Stuart Gordon shot his first film, 1985’s much beloved gorefest Re-Animator, in Los Angeles but then decamped to Italy to shoot Dolls, his second movie and second terror tale. While there, Gordon was also taken down a peg, or 12, by a local craftsman. “They didn’t shoot sound in Italy, they weren’t used to that,” says Gordon, whose other directing credits include From Beyond, Castle Freak, and 2005’s William H. Macy-starring Edmond. “I remember there was one day when I was shooting something and there was a carpenter hammering in the background, working on another one of our sets—hammering and sawing. I said, ‘Please stop that.’ And he said, ‘Senor Fellini always lets me work when they’re shooting.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not Fellini.’ And he said, ‘That’s for sure!”
Written by Ed Naha (Troll, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) Dolls is a film about killer, yes, dolls, starring the recently departed Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine, Ian Patrick Williams, Guy Rolfe, Hilary Mason, and Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, as a particularly unpleasant example of that movie genus evilis stepmotheris. Dolls is also the latest movie to be given the Blu-ray treatment by horror imprint Scream Factory, which today released a bonus features-packed Collector’s Edition of the film.
Below, Gordon talks more about Dolls, the madness of Klaus Kinski, and why it pays to be his intern.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Dolls has such an interesting flavor — there are lot of scenes which could be in a children’s film and then there are moments of real nastiness.
STUART GORDON: I had just read this book called The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim, which was about how fairy tales should be scary. I decided to put it to the test and see if we could really make a scary fairy tale. It was Hansel and Gretel which was really used as the basis for this movie.
And I believe you yourself had had a strange experience with dolls in a museum in Wisconsin.
Yeah, that’s right. I got locked in, on the fourth floor of the Historical Society that had this Victorian doll collection. It was really freaky. They turned out all the lights and I was suddenly in this room with all of these dolls and I swear I saw some of them moving. [Laughs] That’s why I decided these dolls had to be Victorian-style dolls. Some of them in the museum were dolls that had been in fires, and their faces were all kind of cracked and burned, and I thought, “Wow this is pretty weird.” So we incorporated all of that into the movie.
You shot Dolls in a studio complex which had previously been the domain of legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis. What was that like?
They call it Dinocitta. It’s a huge studio. It was the size of Universal. Big soundstages. But it had gone completely to ruin. The sidewalks had cracks with big weeds growing through them and they had torn out all of the heating systems. We were shooting in November and December and you could see the actors breath fogging in the air sometimes, it was so cold. But it was a great experience. I think there were three or four movies shooting simultaneously. (Producer) Charlie Band had bought the studio and they were shooting Crawlpsace with Klaus Kinski—that was happening simultaneously—and they had just finished shooting Troll. So it had become a movie factory again. It was very exciting.
Did you bump into Kinski? I know the director of Crawlspace later made a terrific short film called Please Kill Mr. Kinski, in which he recalled his problems working with the actor on the film.
He was so out of control. The director was David Schmoeller, who is a friend of mine, and Schmoeller was directing Kinski in his death scene in the movie and Kinski said, “Do you know how to die? Maybe I should kill you and then you would know what it was like to die!” And at that point Kinski grabbed him around the throat and started strangling him. He was pretty intense. Everybody was terrified of him, including all of the other actors. But in a sense it kind of added something to the movie. When you look at Crawlspace, the fear just comes right of of the celluloid. It’s amazing.
Talking about people who are terrifying on camera, I’d like to discuss your wife’s performance in Dolls.
[Laughs] She’s pretty terrifying in real life, too.
She plays this wonderfully awful stepmother. What did she think when you gave her the script?
Oh, she loved that role. But, you know, in horror films, it’s all about the death scenes, and she has the greatest death scene in the whole film. So I think she was pretty happy with that. One of the things about Dolls that was fun was we had puppeteers on the set, puppeteering those dolls. In the scene where my wife is attacked, the dolls are actually crawling all over her. So it was not something that she had to pretend, that would be added later in post. It was all real. There was one guy, I used to think of him like Geppetto, who created these mechanical dolls which could actually walk and they were just fantastic. He was this little old man and he was just brilliant, creating these effects. Very very old school.
Could you talk about Guy Rolfe a little?
I loved Guy Rolfe. I had seen him in a movie called Mr. Sardonicus, when I was a teenager. It was a William Castle movie, where they had said that the audience could decide whether Mr. Sardonicus could live or die at the end of the film. You were given a card with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on it, so you could vote. I thought, how great to have two endings to the movie! Then at the very last reel, Castle comes out on screen and starts counting. He says, “Hold up you cards!” So, it’s totally a sham. So I said to Guy Rolfe, “Did you ever actually shoot a second ending to that movie?” And he looked at me like I was the biggest idiot ever born. [Laughs]
Hilary Mason played his wife. What was she like?
She was great, too. I had seen her in Don’t Look Now. She played the medium in that movie and she was so creepy and great. Being able to work with her was just a treat and the two of them together were, I thought, absolutely wonderful. I ended up using Hilary in another film, Robot Jox. And I wished I could have worked with Guy again, but Charlie Band ended up hiring him to play the puppetmaster in his Puppet Master series.
What was your experience like of working with Charlie Band?
Well, Charlie, he’s so enthusiastic, you can’t say “No” to him. Oftentimes, his movies only involve a title and a poster. There’s no script. With Dolls, of course, Ed Naha had written this brilliant script. But on Castle Freak, I looked at this poster and I said, “What’s this movie about?” And he said, “Well, there’s a castle and there’s a freak.” [Laughs] He said, “As long as you incorporate those two elements, you can pretty much do whatever you want.”
I had the great pleasure of seeing your production of Re-Animator The Musical when it played in New York a couple of years back. Is it still running in L.A.?
It’s running here in LA again and we’re going to be taking it to Las Vegas in January. I’m looking forward to it. We have three new actors in it, who are wonderful, who are playing the lovers and also a new Dean Halsey. I’m very pleased that audiences like it. The thing to me that is most interesting is that, I would say 80 percent of them have never seen the movie. I can tell because they’re gasping at some of the plot twists. The fact that Re-Animator is reaching a whole new audiences is wonderful.
Yeah. He was terrific in it. My former intern directed that: Joe Begos. I read many drafts of that before he ended up making it. He’s very talented and he’s about to start his second film.
So the lesson here is, Go to work for Stuart Gordon for no money?
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s a good lesson!