From the Archives: Cult Horror Director Stuart Gordon Reflects on His MPAA Battles

Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator. Photo courtesy Empire Pictures.

Stuart Gordon, director of the 1980s horror cult classics Re-Animator and From Beyond, has died at the age of 72. Founder of the Organic Theater Company with his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, he was also the co-creator of the family favorite Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In tribute, here are excerpts from Ed Kelleher’s profile of Gordon in the October 1986 edition of Film Journal International.

“I think it’s a shame that an X-rated movie now automatically means porno. What’s needed is to get back to the original concept of X—adults only—or else have a new rating, something between an R and an X.”

So says director Stuart Gordon, who, although he has only made two features to date, is already a veteran of the MPAA rating skirmishes. Gordon’s debut film, the vivid shocker Re-Animator, was rejected for an R classification and subsequently released by Empire Pictures unrated. It went on to become a surprise critical and box office success. Yet, in America, hampered by its unrated status, it had to struggle for survival. “There were entire states where it couldn’t play,” notes Gordon with a mixture of resignation and disbelief. 

His new picture, From Beyond, a graphic horror film based like its predecessor on an H.P. Lovecraft story, will reach theaters with an R designation after a protracted give-and-take battle between the filmmaker and the MPAA, which had originally advised Gordon the film was so disquieting he could never hope for anything other than an X. Given the fact that Gordon wound up cutting less than 30 seconds of film (“It was like a siege—we were literally fighting for frames”), his tug of war with the Association is being hailed in some quarters as a victory for artistic expression or, at the very least, for skillful, persistent negotiating.

“I don’t look at it as being victorious,” Gordon confesses. “I look at it as the movie not being destroyed. When we initially showed them From Beyond, they couldn’t single out any sequence that needed to be cut or changed to get an R. They said it was the whole movie, the tone and subject matter—there was just no way. My argument with them was: Well, we’re trying to make a horror film. The purpose of this film is to be scary and to give nightmares. The people who plunk down their five bucks to see it are going to feel they’re being ripped off if they’re not scared. Are you saying that if we are successful in what we are attempting to do, then we automatically can’t get an R rating? Then our approach was rather than cut entire sequences, which I thought would really be damaging to the film, to kind of shorten particular shots where I felt we may be lingering on things too long. What was interesting about that was when we would trim the movie, we would get messages back from them that it was worse than it had been before. It started teaching me some stuff about horror movies. The film became stronger because you saw enough to know what was going on and to get a horrifying image, but it was gone before you had a chance to really study it. Originally, we were showing everything, and now I think we’re leaving it to the imagination and the audience can imagine much worse than anything we showed them. So I’m pleased with the version that we ended up with.”

Gordon’s experiences with the MPAA have not been without their humorous aspects too. Recalling that Re-Animator, most of which takes place in a morgue, ran afoul of the ratings board due to an excessive amount of bloodletting, particularly in decapitation scenes, the director “tried to be smarter” in formulating the Grand Guignol vision of From Beyond.

“In Re-Animator,” recalls Gordon with a wry smile, “we used something like 35 gallons of blood. In From Beyond, it was closer to three or four gallons. But we ended up using 160 gallons of slime. Our thinking was that slime would be acceptable, whereas the blood wasn’t. And since the violence in this movie all takes place in the beyond, we thought we could create whatever rules of physiological reality we wanted. But the MPAA didn’t agree with that, as things turned out. In a way, this approach ended up backfiring on us, because people are used to seeing people being shot and stabbed and so forth, but not the sort of things they see in From Beyond, where the violence is fantastical and therefore more upsetting.”

Though Gordon can joke about the ratio of slime to blood in his pictures, he is outspoken about what he feels is an MPAA double standard when it comes to rating films by independent studios. “They will bend over backwards for a big studio,” he charges. “They will create an entirely new rating for Steven Spielberg, for example, PG-13. A smaller company doesn’t have the clout that some of the big guys have. I have to say, though, that the MPAA does serve a good function, which is let people know what to expect when they go to a movie—so that they don’t walk in with their little kids to something that isn’t suitable for them. But if a filmmaker wants to get an idea what the guidelines are, there are none. The thing about the MPAA is that there are no standards, really. It’s a completely subjective situation. And this is a problem that is kind of confusing.”

Gordon has a project in development at Disney called The Teenie Weenies [later to be known as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids]. “It’s about a group of little kids who get shrunk to a quarter of an inch in size and then have to make it across their backyard to get home. The idea is adventure in your own backyard. I’m looking forward to that.”

For now, there is From Beyond, and Gordon concedes he has felt a certain pressure in having to top Re-Animator. “There’s a game the critics like to play, which is to build something up and then tear it down. I’ve been in theater long enough to know the only thing that’s really important is the audience. You’ve got to please them, and ultimately if you do, then what the critics say doesn’t matter. I don’t mean to put down the critics. I was grateful and happy that they gave Re-Animator such good reviews. But the movie was not made for them—it was made for the audiences, for the fans.”

Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator. Photo courtesy Empire Pictures.