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By Matthew Sorrento | August 29, 2006

While renown for their zany treatments of horror, the films of Stuart Gordon succeed with the help of strong character portrayal. In an early scene in “Re-Animator,” which secured the director’s place as a cult icon, gore flies when a cadaver is revived, and the mad creator Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) cackles at an innocent’s expense. But Dan Cain’s (Bruce Abbott) shock at the sight realizes tension, and elevates this scene from a splatter set piece. The menacing West turns into an immediate threat, and Gordon uses all the scene’s players to make the threat real. In the hands of this Reagan-age Dr. Frankenstein, Gordon’s corpses were no longer safely at rest.

“Re-Animator’s” narrative continues to make nifty use of character, as two authority figures – Dr. Hill (David Gale, the infamous beheaded head) and Dean Halsey – take on ironic characteristics of their previous selves. While dreaming of lechery when alive, Dr. Hill fulfills his perversion for the dean’s daughter when he becomes undead. The articulate Dean Halsey transforms into a zombie who disrobes his own daughter before finally coming to understand that he is participating in her rape. When Herbert West finally takes some moral responsibility for what he has created, he completes the foundation that makes this horror comedy into a masterpiece worthy of repeat viewing.

Gordon drew similar credibility to the players in his lesser-seen follow up, “From Beyond.” The gruesome design of a hidden dimension – unlocked by the stimulation of the pineal gland – leaves quite a taste after viewing, but the characters’ reactions to suspenseful situations make the film into a well-tuned gorefest. Gordon’s 1995 video release of the Lovecraft-inspired “Castle Freak” used the characters’ fear and desire to transcend the project’s apparent lack of resources.

Aside from brief turns in different genres – stop animation in “Robot Jox,” dystopia in “Fortress,” and magical realism in the Ray Bradbury-scripted “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” – Gordon has continued his affair with Lovecraftian horror that began with “Re-Animator.” He even chose to adapt the famed horror writer for “Dreams in the Witch-House,” his first entry in the Showtime series “Masters of Horror.” But Gordon’s recent feature-length project, Edmond, has allowed him to turn away from fantasy. His choice seems fitting, since he previously experimented with realistic horror in his 2003 feature, “King of the Ants,” a bizarre tale that transforms a contract killer into a torture victim. In “Edmond,” based upon the play by David Mamet, Gordon has created his strongest character yet, a man whose search for meaning turns violent.

“I’ve been getting into the banality of evil,” Gordon said, in a manner both genial and contemplative, during a recent phone interview; “when terrible things are done by people who are more worried about their daily business.” Indeed, Edmond Burke begins his story in banality, when he chooses to end his marriage and depart into the New York night. He wants honesty, but looks for it among sex workers trained in getting the better of their clients.

Edmond’s anger at these failed attempts for sex, along with his other violent street encounters, brings out an especially disturbing “banal evil.” And the director knew right away who should play the part. “I could hear [William H.] Macy doing all the lines as I read them,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing them. It was the shortest conversation I’ve ever had with him when I asked him about doing it. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting all my life to play this part.’”

Macy’s knack for rage and vulnerability made him a clear choice to humanize this character. A Mamet veteran, Macy noted to Gordon that the role was the toughest of his career. And that’s a lot coming from the man who realized Jerry Lundegaard in the Coen brothers’ “Fargo.” “He’s the Fred Astaire of actors,” Gordon said. “He makes it all look so easy.”

But the project wasn’t always so. Gordon had discussed the film with Mamet for twelve years before it came to fruition. When Gordon, who directed the original stage production of Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” in 1974, first saw “Edmond’s” premiere stage run in Chicago, he never forgot it. “It’s one of those things that burns itself in your mind.”

Though interest among screen talent was strong when things finally came together, the script “scared the hell out of every studio in town,” Gordon said. He notes that shooting was the easiest part of the project – quite an ironic description for a Mamet adaptation. But getting to the production was the most difficult. “When we started shooting, I don’t think we had all of the money at that point. It was possible after the first couple of days of shooting that the whole thing could go down the tubes.” Such a situation resulted, in part, from numerous investors backing the film, which left the producers’ credit list nearly as long as the cast.

While the management had quite a job on its hands, Gordon attests that the shooting hardly suffered for it. “It’s nice to know you have a great script, and that’s how I felt about David’s – what a gift it was.” Though Mamet’s impressive output makes him seem intimidating, he adapted to necessity. “His contract stated that we could not change one word without his OK.” Gordon said. “I understood that, because we had meetings with studios who said that if we could make the prisoner [Bokeem Woodbine] who confronts Edmond near the end white, then they would be more interested in doing the movie. I told them, ‘I don’t think you’re getting this.’ David wanted to make sure that his script wouldn’t get softened, or censored. But when I showed him the first cut, he gave me a script with all these lines cut from it. Some of them I agreed with, but some I didn’t want to lose. He was much more open to [revising the script] after the movie had been shot.”

It helped that Gordon had a history with the Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright, as a director of his works but also his story collaborator. “‘Sexual Perversity’ was actually two [Mamet] plays that we put together,” Gordon recalls. “The original ‘Perversity’ was a series of unrelated blackout sketches – a scene between a couple of waitresses, then a couple of cops, with different people that had no real connection to each other. He had written another play called ‘Danny Shapiro and his Search for the Mystery Princess,’ about this guy and girl having a relationship. I suggested we put the two together, and give the guy and girl [from ‘Shapiro’] a friend, who could give them all this bad advice.”

