In King of the Ants, the latest cringe-fest
from director Stuart Gordon, actor Chris McKenna appears to endure
the type of punishment not seen since 1478’s Spanish Inquisition.
His character is hammered with golf clubs, forced to weather solitary
confinement in a locked tool shed and-perhaps most terrifying of
all-is sat on by portly Cheers icon George Wendt.
Even so, McKenna has nothing but raves for his demanding
director. “Stuart is absolutely insane. He’s Grandpa Santa Claus,
with dimples. I was expecting him to be some terrifying guy with
a limp, a cape and a cane. He was not like that at all.”
Grandpa Santa Claus? Try Santa Claws.
After all, this is the director who gave us Re-Animator (1985), a film featuring a severed head attempting
to get intimate with a shackled female love interest. He also conjured
forth From Beyond (1986), where snake-like, phallic pineal
glands sprout from foreheads and scientists melt into puddles of
gelatinous slime like the Wicked Witch of the West. Then there’s Dagon (2001), where macabre, scaly fish people with human
sacrifice on their minds torment unknowing visitors in a Spanish
King of the Ants, Gordon’s current spellbinder,
is another gruesome foray into the dark side of human nature. His
coupling of a brutal revenge story (by acclaimed British author
Charlie Higson) with a minimal budget (Gordon’s wife provided catering
for cast and crew) has resulted in a streamlined, neo-noir thriller
with macabre overtones. This movie is sure to be a Halloween night
Gordon’s onscreen projects are not limited to horror,
however. Futuristic sci-fi outings like Robot Jox (1990), Fortress (1993) and Space Truckers (1997) are also
on his diverse director’s resume. Meanwhile, he scored a co-screenwriting
credit for the smash Disney hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and eventually served as executive producer for the popular
film’s sequel, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992).
This moviemaker’s most enduring, go-for-broke, envelope-pushing
terror tales have remained his most enduring creations, however.
Below, the influential talent recaps his horror career, while offering
suggestions on how to nourish your nightmares this Halloween season.
KJ Doughton (MM): What does a horror director
like yourself do to celebrate Halloween?
Stuart Gordon (SG): Make-up and special effects
expert Rick Baker threw an incredible Halloween party a couple of
years ago, when he opened his new studio. He insisted that everyone
come in costume. My wife, Carol, and I decided to come as a couple-she
as a nurse and me in a straight jacket. I shaved half my head, then
had a fake lobotomy scar put on my forehead. I just drooled a lot
and no one recognized me. The whole Clark Kent thing really works-you
take the glasses off and no one recognizes you. I couldn’t use my
hands to eat finger food. I was dependent on my wife. Those straight
jacket restraints really work.
MM: Is it true that in King of the Ants,
a piece of your wife’s rosemary chicken was used to gory effect
when star Chris McKenna bites a chunk out of someone’s neck?
SG: Yes. Carol was catering the shoot, and
it was such a low-budget affair that she did the cooking for everybody.
We needed something for a particular scene-some meat in his mouth.
I also invited Chris McKenna over after the shoot and fed him some
ants. Real, honest-to-God, big, black ants on crackers with cream
cheese. My brother, a nature writer who lives in Seattle, provided
them. He wrote “Eat a Bug Café Cookbook,” a gourmet’s guide to eating
insects. He was invited onto Conan O’Brien’s show once. He had Conan
KJ Doughton (MM): Can you tell me about
the time you took heat from authorities at the University of Wisconsin
for staging a psychedelic version of Peter Pan?
Stuart Gordon (SG): I was arrested on obscenity
charges in 1968. We did the production as a satire of the 1968 Democratic
Convention, happening in Chicago. I turned it into a political allegory.
Peter Pan and the Lost Boys became hippies, the pirates became the
Chicago Police Department and Captain Hook became the original Mayor
Daly of Chicago. After they all went off to Neverland, they dropped
acid. That scene got us into trouble, because it was a psychedelic
dance sequence and we had a light show projected onto the naked
bodies of seven female dancers. We were told that we had to shut
the production down. We felt that was a violation of our free speech
so we performed it again-and got arrested.
I’ve always thought it might be fun to do a movie of
the event, ’cause it was so crazy. We’ve even talked of the idea
of doing Re-Animator as a musical, which would be really
strange, with severed heads singing and dancing.
MM: In 1969, you formed Chicago’s Organic
Theater and oversaw several productions, including those written
by David Mamet. Can you elaborate on that experience?
SG: It was an experimental theater, an ensemble
of actors, designers and writers. We created original plays and
adaptations. We toured, performed, and brought productions to other
places, including New York. We had some wonderful members of the
ensemble. Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz were with us. It was a great
time. We produced David Mamet’s first play, Sexual Perversity
SG: Eventually, in 1984, you took on moviemaking
SG: I took a leave of absence from the theater
to direct it, then I went back to work after shooting wrapped. It
was during that time that the movie premiered at the Cannes Film
Festival. The reaction was great.
MM: One of Re-Animator‘s final scenes,
where the zombies burst out of the black bags under command of Professor
Hill, is very effective. Each body has a different look to it.
SG: We had a gunshot to the head, a failed
operation, a motorcycle accident and a burn victim. One pathologist
I’d visited was asking me specifically about the corpses that would
be seen in the movie. So I went through and listed them all. He
said, “come back tomorrow.” I came back the next day and he had
a slide projector set up with a screen-and one chair. (laughing)
The nurse says to me, “I hope you have a strong stomach,” sits me
down in the chair and starts going through slides that pathologists
had taken of the various bodies they had worked with. It was kind
of like, “Stuart Gordon, You Asked for It! Here’s the gunshot to
the head. Here’s the burn victim.” I started getting woozy. I was
ready to pass out after about 10 minutes. I finally asked them to
stop, and said, “Let me just hold them up to the light. If they’re
smaller, I think I can deal with this a little better.”
The pathologist thought it was pretty funny. As a
present, he actually ended up giving me a head block that they use
for autopsies, which they put behind the neck to keep the head from
moving around. Quite a souvenir.
MM: Do you feel that film can be a catharsis
for violent emotions? Is it therapeutic, for instance, to produce
and direct a horror film and deal with violence in a vicarious way?
SG: I think that horror films do provide catharsis.
During the time of Greek tragedies, such productions would show
the results of violence. Corpses, bloodied up with entrails. Viewers
of Greek tragedies sometimes had miscarriages, it was such scary
stuff. But the Greeks wanted to show how awful violence was. In
our society, it’s just the opposite. We like to show how cool it
is and how much fun it is. I think that everyone has dark impulses
that need to be purged out of our systems.
MM: Which three films would you recommend
for a Halloween video party?
SG: To scare the crap out of someone, I would
recommend Takashi Miike’s Audition. Also, Cannibal Holocaust,
a really disturbing film. Then, to capture a lighter Halloween vibe, Bride of Frankenstein.
MM: Is there a gory special effect in one
of your movies that really stands out in your mind?
SG: I always thought that acting was the best
special effect. I saw Reservoir Dogs on television recently.
The performance of Tim Roth when he’s bleeding and screaming in
pain is so disturbing. How many times have you seen people get shot
in movies? But in the case of that movie, it really stays with you.
Roth does a fantastic job.
MM: The violence in King of the Ants is
very disturbing. Would it be safe to say that this is a more realistic
movie than most that you have directed?
SG: I would agree with that. The violence is
brutal. Blunt objects are the weapons of choice-a flower pot, a
dinosaur tooth, even a refrigerator. We’re breaking new ground here!