Pure Stuart Gordon: Thinkin’ ’bout Fortress (1992)

Matty contemplates the future shocker’s place within its director’s canon. 

Stuart Gordon is forever destined to have his name separated by Re-Animator (1985). And that isn’t  bad by any means; Re-Animator is an unknockable horror classic. However, as with many auteur directors who more casual and mainstream audiences associate with a single recognised masterpiece, Gordon’s other work tends to be downplayed or brushed aside, even when it’s as good and — whisper it — more artistically interesting than his better known calling card. Obviously, the helmer’s got cult chops. Gordon’s back-to-back Re-Animator follow-ups, From Beyond (1986) and Dolls (1987), are deserved next-rung favourites among genre connoisseurs, and the excellent Castle Freak’s (1995) reputation seems to increase year to year — a trend that’ll no doubt continue when the film’s ‘rediscovered’ via Fangoria’s upcoming remake. Alas, there’s still a lot of great Gordon left out in the cold, and the awesome FORTRESS takes the top spot.

But here’s the funny thing: Fortress isn’t disregarded or forgotten. It’s actually quite popular in action circles. It was moderately well reviewed at the time of its original release and, although it didn’t exactly set the US box office on fire, Fortress did decent business in Australia (where it was shot) and Europe, clawing in over three times its $12million budget before becoming a perennial in video stores the world over thanks to the drawing power of its star, VHS era poster boy Christopher Lambert. And therein lies the problem: Fortress is considered such an omnipresent piece of early ‘90s fantastique, and such a commercially-driven swing by its director, mining the same territory as other action-laced sci-fi flicks of the period like Universal Soldier (1990) and Total Recall (1990), that its status as a pure Stuart Gordon picture is frequently ignored. It’s insane; in themes, tone, and style Fortress is an essential Gordon movie. 

Initially launched as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gordon was hired to direct Fortress at the insistence of the Austrian oak who was impressed by the zeal of Re-Animator, which he’d watched as it briefly featured his pal and body double, Peter Kent, as a zombie. Shepherded by Arnie’s Predator (1987) producer, John Davis, Fortress proceeded to kick around in development for a couple of years, the greenlight coming just as Gordon was gearing up to lens Body Snatchers (1993) — a project that was ultimately brought to life by Abel Ferrara. Of course, by that point, Arnie had backed out. His role, that of a man trapped in a hellish, futuristic penal colony buried thirty storeys below the ground, was then recast with Lambert, whose everyman quality appealed to Gordon’s sensibilities — though whether the character of a decorated ex-army officer can really be described as ‘everyman’ is another matter. Nevertheless, it’s this that stands as Fortress’ first overtly Gordon flourish. Average Joe’s are a staple of his output, from Dan Cain in Re-Animator and the proletariat milieu of Robot Jox (1989); to Antonio, John Reilly, John Canyon, and Sean Crawley in The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), Castle Freak, Space Truckers (1997), and King of the Ants (2003). Ordinary guys thrust into extraordinary situations, Lambert’s John Brennick fits the mould, armed forces experience notwithstanding. He’s even propelled by a similar sense of rebellion; an impish, ‘I ain’t taking this shit’ distaste that likely reflects Gordon’s own anti-establishment bent. Gordon did, after all, hone his craft amidst the counterculture theatre scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, his productions pushing boundaries and, in the case of his somewhat legendary political re-telling of Peter Pan anyway, sometimes breaking laws.

In Fortress, Brennick is railing against a dystopian 2017 (!) where the US government has limited families to a single child per female, bereavements included. Brennick and his wife, Karen (Loryn Locklin), have been imprisoned inside the eponymous big house for daring to conceive again after the death of their state-sanctioned firstborn; a provocative, Huxleyan premise that Gordon uses to probe another of his go-to ideas, loss. Loss is a recurring theme in Gordon’s oeuvre. Jokingly tangoing with death for the bulk of its run time, the final moments of Re-Animator plummet into total despair, as the affable Cain refuses to accept the death of his beloved girlfriend and promptly resurrects her with Herbert West’s iconic, neon green reagent. She lets loose a bloodcurdling scream and the credits roll. The loss of a mentally ill parent inspires Dr. McMichaels in From Beyond to enter psychiatry, and the entire plot of Castle Freak is built around the Reilly family’s perpetual state of mourning over their young son’s tragic passing. It’s a notion that also informs Daughter of Darkness (1991), Space Truckers, and Dagon (2001) to varying degrees. 

