Stuart Gordon: Our Most Underrated Master of Horror

Watching ROBOT JOX made BC remember once again that Stuart Gordon can do no wrong

As long as I never risk it with the two I haven't seen, I can die saying that I've never been disappointed by a Stuart Gordon movie. If you look at the careers of his horror peers, there's always at least one title where the only appropriate reaction is "OOF", but that's not the case with Gordon (OK, maybe the not-loved Space Truckers, but that's one of the ones I haven't seen so I can't say for sure). Sure, some are better than others, but when your "lesser" efforts are entertaining and at least trying something unique, that's talent. And yet, he also stands apart from Carpenter, Craven, Romero and the others in another, less appealing way - he's never had a big hit movie. Most of his features barely even got released theatrically in the US, so that's obviously a big part of it, but still - it's as amusing as it is sad that his biggest brush with mainstream success is Fortress, the Christopher Lambert prison escape movie that grossed nearly 7 million. You don't need to know much about horror movies to recognize the name Wes Craven, but without a Scream-like success on his resume, Gordon's name remains revered in horror circles, but frustratingly obscure elsewhere.

Of course, all of his films were independent productions (well, the ones he directed anyway; he has a story credit on Honey I Shrunk the Kids, of all things), so big wide releases weren't a guarantee, and their subject matter probably wouldn't excite too many of the majors. Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak are all beloved genre classics, but they're not really the sort of things I can see having crossover appeal like Romero's Dead films. Maybe Re-Animator since it's funny and (at the very end) a zombie movie, but it also has a disembodied head attempting cunnilingus - not exactly multiplex fare. And his later work is even more unusual, as he's gone away from outright genre fare into more dramatic territory. Stuck, for example, is based on the (insane) true story of a woman who hit a homeless guy so hard that he got embedded in her windshield, and rather than drive to the hospital or anything normal like that, she opted to drive home and carry on as if nothing happened for a couple of days, as the guy slowly died in her garage. It's a pretty great little dramatic thriller, but again, not the sort of movie that audiences would rush to see.

That's not to say he hasn't occasionally attempted something "everyone can enjoy!" - in addition to working on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, he's also directed a couple of TV projects aimed at kids (including an episode of the Honey, I... TV show). And so he followed Dolls and From Beyond (the former was shot first but released second) with the PG-rated Robot Jox, which is basically Rock Em, Sock Em Robots: The Movie. Indeed, he even got into arguments with the film's screenwriter over the film's tone, as Gordon insisted making it for kids (the apparent quote being "our problem is that you're writing a movie for adults that children can enjoy, but I'm directing a movie for children that adults can enjoy!"), which is probably not what his fanbase was expecting after three R rated, rather gory films. Gordon went back to his wheelhouse with his next few films (Pit and The Pendulum and the aforementioned Fortress), making Jox an unusual departure as opposed to a total career change.

Still, for a PG* kids film, it's a pretty interesting one. It's a post-nuclear holocaust future, and territorial disputes are settled not with soldiers and heavy combat, but with a pair of giant robots controlled by humans - think Pacific Rim but without the "we need two people in sync" concept. Whatever robot is left standing at the end of the match wins that particular "war", and Robot Jox focuses primarily on one - control of Alaska. There are only two governing bodies now - the Market (basically the US) and the Confederation (Russian-y bad guys), so things are kept pretty simple, in terms of its politics and basic concept (i.e. we never have to worry about a possible three way robot fight). But watching giant things pound on each other does get pretty boring, so luckily there's a hefty human plot in between the three robot fights. After a jock (the name given to the guys that control the robots) is killed in a match by a vicious opponent, hero Achilles (Gary Graham) takes on the same guy in what is slated to be his final match before retiring. However, that match goes horribly wrong, resulting in the deaths of many of the spectators (including Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs), setting the stage for a rematch that Achilles may or may not have to sit out. There's a traitor in their midst, some light gender politics when Achilles' replacement turns out to be female, a curious weakness for Achilles (not his heel)... Gordon definitely succeeded in making a kids' movie that could be enjoyed by adults (if you consider me - a 35 year old who watched the movie after pre-ordering a damn Lego game - an adult).

