A look back at Stuart Gordon’s ultraviolet and ultimate Fortress!

Horror director Stuart Gordon was a master of combining cheap thrills with deeply immersive settings. He rarely ventured into action territory, but in 1992 he did, and made Fortress. Gordon teamed up with Christopher Lambert, and let his practical effects crew work some serious overtime, so let’s have a look at how it all played out!

In the near future, the US violently enforces a one-child policy. John Brennick (Lambert) and his wife Karen, who is pregnant with their second child, want to flee the country, but are captured at the border.  Both are sent to an underground prison complex that is run by prison director Poe (Kurtwood Smith) with surveillance and sadism. Brennick devises a plan to break out and save his wife and unborn child.

Intestination will commence in five seconds

Life is always better in Canada, but just out of reach for Brennick, and so begins the Sci-Fi version of Escape from Alcatraz. The basic elements are familiar with the film being roughly split into three segments: a glimpse into harsh prison life, the planning of the escape, and execution of the plan. Even though it paints its story on a grim dystopian canvas, Fortress is not as depressing as its peer Alien 3 from the same year that was also set in a prison, but an action-packed Sci-Fi thriller.

The film assembles its setting from the large repository of Sci-Fi and dystopian tropes. Gordon effectively combines all the pieces into an intense experience, however. The dread of total surveillance permeates almost every scene, like the terrifying thought of having a bomb put inside your guts, and computers that record your most intimate dreams and force nightmares upon you.

This is an unauthorized thought process

For many people it was a mystery how Christopher Lambert could achieve such fame in the 80s and 90s with his subdued mode of acting. But it usually works when, just as in this film, he portrays a calm character with lots of resolve, and occasional outbursts of rage. When things hit the fan in Fortress, Lambert becomes a furious screamer. 

Kurtwoord Smith is intense as prison director Poe, an ambiguous villain with a twist. Longing for true love, he jealously watches other people’s erotic dreams, and punishes them afterwards. The other characters are one-dimensional archetypes: the neurotic, the wise elder, the brute and so on. They are all played with lots of energy by their respective actors, though. The great Jeffrey Combs is one of them, and he goes all in as neurotic tech genius with weird grimacing and a hysterical voice.

A Splattertastic Genre Classic

Fortress has its share of thrills in the first 60 minutes with an inevitable, but incredibly brutal prison mass fight. The action really kicks off only in the last 25 minutes, but then some! Execution of the escape plan becomes a frantic race with a considerable bodycount, as our escapees are targeted by machine gun turrets and squads of killer cyborgs. Blood and guts are flying around, and there even is some flamethrower action, which is always appreciated. Gordon was a master of practical effects and the many gory deaths give the film an edge you won’t find in any other Sci-Fi actioner of the 90s. 

Fortress impresses with straightforward storytelling, ultraviolent action sequences and a healthy dose of weirdness. It became Stuart Gordon’s ultimate venture into action territory!