Weekend of the Damned: Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and Jeffrey Combs invade Montreal!

Stuart Gordon has always been a rather impressive individual to me. Not just because he created – along with actor Jeffrey Combs and screenwriter Dennis Paoli – the most beloved H.P. Lovecraft adaptation ever committed to celluloid (I’m talking, of course, about Re-Animator), and not just because the diversity of his talents sees him genre-hopping with ease from gothic horror to urban comedy, but because Stuart Gordon is a director who can be subversive, confrontational, and at times prankster-ish without ever disrespecting the material. He is, in my mind, one of the most subversive directors working in America today. He started the belligerent Screw Theatre in Wisconsin in the late 60s and was arrested on obscenity charges for a politically satirical version of Peter Pan in 1968, then moved to Chicago to start the Organic Theatre with wife Carolyn-Purdy Gordon. There, he hooked up with a young David Mamet, whose Sexual Perversity in Chicago Gordon would end up directing for the stage in its premiere run.

Although he is written about more as a horror director than anything else, to date Gordon’s directed over 30 original plays, although Nevermore: An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe seems to be the first that has grabbed the genre community by the balls and forced them to take note. The play – scripted by Paoli – opened for a four week run in LA last year, which quickly extended to 6 months, and now an international tour. The appeal is obvious, as it takes their gothic interests and fuses them with the intensity of one-man character pieces like Gordon’s 2005 powerhouse vehicle for William H. Macy, Edmond (which was adapted by David Mamet from one of his own plays). Presenting a live theatrical production is a first for Fantasia and I personally cannot wait to see Jeffrey Combs bring the tortured Poe to life before my eyes.

But Poe isn’t the only immortal character Combs has brought to life – to most genre fans the name Jeffrey Combs is irrevocably linked with the name Herbert West: Re-Animator. Re-Animator is a special kind of splatter film. While unanimously hailed as a masterpiece by teenage gorehounds always clamouring for their next fix of the red stuff – and gleefully satisfying such demands – Re-Animator is so, so much more. Aside from taking Lovecraft’s old stomping grounds (both the real ones and the fictional ones) and infusing them with life in a way no filmmaker ever had before (no, not The Haunted Palace [named inappropriately after an Edgar Allan Poe story], not The Dunwich Horror – it was Re-Animator that made the Miskatonic Valley, and the University named after it, into a living, breathing landscape), Re-Animator did the unthinkable: it made Lovecraft fun. Lovecraft’s work was always perverse, but he was not known for his sense of humour. There is a distinct chance that Lovecraft rolled over in his grave when Re-Animator came out.

But Paoli and Gordon’s greatest innovation in regard to Lovecraft’s work is character. Lovecraft couldn’t care less about people, as anyone who’s read his endless love-poems to winding streets and decaying buildings can attest. Lovecraft’s constant illnesses as a child kept him isolated from people, and despite the attention of his mother’s adult friends, he had no friends of his own. So it makes sense that as a writer he wouldn’t value people greatly, and that his books neglect the very thing – “the human interest angle” – that editors everywhere will tell you is necessary for successful storytelling. But Lovecraft knew that the universe was bigger than us, and his mythos presents humans as rather feeble and insignificant.

Still, it is true that the lack of a charismatic protagonist can be alienating for your average reader and/or viewer, and Stuart Gordon and crew struck gold when they went to a morgue while researching Re-Animator and noticed that the morticians there shared a very dark sense of humour. It was from this that the idea for Herbert West as a morbidly humorous character was born, and the rest is history.

Gordon has directed five adaptations of Lovecraft’s work for the screen – Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon (which morphed from a long-in the works adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth), Castle Freak (The Outsider) and the Masters of Horror episode The Dreams in the Witch House. But adaptation can be a tricky game, as anyone who’s even attempted to work with Lovecraft’s writing will tell you. Fans will argue as to which elements of the writing should remain immutable, and part of Gordon and Paoli’s success with Lovecraft is that they challenge these assertions, while still always conveying a real knowledge and love of the work. They’ll be talking about their adaptation process in a special masterclass this Sunday entitled Adapting Lovecraft for the Screen at the newly-christened Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (a soon-to-be weekly series of horror theory, history, criticism and production courses named after Lovecraft’s beloved University), showing clips, sharing anecdotes and accepting questions from the audience.

A killer weekend, by anyone’s standards, and this is only one component of the amazing films and interactive events Fantasia has lined up over the next few days.

- Kier-La Janisse

——————————-

The 25th Anniversary screening of Re-Animator is July 16 at Midnight in the Hall Theatre
More info, including film description, images and trailer on the film page HERE.

The International Premiere of Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is on Saturday July 17 and Sunday July 18 at 8:00pm at the Rialto Theatre
More info on this special live theatre event HERE.

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies presents Adapting Lovecraft for the Screen Masterclass at Blue Sunshine (3660 St-Laurent, 3rd Flr) – Sunday July 18 – 2pm-4pm.
Details and tix available at www.miskatonicinstitute.com – But be warned: the space is very small (40 seats) and tix are going fast!

Leave a Reply