Bright Lights Film Journal

Object in Mirror May Be Closer Than It Appears: Stuart Gordon Talks about Horror, the Absurd, and Stuck

“These two people are stuck in life.”

It isn’t easy being the father of Re-Animator. This 1985 horror-comedy — Stuart Gordon’s film debut after a career of directing for the stage — became an immediate cult favorite, and a giant that would loom over the rest of his career.

For his Chicago theater company, Gordon directed experimental plays and a nontraditional take on Peter Pan that got him jailed for obscenity. He had minimal experience in horror, though he’d soon bank on the market’s box-office reliability to break into filmmaking. By the time he tracked down a withered copy of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Re-Animator” in an archival collection, he knew he would revise a classic archetype, the Frankenstein/mad doctor tale, for his debut. But he wouldn’t find his primary inspiration until he embarked on hands-on research. While observing decaying bodies at morgues, Gordon and his filmmakers encountered morticians whose wit was as dark as their profession. Hence Gordon found what would make Re-Animator into a mix of screams and laughter.

Gordon’s following projects often realized the wit lurking alongside his gruesome set-pieces. Yet none of his films lit the sparks of his first, which showed a sensibility like James Whale’s in maximizing the comic potential of its horrific subject matter. Gordon returned to Lovecraft throughout his career, including for his first project post-Re-Animator — 1986’s From Beyond, an enjoyably bizarre entry that grows routine halfway through. His producer, Brian Yunza, directed the Re-Animator sequels in 1990 and 2003 that recycled the original film’s style to lesser effect. Since 2001, Gordon spoke of returning to the series with House of Re-Animator, which would feature a president re-animated by Dr. West as a tribute to our current brain-dead head of state. But with financing trouble and Dubya soon to depart from office, the film was abandoned.

By the time House was announced, Gordon showed up with another film that sported a new gothic taste. Edmond (2005) was adapted from a stage play by David Mamet, whose Sexual Perversity in Chicago was directed by Gordon in its premiere stage production. Mamet’s Edmond features a title character whose moral demise brings him into an urban landscape as nightmarish as it is realistic. Gordon cast William H. Macy as the title character who embarks on an episodic one-night journey through bars, brothels, and to a waitress’s home, in which Edmond’s swelling amorality results in murder. His final — and permanent — stop is a prison cell in which he finds blissful contentment in powerlessness.

With Edmond, Gordon realized a particular horror from crumbling humanity. It took him 20 years, but he had found a new style.

In his follow-up, Stuck (2007), Gordon grabs a story from the headlines to fashioin another gothic tale stemming from the mundane, one showcasing an absurdist dilemma that offers a fresh take on the genre. The news story concerned the ultimate hit-and-run: after crashing into a pedestrian with her car at night, a woman raced home with the man still impaled in her windshield. “It was one of those stories that if it were made up, nobody would believe it,” Gordon said during a recent phone interview, his attraction to this curious event evident in his voice. “It was a big story, and I was reading about it every day. Eventually I started talking about the articles with my friend [and screenwriter] John Strysik, and the story started turning into a movie.”

The story as Gordon conceived it posed obvious challenges, since much of the action would take place in a home garage in which an injured man struggles, inch by inch, to free himself. But the director saw the project as a welcome challenge. “I’ve always been a big fan of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat [which takes place completely on the eponymous location], and how it fully explores one location,” says Gordon. “You always hear that rule of thumb — you have to open [a film] up with new locations. But [Stuck] is really about the people involved, and the tension rising from the two who are trapped.”

One of the “trapped” is the victim, the recently laid off and homeless Tom, played with conviction by Stephen Rea. Yet Gordon sees the young woman, Brandi, played with wide-eyed panic by Mena Suvari, as another victim in this story. “She has this dead-end job,” says the director, “and then a promotion gets dangled in front of her, and she has a future all of a sudden. And she won’t let that be taken away from her.”

