Another entry from the Obscure Horror Auteurs file, this time catching up with a couple of Stuart Gordon films I had not seen before. Gordon is clearly a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and is best known for making movies (loosely) based on his work, most notably Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak (his episode of Masters of Horror is also a Lovecraft adaptation, and it’s one of the better episodes of that series). He’s become a fan favorite of the horror dork crowd, but hasn’t really broken out into true mainstream success. He has an interesting ability to balance horror, humor, and just plain weirdness in a sly way that often gets overlooked in favor of bigger names in the genre. So let’s dive into a couple of Stuart Gordon flicks:
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6.5 – Stuart Gordon
- Halloween Hugs (short)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Clown Without Pity (Disney+)
- Puppet Master (trailer)
Dolls – A motley crew of wayward travelers become the guests of a pair of doll-collecting senior citizens in their old, dark mansion. At night, the dolls come out to play. Hijinks ensue.
This is Stuart Gordon’s take on the Old Dark House trope combined with producer Charles Band’s obsession with killer dolls/toys/puppets (he’s perhaps most famous for producing the long running Puppet Master series). A VHS staple with memorable artwork that grabbed your attention in the video store horror aisle, it plays out almost like the horror version of Toy Story (before that movie even existed).
Tonally, it reminds me a little of Gremlins. There’s a clear vein of good natured humor throughout, but it also has a nasty streak and Gordon doesn’t skimp on the unsettling visuals and even some gore (even if it doesn’t quite ramp it up to absurd levels, it’s well established and effective). Part of this may just be the throughline involving a little girl and her unlikely friendship with a stranger who believes in the murderous dolls (most adults don’t, you see). That man is played by veteran character actor Stephen Lee (you may not recognize the name, but you will probably recognize him), and he puts on a lovable turn as a bumbling buffoon along for the ride. I don’t know that the themes of the story about keeping in touch with your inner child are entirely consistent or anything, but the two elderly doll-collectors are delightfully creepy and it all works out in the end.
Look, fine cinema… this is not. But it’s a whole boatload of fun, with surprisingly effective practical effects for the dolls (and there are a lot of dolls, dolls galore), and a svelt 77 minute runtime. What more do you want? ***
Dagon – A storm off the coast of Spain causes a boat accident. Paul and his girlfriend Barbara head ashore to the local fishing village to find help, but all is not what it seems, and they’re soon chased by a mysterious cult of fish-people.
This is a (loose, updated) mashup of two H.P. Lovecraft stories, Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. It’s all a bit silly, but played entirely straight. Once again, we’re treated to some surprisingly effective practical makeup for the fish-people, though there are a few far less effective CGI shots (made in 2001 on an obvious shoe-string budget and used sparingly, I think we can forgive that.) While the story starts and ends well enough, there’s a long interior portion of the film that consists of our hero being chased around town in circles. Some of this is fine, but it’s quite repetitive and wears out its welcome quickly, and by the time things pick up towards the end of the film, I wasn’t quite able to recover.
The acting and performances are clearly subpar as well. For example, the lead is played by Ezra Godden, who looks an awful lot like Jeffrey Combs (a longtime Gordon collaborator – I guess he has a type), but can’t quite sell the story (the way I presume Combs could). Much of the townfolk are simply assembled as a shambling mob, which is fine, but those who do have lines all feel a little… off. And I guess, as fish-people, they should feel a little otherworldly, but it doesn’t quite work as well as it should.
There’s lots of great atmosphere, some gnarly gore, and lots of icky aquatic imagery on display here, but I can’t help but feel that this should work better than it does. It’s not a blight on Gordon’s filmography or anything, but it’s clearly not his best work. **1/2
We’re in the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween. Only the traditional Speed Round remains, though a small programming note: due to Halloween falling on a Tuesday, I may save the Speed Round for the big day itself (rather than the traditional Sunday publication).