The embodiment of Fortress’ despotic rule is an all-seeing security system, Zed-10 (a HAL-ish bit of tech chillily voiced by Gordon’s better half/good luck charm, Carolyn Purdy Gordon), and the slammer’s creepy warden, Poe (RoboCop (1987) baddie Kurtwood Smith). Cybernetically enhanced by the privately owned jail’s Weyland-Yutani-esque money men, the Men-Tel Corporation, Poe is a typical Gordon antagonist. He’s the authority figure Gordon’s good guys (kind of: in Fortress, it’s worth remembering they’re all technically felons) square up against. He’s Dr. Hill in Re-Animator. Dr. Bloch in From Beyond. The law-abiding — but still ruthlessly brutal — flipside to Daniel Baldwin’s shady businessman in King of the Ants. Poe’s personal mission is to break Brennick, forcing him into compliance. It’s the same motivation that drives Hill, Bloch, and Baldwin, perhaps most obviously the latter: his terrifying answer to someone refusing to yield to him is to ritualistically twat their head with a golf club.

What’s worse is that Poe exhibits the signature trait of Gordon’s skeeviest villains: an obsession with a female protagonist, in this case Karen. Poe’s fixation calls to mind Hill’s infatuation with Megan in Re-Animator, and the lust of From Beyond’s transdimensional pervert, Pretorius; and prefigures Charles Dance’s romp-wanting pirate in Space Truckers, and William H. Macy’s titular, shag-seeking schmoe in Gordon’s Mamet-scripted black comedy, Edmond (2005). All are so grotesquely vile, twisted, and deformed that their gag-inducing predilections could never be satisfied consensually. And despite Poe’s desire for simple companionship being positively genteel compared to the rest of Gordon’s rapists-in-waiting rogues gallery, his persistence is certainly cut from the same cloth as Lance Henriksen’s Torquemada in The Pit and the Pendulum. The diabolical overlord of the Spanish inquisition, Torquemada becomes so enamoured with the beauty of a peasant girl that he locks her and, later, her husband inside his castle. Poe — whose very name evokes the author of Pit’s source text — was clearly taking notes.

A filmmaker of tremendous vitality, tonally Fortress rattles along with Gordon’s patented chutzpah. His films move, and what Fortress lacks in completely solid inner logic (Zed-10, for instance, isn’t quite the always-watching nightmare she’s painted as, with several plot points dependent on her cameras looking the other way), it makes up for in Gordon’s ongoing willingness to grab us by the scruff of the neck and refuse to let go. He’s a director who loves to immerse, and on top of being so pacey — so rhythmically in tune with when and how to unleash each narrative twist — Fortress underlines how brilliant Gordon is at building detailed and believable cinematic universes. Consider the blissful fairytale gothic of Dolls, where spookiness and whimsy are part of everyday life; or Fortress’ future-shock precursor Robot Jox, which presents a planet where international disputes are a sport resolved by giant, mechanical battle-borgs as wearingly routine. Both were close to sublimity, but — as redundant a criticism it is to those of us who give not a toss about how much a movie cost — lacked the dollar to do Gordon’s ambition justice. In Fortress, Gordon finally has the wedge to do things properly, and the world of Men-Tel is superbly realised. Images and casually dropped expository dialogue build a tyrannically policed alternate reality that’s frighteningly normalised. It’s no wonder that Gordon’s subsequent films — chiefly Space Truckers, Dagon, and Edmond — are easier to buy into; Gordon knows how to anchor his stories with a plausibility true to the excessive fruitiness he slathers across the screen.

But beyond the film’s themes and its lip-smackingly imaginative — and wholly Gordonian — moments of bone-crunching violence and gut-busting gore (courtesy of blasters, cyber-zombie guards and the gloriously memorable Intestinators — all of which the permanently forthright helmer refuses to shy away from), what reveals Fortress as a Stuart Gordon movie are the trio of stock players cast as inmates. While Lambert, Locklyn, Smith, and Lincoln Kilpatrick — as a burnt-out lifer holding on to the hope of parole — nudge the typically well done drama along, the colour provided by The Pit and the Pendulum‘s Tom Towles, future Gordon go-to Vernon Wells (who’d appear in Space Truckers and King of the Ants), and mainstay Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West, Crawford Tillinghast, John Reilly, and more himself) cement Gordon’s standing as a man for whom quirkiness is second nature.

Fortress (1992) Poster

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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