As inexplicable as her actions may be, she also comes off as willfully irresponsible, stressing about the problem of having a dying man on her hands without a bit of compassion. Even one of Gordon’s casting directors thought the character was despicable. “You could say the same thing about Lady MacBeth,” says Gordon. Suvari’s character in Stuck “is a great role, and she really appreciated it. Mena and I are alike in that we both like dark subjects. I learned that we are kindred spirits when we worked on Edmond. She really liked the fact that this character [in Stuck] was so shocking. This is what drew her to the project.” In Edmond, Suvari’s innocent demeanor added depth to her disturbing portrayal of a prostitute, and Gordon knew she could bring the unsympathetic character in Stuck to life. “Mena actually contacted me [about being in the film]. She had received the script and then came to me and said, ‘I definitely want to do this.’ I knew how great she was [from doing Edmond], so I knew she would make the character real.”

Gordon may have been destined to work with her, since she appeared in a scene in the 1999 Oscar Winner American Beauty that homages Re-Animator, something of a film geek’s treat. “That lovemaking scene [in Beauty] is shot exactly like the [“giving head”] scene in Re-Animator. Jeffrey Combs pointed out to me that they matched shot for shot. [Kevin Spacey’s] head was in the bottom corner of the screen moving up her body.” And the allusion is no mistake, since in another part of the film, Spacey’s character refers to that “movie, with the body walking around holding its own head. And then the head went down on that babe.”

“It would have been easy to make Mena’s character into a monster,” Gordon says. “But that’s not what we wanted, and [Suvari] didn’t take that route. [Brandi] is just an ordinary girl who gets herself into a bad situation and makes some really bad decisions.”While Suvari acts an outrageous role with conviction, Gordon made another find by casting Stephen Rea as Tom, her antagonist in agony. Stuck begins with his firing and eviction, and Rea helps create a bleak tone of bureaucratic oppression. The actor’s downbeat walk among the streets that results in his character’s wounding accident-cum-kidnapping is a haunting one.

“[Rea] has such a hangdog face,” Gordon says. “He could show that life has kicked his character around. I knew from his other performances that he could engage an audience this way. I’ve been a huge fan for years, and the idea of working with him was a dream.”

“When we sent him the script, he got it right away. It turned out that both he and John Strysik are huge fans of Samuel Beckett. John starting seeing Beckett elements in the script as we worked on it, like futile dilemmas about people who are buried in the sand. The absurd nature of the script appealed to Stephen.” (Fittingly enough, Rea is now on stage in New York playing a Beckettian character for writer/director Sam Shepard in Kicking a Dead Horse.)

For much of the film, Rea’s injured character struggles to dislodge himself from a broken windshield. “[Strysik and I] wondered if Tom should get weaker, since he’s losing blood. But we knew that his survival instincts were kicking in,” says Gordon.

Rea’s character writhes in pain in scenes with surprising momentum for such limiting content. In these moments, Gordon couldn’t resist incorporating some humorously gruesome bits akin to those in his gory shockers. At a point when Rea’s character gains footing to pull himself from the shards of the windshield, he pushes them in deeper, in Sisyphean agony. Hence, viewers wince at his every movement in what becomes a uniquely tense, tongue-in-cheek moment. “Coming from a theater background,” says Gordon, Rea “knew that this would be a real physical performance, and a test of his strength, really.” While filming, the actor told Gordon that “Tom definitely wouldn’t be out on the streets after all this — he’ll somehow pull his life together.”

Tom’s ordeal recalls another bizarre and often gruesome tale. “Misery was a reference point for us,” says Gordon (right). “[Suvari] actually watched the movie version a couple of times before we started shooting. The main difference, though, is that Misery has a psycho woman, and [Suvari] knew that she was playing just a normal woman in a bad situation.”

“I think we’ve all done things like [what Brandi does],” says Gordon, without a drop of irony in his voice. “Nothing as bad as this, of course. These two people are stuck in life, beyond him being stuck literally in the windshield. They both get stronger. The film turns into a battle of survival for two desperate people — to the death, in a way.”