Mamet’s approach during rehearsals also contradicts what legend would have you believe. “Mamet told the actors, ‘look these are just words – you can do whatever you want with them,” Gordon recalls from rehearsal for the original “Sexual Perversity” production. “The same goes for directors with Mamet. We rehearsed [‘Edmond’] for a month. And I told the actors, ‘don’t be so careful.’ Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.”

Gordon’s advice calmed quite a range of performers. He immediately filled roles with old collaborators, including Joe Mantegna (a performer from Gordon’s “Organic Theater” in Chicago and a Mamet veteran), Jeffrey Combs, Debi Mazar, and George Wendt. However, there were still many more folks for Edmond to encounter on his journey, roles that presented a variety of risks. Gordon found himself relying on intuition, especially when casting the pivotal role of Woodbine’s prisoner: “After you see so many people, then the one guy comes in and all of a sudden, it’s like you’re hearing [the part read] for the first time.”

Having to fill a cast of professional girls for Edmond to encounter, Gordon found himself conflicted over his options. Mena Suvari, who appeared in the scene in “American Beauty” that tributes “Re-Animator’s” famous “head giving head” scene, approached him for a role. “It was exciting, because I really like her work a lot. But at first I thought, my god, she’s too beautiful to be a w***e. But then I got into an idea with all these gorgeous women, Bai Ling and Denise Richards – they are all unattainable. The more beautiful they are, the more tension there is. [Edmond] wants them so badly, but he can’t have any of them. It’s not realistic, but it works for the story.”

Gordon credits Macy for fostering chemistry among the cast. “[He] created an atmosphere on the set that was so relaxed,” Gordon said. “People were having fun being there with him[…] He puts people at ease, that’s one of the great things about him.” And his example was just as inspirational. “Many times when we discussed the character, the actors asked, ‘Is Edmond crazy? Angry? What is going on here?’ But he was creating a character that you could really care about. In a way, I think [Edmond] wants what everybody wants. He wants honesty, he wants people to be straight with him, to cut the bullshit out of his life.”

What he wants, however, is far from what he gets. Through Edmond, Mamet created an exhaustingly tragic figure. “He’s sort of like [the playwright’s] Hamlet – the biggest role he has ever written for an actor,” Gordon noted. “Before this, [Mamet] did ‘American Buffalo,’” in which Macy originated a role in the American premiere, “which all takes place in a pawn shop. He usually did work about a mentor and a kid, a student, and Edmond sort of broke him out of that. This whole thing about it being an odyssey, and following this guy on a journey – it’s completely different than anything he’s done before. He’s never done anything like that ever since, even. ”

Gordon found Mamet’s adaptation of his episodic play especially cinematic, even though it was one of the first screenplays he ever wrote. “He put in a lot of stuff about camera directions, which is something directors hate to see in a script. Then I realized that he was describing how to cut from scene to scene. It was very dreamlike. For example, there’s an early scene when he’s looking at the tarot cards, and then he looks back down and there’s a dinner plate. And suddenly he’s at home at his dining room table. With that, I started really getting a sense of what [Mamet] was after. It opened things up, and I started to do even more of it than was indicated in the script.”

The playwright also became quite a practical resource for Gordon. “It said in the script that Edmond punches a guy with a knife. I said [to Mamet], ‘How do you punch someone with a knife?’ Well, David Mamet collects knives – he’s an expert,” which is quite interesting for a playwright who named his essay on drama Three Uses of the Knife. Gordon then found a knife with steel knuckles built in its handle, which Mamet identified as a “trench knife” from World War I, and agreed it was perfect. When Edmond purchases this curio from a pawnshop, the knife takes on a presence of its own, and promises unique mayhem.

Gordon captures this mayhem in a macabre fashion. When the knife is used to kill, he was none too restrained when he inserted a blood-drowning throat gurgling to death voiced over a now murderous Edmond. This moment pushes the film deep into the surreal, in which an everyman has trapped himself.

The director’s treatment of “Edmond” has laid a path toward his next project. “Stuck” will feature a woman who, after hitting a man with her car, brings him back to her garage to die. Not only is it based on a true story, but the real-life woman was a caregiver at a senior citizen home. “When I was reading about it, I thought to myself, ‘What would make someone like her do a thing like this?’” Gordon said. And soon he found himself musing on the depths of evil that can rise from the everyday. This two-character drama – a more restrained retelling of Stephen King’s Misery – will allow the director to experiment in a new gothic mode and return to a contained, dramatic situation, natural for an experienced stage director.

While the restored cut of “From Beyond” is due out soon on DVD, Gordon will return to Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series for their second season when he begins filming Poe’s “The Black Cat” this fall. This one-hour film, which is the director’s follow-up to his “Dreams in the Witch-House” for the series, will insert Poe himself into his trademark story. And, quite fittingly, Jeffrey Combs will play Poe.

Indeed, Mr. Combs will be quite useful to the director in the future. Also on the horizon is “House of Re-Animator,” the forth film in the series and the first sequel which Gordon will direct. While Combs returns as Herbert West, there will be promising newcomers to the series. William H. Macy will play the commander in chief, Gordon said. And he hopes his old friend George Wendt will sign on to ham it up as Dick Cheney. Gordon also wants Barbara Crampton to play the first lady, to complete the “Re-Animator” reunion. He expressed interest in how re-animation could work as a metaphor for the current administration. “What’s amazing is that they are going over-the-top. And the reality is so insane that you have to go far to top it.”

And Gordon noted, you can never go too over-the-top with “Re-Animator.”

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