Stuart Gordon obituary

Ryan Gilbey
Photograph: Matt Carr/Getty Images

Horror movies don’t come much gorier, funnier or more outre than Re-Animator (1985), the HP Lovecraft adaptation that brought acclaim and infamy to Stuart Gordon, who has died aged 72 from multiple organ failure. The film, which marked his cinematic debut after many years at the forefront of experimental, cutting-edge theatre, concerned the medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who concocts a DayGlo serum to reanimate dead tissue, only for the revived corpses to wreak havoc.

The acting was commendably straight-faced with hints of camp, the violence graphic, gooey and over-the-top: “The main thing I remember about shooting Re-Animator is that my shoes stuck to the floor the whole time,” Gordon recalled. In an unequivocal rave review for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael said, “You laugh out loud, and as the ghoulish jokes escalate you feel revivified –light-headed and happy… the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is”.

Not everyone agreed. Re-Animator led Gordon into the first of several contretemps with the censors. The picture was released in the US without a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA); Gordon realised that “if we cut it to their standards the movie would be about 15 minutes long”. In the UK, a measure of the picture’s gruesomeness can be found in the various snips, almost two minutes’ worth in total, which were insisted on by the British Board of Film Classification before it would grant the “18” certificate necessary for public exhibition: the board instructed Gordon to “reduce sight of blood flowing down naked body as boy drives surgical saw into man’s neck”, “reduce sight of bloody head being squeezed and blood gushing from it” and “remove sight… of doctor’s severed head attempting oral sex”.

Gordon argued that there was serious intent behind the shock value of the latter spectacle. “It had occurred to me while watching horror films that there would always be that scene where the monster would drag the woman off with him and then the camera would cut, and you’re left there wondering, ‘Well, what’s he going to do with her?’… These re-animated people would have their libidos fully unleashed, and that’s part of the ‘problem’, that they’re not being held back by social constructs and values.”

Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West in Stuart Gordon’s horror comedy Re-Animator, 1986, based on a short story by HP Lovecraft. Photograph: TCD/Alamy Stock Photo

The censors sharpened their scissors once again for Gordon’s second Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond (1986), on which the special effects team reportedly got through 160 gallons of gunk. “We thought we were so clever because instead of using blood we just had a lot of slime and goo, but the MPAA said that was even more disgusting!” In this instance, he was contractually obliged in the US to secure an R rating (allowing viewers under 17 to be admitted with an adult), which resulted in some delicate behind-the-scenes conversations. “What on earth were you thinking of when you zoomed in on his mouth as he was sucking out her eye?” asked an MPAA representative. “I didn’t even tell her that the woman onscreen was my wife and that it wasn’t very pleasant for her either,” Gordon later confessed. “But if your wife won’t put up with it, who will?”

His propensity for horror and outrage made it all the more unexpected when he co-created the hit Disney comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), though he did not consider the project a radical departure. “Really, it’s no different than Re-Animator,” he said. “It’s about a mad scientist and an experiment that goes wrong, and so forth.” The picture was a response to his children’s complaints that they weren’t allowed to see any of his work. Gordon was set to direct the movie until illness on the eve of production forced him to step down.

Born in Chicago, Stuart was the son of Bernard, a factory supervisor, and Rosalie (nee Sabath), a teacher. He was educated at Lane technical high school before attending the University of Wisconsin. It was there in 1968 that he formed the Screw Theatre, which mounted several controversial productions. The most harrowing was The Game Show, intended as an attack on complacency, during which the auditorium doors were locked and members of the audience (who were, in fact, plants) humiliated and brutalised. After a version of Peter Pan incorporating nudity, anti-war sentiments and psychedelic overtones, he and his future wife, Carolyn Purdy (later Purdy-Gordon), were arrested on charges of obscenity.

The following year they co-founded the influential Organic Theatre Company, where Gordon directed new plays including the world premiere in 1974 of David Mamet’s savage dating comedy Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and Bleacher Bums, a comedy drama about baseball fans written in 1977 by Organic regulars including Gordon, Purdy-Gordon and the actors Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, and described by the Chicago Tribune as “Beckettian”.

There was already a cinematic quality to Gordon’s theatre work. “Stuart’s notion was that anything which could be done on film could be done on the stage,” said Mamet, “so he created, play-by-play, a stagecraft of effect: blood, gore, nudity, music, sound, and so on. It thrilled us all, production by production. We who saw the shows remember them still.”

But when he moved into directing films, he retained elements of the theatrical process, often drawing on a small repertory company of actors (including Combs, who described him as “the Ozzy Osbourne of directors”) and ring-fencing the sort of generous rehearsal period uncommon in filmmaking. Among his other movies were two further Lovecraft adaptations, Castle Freak (1995) and Dagon (2001), as well as the boisterous, irreverent adventure Space Truckers (1996), starring Stephen Dorff and Dennis Hopper. In 2005, he filmed Mamet’s 1982 play Edmond, with William H Macy as the white-collar worker who surrenders to his murderous impulses.

Gordon returned to theatre in recent years, directing in 2011 the ambitious and necessarily messy Re-Animator The Musical. Audience members in the first three rows – the “splatter zone” – were provided with plastic ponchos; the Hollywood Reporter said the show exhibited “the same brio as a verismo opera”.

The bold creative philosophy of Gordon’s earliest theatrical experiments remained intact throughout his career. “There is a side of me that likes to break through cliches and wake people up,” he said in 1986. “I find that fun. I think that’s part of what art is supposed to do – to make you see or experience things in ways that you haven’t before.”

He is survived by Carolyn and their three daughters, Suzanna, Jillian and Margaret, as well as four grandchildren.

• Stuart Gordon, film and stage director, born 11 August 1947; died 24 March 2020