Lovecraft in the 80s: How Stuart Gordon sexed-up HP Lovecraft

Grimmfest and Gothic Manchester host a HP Lovecraft double bill, featuring Re-Animator and From Beyond, this October. We take a look at how director Stuart Gordon brought a more salacious vibe to the sci-fi writer's work with his 80s film adaptations

Feature by Ben Nicholson | 09 Oct 2015

“I have seen beyond the bounds of infinity and drawn down daemons from the stars...” These may be words penned by HP Lovecraft in his short story From Beyond, but they could easily be attributed to Stuart Gordon, the director best known for bringing the horror author's work to the big screen. Where Lovecraft regularly reached beyond the perceived reality of his characters, so Gordon reached beyond Lovecraft’s words to create adaptations at once entirely fitting and diabolically, gleefully risqué and irreverent. The most famous of these are 1985’s gloriously tasteless Re-Animator – which holds a cult position all of its own – and the following year’s (arguably superior) adaptation of From Beyond, which were followed by several other versions of Lovecraft tales.

Re-Animator, based on the short story Herbert West – Reanimator, contains easily the most infamous scene in the cinematic portrayals of Lovecraft: a BBFC-curtailed sequence in which a severed head, now infused with life anew, attempts to perform an act of cunnilingus on a nubile young woman. It’s recently been restored to the film in full, and it perfectly encapsulates the gruesome and racy hybrid of the original source material with saleable 80s titillation and Gordon’s mischievous provocation that characterise these films. Lovecraft himself was writing during the interwar period and was actually rather averse to depictions of sexuality, among many other things.

Re-Animator trailer

Lovecraft's ugly attitude towards cultures different from his own – which still puts people off his writing today – often manifested in the terrifying fear of the 'other' and particularly of interbreeding between races. While one of Gordon’s later Lovecraft films (2001’s Dragon) features a plot that far more clearly foregrounds these fears, neither of the original stories contain sex acts or particular arousal. Yet Gordon imbues both stories with deep, underlying sexual drivers and unsettling and sometimes shocking deviances.

Of course, sex sells. That’s undoubtedly part of the reason that opportunities aplenty are taken to strip Barbara Crampton, who is the female lead in both films, down to as little clothing as possible. Whether she’s strapped to a gurney naked with a disembodied head between her legs in Re-Animator, or clad in leather fetish gear straddling a prone protagonist in From Beyond, she’s intended to salaciously engage the attention of the audience members while at the same time that desire is twisted, via this grubby artistic mirror, into the despicable longings of the monstrous entities at the film's centre.

From Beyond tariler

Sex always plays an oddly bifurcated role in the horror genre – a major selling point for a film, and a punishable sin within its narrative – and Gordon toys with this notion through his lusty antagonists’ intent on Crampton’s body. In From Beyond, Dr. McMichaels (Crampton) endures the advances of what used to be Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel), whose experiments with a machine known only as The Resonator have seen him transformed into an indescribable beast from another dimension. Affecting the part of the brain that inhibits sexual desire, the machine turns anyone near into a raging sack of frustrated hormones, but most of all the mutated doctor whose hunger for knowledge is both metaphysical and carnal.

It’s a similar story in Re-Animator when the eponymous student, Herbert West (played by Jeffrey Combs, who also stars in From Beyond) decapitates Dr Hill (David Gale) only for his lascivious designs on Crampton’s Megan to exponentially increase after his re-awakening. In both instances, Gordon astutely aligns the insatiable academic appetites of the original stories with sexual ones to chime with his splatter-fuelled and hilarious contemporary takes on the source material. It’s an inspired and ironic warping of Lovecraft’s own reality, which the writer would never have condoned, but might have grudgingly had to admire.

Lovecraft in the 80s – A Double Bill, takes place 24 Oct, 6pm-10pm at MMU Geoffrey Manton Building as part of the Gothic Manchester Festival