Pushing Boundaries And Looking Deeper: Barbara Crampton And Jeffrey Combs Remember Stuart Gordon

Two friends remember the man who helped define their careers.

By Phil Nobile Jr. · @philnobilejr · April 1, 2020, 12:09 PM CDT
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When it was announced late Tuesday night that director Stuart Gordon had passed away at the age of 72, the reaction on social media was something, in the year 2020, nearly unheard of: solidarity. There were no contrarian hot takes about Gordon’s filmography, no performatively dissenting opinions regarding the man. The horror community mourned together as one, as a family. Everyone from Rob Zombie to Guillermo del Toro to Don Mancini to Joe Begos posted heartfelt, emotional reactions online. Stuart Gordon was something we all had in common; in his passing, we are united in our sadness. If you knew his movies, you mourned the loss of Gordon’s talent and honored the legacy he left behind. If you knew the man, you mourned a collaborator, a mentor, a friend. 

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Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Stuart Gordon and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon. (photo courtesy Dominic Mancini)

Actors Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs are in the latter camp, and have been for more than half their lives. Their relationship with Gordon goes back to 1985’s Re-Animator, where the director cast them in roles that would both start and shape their respective careers. FANGORIA reached out to Crampton and Combs to share their thoughts about their colleague and friend. Both were understandably emotional. 

“I'm pretty shattered. It's a sad, sad day,” Combs said. “He was pivotal in my life. Of course every relationship has its complications, it's not all one color, but it was a lovely kaleidoscope with Stu. I loved him like a brother and I know that he just got a real joy out of being with me and working with me. I'm just forever grateful for him. I wouldn't have had the career that I have without him picking me out of obscurity like he did.” 

Crampton, ever looking for the good in things, witnessed the horror community coming together in their love for Gordon, and in that moment saw one last gift from her friend. “Our times right now are troubled and anxious. But I was happy that, for a short time, horror fans were able to pause, pay tribute and reflect on all the wonderful films and the legacy of what Stuart leaves behind. People were watching his films immediately, and it gave me comfort and warmth on the saddest of days that people were enjoying and reflecting and remembering him in such affirming ways.”

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Crampton and Combs began their relationship with Gordon on 1985’s Re-Animator, a loose HP Lovecraft adaptation made for under a million dollars by Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. The two performers found a kindred spirit in Gordon, as all three (as well as their co-star Bruce Abbott) had come from theater backgrounds. The novice director took a unique (for low-budget horror, at any rate) approach, according to Combs. “Right out of the gate, Stuart did something that I knew instinctively was absolutely correct, and I have to say is still to this day, woefully absent from films, and that is rehearsal. It’s the nature of the beast that nobody wants to pay for something that isn't on the film. ‘Why am I spending money on a week or two of rehearsal when it's not in the can? That's ridiculous. We've got a schedule to meet.’ And Stuart just said, ‘Well, would everybody just donate their time? Just to come over to my place where I'm staying and we'll work these things.'" 

Crampton recalls: “So of course we said, ‘Yeah.’ I knew we were in the hands of somebody great and wonderful, because we worked those scenes to death.” “It made all difference in the world because when we showed up on set, with a very short shooting schedule, we already had a lot of things figured out,” says Combs. “Maybe not the blocking and where the camera would be, but internally between us, we had ridden around the track a few times. It's an invaluable thing.”

“And we did it for three weeks,” Crampton adds. “Every day, five days a week. So we had 15 days of rehearsal. We could have put that on as a play at that point, because we knew those scenes in and out. So I knew that I was working with somebody really wonderful, even before we started filming.” Combs was also won over. “I knew that this was a unique man who understood the importance of that kind of prep, not just tech prep, the actors' prep. We hit the ground running, we were ready.” 

The performances, honed by that rehearsal period, is a big reason why Re-Animator works as well as it does, and it set a perhaps unreasonable expectation early in Crampton’s career: “I remember thinking back then, ‘Oh, this is amazing. This is what most people do when you're filmmaking.’ Because it was my first really big role. I thought, ‘Oh, this is how they do it.’ And I've never done that since.”

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Both actors are today equally grateful that Gordon continued to cast – but not typecast – them. 1986’s From Beyond found Combs playing a much more relatable scientist (at least until he degenerates into a bald, eyeball sucking lunatic, driven to madness and murder by exposure to another dimension). And Crampton’s character has one of the more memorable arcs of ‘80s horror, from psychiatrist to altered state leather enthusiast to heroine to raving madwoman. “I feel like he gave me the best role of my career in From Beyond, Crampton says. “At that time women weren't really being given those kinds of really big roles to be the lead heroine. My character, and the changes that she went through, it was this really big arc. He really gave me an amazing part at that time in my career.

“He really challenged you at every moment, and I feel like I did some of my best work with him,” Crampton continues. “Even though I feel like a lot of it was very operatic, him coming from the theater, there was a certain bigness and a fullness about the way he wanted you to do your part.” And that bigness extended to his presence on set. “There are some directors that just let you do your own thing, maybe they'll talk to you a little bit and give you a word here or there to steer you, but Stuart was right there with you in the scene. And you felt like he could play any part. He was there with you feeling it for every moment. And he really got me to go deeper into areas that I never had before, and he would always press me and push me to go even deeper.” 

