Naked Theater & Uncensored Horror is the name of Stuart Gordon’s new memoir, and an apt summation of his career spent pushing and breaking down barriers on both film and stage. Yet the director who gave us Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, and many others was also a family man, and FANGORIA spoke with his daughter Jillian (one of his three children with actress Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, a regular player in his movies and theatrical productions) to get some insights into his life and art.
In the first part of our interview below, Jillian reveals her personal experiences with Stuart’s sometimes adults-only work, as well as the two actors most associated with his horrific visions. For those seeking insights in the filmmaker’s own words, FAB Press is offering pre-orders for Naked Theater & Uncensored Horror (coming this September), a 360-page, heavily illustrated volume in which Stuart (who passed away in 2020) recounts the full breadth of his career and collaborators. (The book is also available in bundles with associated merch, and a hardcover first edition with full illustrated page edges will be available only at the FAB site.)
Were you around when your father was making his classic horror films, or did you discover them later?
Well, I was three when Re-Animator came out, so no, I didn‘t see a lot of them when they were actually in theaters, but I was around for the filming of the majority of his movies. He shot Re-Animator when we were still living in Chicago, so he went out to Los Angeles for that, and that’s why our family ended up moving to LA. So that’s part of our history; from there, we anticipated him making most of his movies in LA, but what ended up happening was he started shooting a lot in Italy, and so we lived there while that was all happening. I was going to preschool, and my older sister Suzanna was in elementary school there, and our mom was in these movies, so it was a whole family affair.
I should add that there would be certain cases where they needed kids in a scene. For Dolls, they needed doll voices that sounded like children, or at one point, Carrie Lorraine, who played Judy in Dolls, had gone home during filming, and they needed someone to do stand-in work for her. I was four or five years old and stood in for Carrie. So although I didn’t get to actually view the films until several years later because of their nature, eventually, I caught up, and even at that age, we were definitely around it all.
How old were you when Stuart let you see Re-Animator for the first time?
Oh my gosh, I feel like I actually watched Re-Animator with my friends the first time, not with him technically letting me. Though I will say my dad was a very big fan of not censoring, so I think if at the age of seven or eight, I had said, “I wanna see it!” he would have allowed me to—although my mom probably would have put the brakes on that! I came to it with friends, which I think was when I was thirteen or fourteen years old.
What did you think of it, seeing it at that age?
It’s always kind of hard at that time. When you’re a teenager, you’re so concerned with what your friends think, and the whole time I was watching it, thinking, “Oh my gosh, what do they think of my dad?” you know? It took me a few years after that to really appreciate his art for what it is and his great sense of being able to balance humor with horror, that sort of special sauce he brings to all of his projects, and to love that about it. At the time, I knew that there was something cool about what my parents were involved in, but I was also a teenager going, “Oh my God, this film includes nudity!” and other sexual things that are totally hard to sit through when your friends know that your dad was the one behind them.
What was your sense of your father’s work when you were on set with him? How did you see him as an artist and a director?
I think as I got older, I became very aware of his artistry. First of all, when we watch these movies, I have to say—and this sounds kind of strange—it’s almost like watching family films. I know that sounds weird, but it’s because we were around it so much, and in some cases like I said, we lived there when they made these films, so we would be on set a lot. We would see these scenes over and over, and when we watch them now, we know all the lines because we were there those days.
Even at a young age, I also remember just knowing how much of a leader he was on the set. He really owned the space in a way, but he also had—and I think this came from his work in theater—a great sense of letting everybody do their best work and a feeling of community. It would be like, yeah, he’s in charge, but it was this wonderful group of artists and people sort of going crazy with whatever they were doing, whether it be the costumes or throwing buckets of blood. Everybody was having so much fun. He really commanded the space in a way where he still gave people the opportunity to do their best work, though he was definitely no shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination.
I think we also knew that we had to be on our best behavior when we were coming to set because, for starters, you’re the director’s daughter, and you do not want to be the child who’s acting up in any way. But also, we wanted to be able to hang out there as much as possible, not causing any kind of chaos and just observing it all.
Do you have a favorite film of his or a favorite experience being on one of his sets?
I would say my favorite experience on set was when Suzanna and I got to play my mom’s children in Robot Jox. [Pictured above, left to right: Suzanna, family friend Matteo Barzini and Jillian on the Jox set.] That was, again, when we lived in Italy; it was shot in Rome. It was one of those instances where they needed kids: the scene where Achilles [Gary Graham] goes to stay at his brother’s home with his family. We got fitted for costumes, and it was the full experience. That was really fun, being totally immersed in the moviemaking process.
My favorite movie of my father’s is actually not a horror film; it’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. He had originally directed that as a stage production with his theater company, The Organic Theater. It’s a Ray Bradbury story, and over the time that my dad started first with the play and then eventually developing the movie script, he and Ray became really good friends, and I would say that he viewed Ray as a mentor. He was a huge fan of his books, and what an incredible author. It was so wild; when they shot The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, I was actually reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in class, in like 10th grade, and then I would go to the set that evening and meet the author! It was just the coolest experience for me. My dad also brought in some actors who had been part of the original theater company, like Joe Mantegna, who reprised the role of Gomez.
That was a very full-circle moment for him, and for us. He had started making movies in Los Angeles, then his career took him all over the place—we went to Italy, we went to Australia, to Ireland, all of these places—and then finally, after all those years, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit was shot in Los Angeles. And I would say there’s an element that’s sort of a love letter to that city. It’s great storytelling, has a very character-driven plotline, and is very simple in nature. It’s a fairy tale, and I think part of my father’s approach to filmmaking and storytelling was very much rooted in fairy tales.
Any thoughts about Jeffrey Combs, and his part in Stuart’s work and life?
What a collaborative relationship! We love Jeffrey, and people will say my dad was an actor’s director because he was always good at discovering people and then giving them the space to do what they did best. And the thing with Jeffrey is, what range! Think about it: There he is as Herbert West, and then he’s playing Poe, and he does it absolutely flawlessly. He’s amazing, and they had a wonderful relationship that came from a place of great respect on both sides. It’s kind of sweet when I look back because they were both so young when they were making Re-Animator, and that friendship carried through so many projects together, and I love that eventually, it landed on the stage with Nevermore. That’s so cool; you rarely see an actor-director relationship transcend those spaces, and it says a lot about both of them. And I will add that Jeffrey wrote a tribute to my father for the book as a favor to me, and it’s lovely.
How about Barbara Crampton; any memories of her?
Actually, I was just talking with Barbara! I have great memories, and again, he worked with her often. You’ll see the same group of actors turning up frequently in his work, and it speaks a lot to how much he loved working with these people and valued their talent. Barbara fully played into that; I don’t think they ever had the opportunity to take it to the stage, but she has obviously done a lot in his movies. I believe she actually came to the opening night of Re-Animator: The Musical, which was just so cool, and we’re in talks and hoping to get her to make an appearance or two at some of the book events we’re trying to line up. She’s wonderful, and always such a great actress, and a true supporter of my father’s work.
TO BE CONTINUED