while Guy Rolfe delivers a simultaneously menacing and warm performance as Mr. Hartwicke, the designer of the enchanted dolls. Even Carolyn Gordon-Purdy, Stuart Gordon’s wife, plays a fantastically over-the-top Cruella De Vil inspired evil step-mother.

dolls5On the flip side, I absolutely cannot stand the child actor protagonist in “Dolls.” The actress, Carrie Lorraine, has unsurprisingly not done any acting work since. Her casting was primarily done because of her appearance (cute, younger than her age, believably average) according to Stuart Gordon, and she certainly fits the part from that perspective. Her line reading, however, is just awful. Luckily, the off-kilter light-heartedness of this horror movie offsets her inabilities, and she comes off as just another piece of the quirky, creepy atmosphere.

Something that I definitely appreciate about “Dolls” is that it plays on a latent fear that many people have. The idea of toys coming to life while you weren’t looking, particularly in the pre “Toy Story” days, was genuinely frightening to many people. It also doesn’t help that antique dolls are almost always extremely creepy, so it is hard to blame people for the fear. My mother used to have a collection of antique dolls on display, and that had the potential to be down-right terrifying under the right circumstances.

The effects for “Dolls” are generally pretty good, particularly given the low budget of the production. There is hybrid use of stop motion, marionettes, and traditional makeup effects for the various doll shots, which can be slightly jarring from sequence to sequence. Overall, however, the dolls still come off as plenty creepy, particularly as they are destroyed: revealing human flesh and blood underneath the toy outer skins. In particular, there is one climactic scene (a transformation) which manages to showcase the good and the bad of the effects work. Predictably, the practical aspects of the sequence are superb, but the one moment of computer assisted “shrinkage” has aged very poorly, and might take a viewer today out of the moment.

dolls7Outside of some really uncomfortable child abuse, “Dolls” is a great, fun movie that absolutely lives up to the Stuart Gordon tradition. He has a knack for creating enjoyable B-horror movies that defy the label of “bad,” despite their low quality and often tongue-in-cheek style. Stuart Gordon movies are always bloody, squibby, and cheesy, but they are also almost guaranteed to be fun to watch.

As with most of the Stuart Gordon movies I am going to cover, “Dolls” is an absolute recommend for any b-movie fans. Gordon is a consistent producer of entertaining b-level films, and “Dolls” certainly isn’t an exception. If nothing else, I would recommend anyone to watch the infamous “teddy bear scene” from this movie, particularly if it is free of context. The toy soldier death is also worth looking up, but the teddy bear scene is the crown jewel.