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By the time the three got to 1995’s Castle Freak, their dynamic had deepened and matured, and Gordon’s shared history with the performers gave him an insight into their range to which most industry types would be blind. “Playing a parent in Castle Freak was certainly something that came more from my own life,” Combs relates. “I don’t think the industry at that time would’ve said, ‘Hey, let's cast Jeff Combs as the dad.’ No one would have given me that shot. ‘Aren't you that mad scientist guy? We'll call you when that comes along. But a father? No, I don't think so.’ Stuart always was opening doors and giving me opportunities like that.” 

Crampton agrees, noting that the relationship had at that point settled into something “like a family. We knew each other inside and out. And we knew what to expect from Stuart, and one of those things was ‘more is not enough.’ We always used to joke with him and say, ‘You want more. You want more emotion, you want more screaming, you want more blood, what more can we give you?’ And we would laugh, and he would laugh, and then still ask for more.” 

Crampton observes that the themes of their third film together were enriched by a decade of trust and collaboration. “Castle Freak was really about the dynamic of a family, and people who loved one another, but who were broken by tragedy; a broken family. So we really got to explore some mature themes with Stuart as time went on.”

Following 1996's Space Truckers and a recent re-teaming for “H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound,” an episode of the Tales From Beyond the Pale audio series, Crampton and Gordon maintained a close friendship. “I'm very friendly with some of the other directors I've worked with, but not like Stuart. Certainly not for as long a time or as deep a relationship. He knew things about me, and my family, and my upbringing, and my history. He was a very good friend to me at different times in my life, and somebody who I always looked forward to seeing.”

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Combs and Gordon reunited on the 2007 Masters of Horror episode, “The Black Cat.” The episode took an unconventional biographical turn, presenting not just the classic Edgar Allan Poe story, but the circumstances surrounding the author’s writing of it. “That was something where I planted a seed with him. I'd read a biography of Poe and I said, ‘Why hasn't anybody ever made a movie of his life?’ I remember Stuart taking that in and not saying much, and then my God, it was like months, maybe a year later I get an email and he says, ‘I'd like you to play Poe. Here is the script attached.’ I had no idea that I had planted that seed in him.” The resulting hour is one of the most nuanced, human renditions of Poe committed to film, and Combs remains grateful. “He opened that door for me to be able to do that, and it was a much grander challenge for me. The period piece, the pathos, and melancholy, and poetry, and tragedy of Poe, in a brilliant structure of a piece.” 

That collaboration eventually led the two back to an unexpected place: the stage, as Gordon directed Combs in a one-man show called Nevermore: An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe. Combs is one of the few actors who’s had the privilege of experiencing Gordon as both a film and stage director. “It was the only theater collaboration that we did, and it was a gift. He was almost a different man in that situation. He was so gentle and just so thoughtfully encouraging. It was so another color on his palette that I had never seen before.”

One thing providing solace to these friends of the director on the afternoon after his passing is the imprint he left on the next generation. No mere idol or hero, Gordon made every effort to nurture the filmmakers coming up after him. “He was a mentor for a lot of young directors for many years,” says Combs. “His door was always open to a young writer or a young director, and he was generous with his experience and thoughts.” Crampton adds, “younger filmmakers in the business like Joe Begos and Jackson Stewart have been posting things on social media about working for him as an assistant, and he really was an advisor to them as they were growing up in the business and honing their skills.” As Combs notes, “That's a testament to the man, his generosity and goodness. He knew that part of his legacy is passing the torch.”

Few of us have much say in what our legacies will be. To talk with those who loved him, it feels safe to say Stuart Gordon has done better than most in that department. But what won’t be chiseled on the tablets, printed in the books, or added to the Wikipedia pages when it comes to Gordon? We asked Crampton and Combs to leave us with what they most wanted people to know about their friend.

Combs: “I want people to know about his contrasts. His work could be really ferocious sometimes and quite shocking, but I think he was just purging some demons about life, and death, and the fear of it all. He lost his father when he was like 13, and I really think it was sort of a pivotal, traumatic moment for him. It made him examine what it's all about. 

“And he was a religious man. He would go to temple. I always thought, ‘Well, isn't it funny that here he is rocking and shocking, and at the same time he's deeply spiritual, and traditional, and contemplative about that, reverent about it.’ It gave him a kindness and a serenity in contrast to the public image.”

Crampton: “Stuart taught me early in my career to make big choices that we could finesse later. He wanted to get to the deepest part of both fear and love, loss, pain and hope. He wanted to extract excitement and intensity from his audience.

“Everything you see on screen is his voice, his ideas, his leanings channeled through his characters and the actors. He was a firm director and encouraged and often demanded in the gentlest of ways that we fill up the space on screen with the most of what we had to give. The fear, the anger, the distress, the longing: he was uncompromising in his search for the truth about human nature and explored it fervidly through his stories. When others would want to look away, he looked deeper.”

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Stuart Gordon. (Photo courtesy Dominic Mancini.)