But it's also an Empire movie produced by Charles Band, and even though it was their biggest budgeted one ever (might have been why they went bankrupt during its production in 1987; the film went unreleased for 3 years), it feels pretty cheap at times. The stop motion robot fights are just as fun and competent as any ED-209 scene in Robocop, but voiceover is all we get to sell the idea of this post-apocalyptic world. Blu-ray doesn't help a few of its sub-par effects (best is when you can see a tear in the "sky" behind one of the human character during the final battle), and there are some unfortunate production design decisions that elicit chuckles (a glue gun being used as a medical injector, the robot arm apparently being powered with standard AV cables, etc), so you have to just go with it - but Gordon keeps the pace moving and makes his characters interesting, plus offers some fun non-robot action to keep it fresh. I particularly liked the rigorous training scene for the jocks that had them all clambering on a death trap built out of electrified pipes leading up to the ceiling exit/finish line - it probably cost about 1/100th as much as the robots to construct, but it's equally as exciting (not to mention harsh - it's training for a job but several people die trying it).

In short, it's an imperfect but solidly entertaining movie, with rare displays of the growing pains usually associated with a filmmaker jumping into a new genre after several horror films - perhaps Gordon could have directed the Honey I Shrunk The Kids movies himself and they'd be just as popular. Sure, he's done most of his work in the horror/thriller or sci-fi genre (and Jeffrey Combs pretty much always shows up), but his output within those confines is pretty eclectic, and he's shown that he's just as comfortable with crime thrillers like Edmond as he is the crazy otherworldly frights of From Beyond.  And really, all you have to do to assure yourself of his talent is to watch pretty much any other movie that Band produced. With rare exceptions, you'll find bad FX, worse actors, terrible direction, and stories that usually amount to little more than "and then a little doll/toy/cookie/bong comes to life and kills everyone". Hell, Gordon himself made one of those latter examples (Dolls) and even that is several notches above anything with a combination of the words Puppet and Master in the title. Time and time again, Gordon found a way to rise above Band's notoriously penny-pinching ways - and it's interesting that Band's "golden era" coincides with the time Gordon was making movies with him. Their last was 1995's Castle Freak, and since then Gordon has gone on to make films like the woefully underrated Dagon and the aforementioned Stuck, not to mention the incredible, much-loved stage production Nevermore. Meanwhile, Band has run the never-great Puppet Master series even further into the ground and given us movies like Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong, while selling overpriced VHS box replicas to sucker fans.

Stuck was Gordon's last feature, 8 years ago now, which is too damn long. Since then he's been more focused on stage productions (which is where his career began - he directed the first production of Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago**), with feature adaptations of those plays sadly never coming to pass. An attempt to crowd-fund a feature version of Nevermore was not successful (if only Gordon had starred in Scrubs!), and the feature version of his latest, Taste, is in the same "details only on IMDb Pro" state it was in over a year ago when the play debuted, making me think it's not happening anytime soon. Personally, I'd love to see a feature version of the Re-Animator musical (beats the inevitable pointless remake), as the songs were pretty catchy and the actors' performances proved that they wouldn't be overshadowed by their 1985 counterparts.

But at the same time, if he never makes another movie, then I know for sure I can continue to never be let down by one. I thought for sure Robot Jox would leave me cold, given its "kids' movie" origins and plot about piloting giant robots that reminded me of a movie I really didn't like all that much, and even that managed to entertain me. At this point, I'm pretty sure whatever he does will do at least as much.  Maybe I'll give Space Truckers a shot after all...

* There's a fairly bloody death (via gunshot) that was actually trimmed for the PG rating, only retained in the PG-13 version, however the new Blu from Scream Factory carries a PG rating on it but is indeed the PG-13 cut. And the dude still gets shot in the head in the PG one, you just don't see the blood on the wall.

** Technically the second, as Mamet directed an earlier version himself at his college in Vermont. But the reworked version that launched Mamet's career, and the one that got turned into About Last Night, was directed by Gordon.

Comments