Stuart Gordon never misses an opportunity to deliver a jolt. When recalling his minor horrors, like “Castle Freak” and “Pit and the Pendulum,” I can’t help but think of the shocking set pieces, like the blinding car accident in the former and an improvised strangling by a henchman in the latter. His classic debut, “Re-Animator,” delivered the jolts fast and loud, along with steady laughs to make the film a frenzied masterpiece, fondly remembered and a tough act to follow. His recent adaptation of “Edmond,” a stage play as dour as they come, realizes more terror than even Mamet’s stage script would suggest. It is a tale of the mundane, which drives an everyman into an amoral downfall – and it now seems like Gordon’s whetting stone for “Stuck,” which gathers more horror than we’d ever thought could come from a banal setup.
The set-up: a young woman (Mena Suvari), under the influence and driving home late, hits a homeless man (Stephen Rea). Prior, he wanders the city in sorrow, having been stuck in Kafkaesque bureaucracy to find employment. As his life has moved from bad to worse, a living hell awaits. Through a freak accident in physics, the impact leaves him impaled in the windshield, as the girl flies home while almost face-to-face with her victim.
She’s young, likely of limited education, one who holds fast to an urban-hip lifestyle even though it collides with her job in health care. While such an accident would seriously freak out one like her if she could drive away from the problem, the fact that the body remains makes her all the more frazzled. With the man still caught in her windshield, she parks her car in her garage, carelessly wishing that the problem will solve itself. Gordon lays out a contract with his viewers: we must buy into this sketchy character to root for the man who’s trying to escape.
Gordon’s mood provides the means for us to buy in. The director consistently creates a dark tone – of muted colors, silences, and isolation – that suggests tragic realism more so than escapist horror. “Stuck” becomes an invigorating exercise as it injects into this tone plenty of horrific flourishes we hardly anticipate. And yes, at times it’s overt: heads are bashed with a frying pan and a hammer, a murder-in-defense comes with a pen lodged eye-to-brain, and a doggie even gets his (living) bone. That’s right: as with classic Gordon, our sides are frequently jabbed to let out a laugh.
Since much of the action takes place in said garage, as the man attempts to escape and the girl prevents it, the script realizes a premise that must be opened up in limited spatial means – the kind of property Hitchcock would have optioned before the trade papers would have caught word of it. Since the film was inspired by a real incident, “Stuck” has inspired moralistic misreadings. The Philadelphia City Paper’s Sam Adams writes that “There ought to be some traction to a dark comedy about self interest trumping accountability.” If “traction” means social relevance, I’d suggest that Mr. Adams ought to pay better attention. The critic ignores “Stuck’s” aim – to deceive, shock, and delight – and that the director uses the premise as the means, not as an end. I can’t help imagining Adams within the acrid aura of a private screening for critics; he should have caught the Philadelphia Film Festival’s public screening instead, where the film shot out gasps and laughs into the crowd like surges of high voltage. Here’s your traction.
If you like partaking in that kind of crowd, then look to the May 30th, 2008 release of a fresh and rewarding take on cinematic terror.