This month’s Classics Revisited turns the spotlight on a modern classic. So, what constitutes a “modern” classic? Admittedly, the criteria are more arbitrary, based on personal preferences rather than a critical consensus. The film needs to have withstood the test of time, being at least 25 years old but still in the collective public consciousness, possess quotable dialogue, and have been influential in its respective genre.
(1985) Directed by Stuart Gordon; Written by Dennis Paoli, William Norris and Stuart Gordon; Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale and Robert Sampson; Available on DVD
Rating **** ½
What’s It About?
Re-Animator was the debut film by director/co-writer Stuart Gordon, loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft tale, Herbert West -- Reanimator. According to the DVD’s production notes, it started out as a possible television series, and eventually evolved into a feature film. Although Re-Animator did not exactly spark a reinvention of 80s horror, it epitomized everything about the best horror films of that decade: gratuitous gore and violence, rampant nudity, and a fearless, try-anything approach.
Jeffrey Combs stars in the role of a lifetime as brilliant and ambitious, but unhinged, medical student Herbert West, who has developed a formula for overcoming death. As the film opens, he is conducting experiments in a Swiss hospital. After something goes terribly wrong, he returns to the United States to continue his residency at Miskatonic Hospital (which looks suspiciously like the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center). He rents a room from another promising medical student, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), with the intention of continuing his experiments undisturbed. It doesn’t take long, however, for West’s experiments to go awry, with Dan and his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) becoming unwittingly involved. Things take a turn for the worse when West decides to try his formula on cadavers in the hospital.
The performances are suitably broad for all of the Grand Guignol action that ensues. Robert Sampson plays Dr. Halsey, the uppity hospital administrator (and Megan’s overprotective father). Dr. Halsey’s colleague is the morally/ethically challenged Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who’s not above taking credit for other people’s work. His lust for Megan leads to an unexpectedly icky climax (pun unintended) that the phrase “over the top” was invented for. Throughout Re-Animator, Herbert West remains the main attraction, with Combs approaching his role with a maniacal zeal. His deadpan performance is a perfect foil for the onscreen insanity. It’s no surprise that he delivers the movie’s most memorable line. West exists on a different plane compared to the other characters, steadfast with his convictions, and little regard for the consequences of his actions.
Richard Band’s score is evocative of (some might say it rips off) Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. I’ll leave it up to you to decide, although once you’ve heard both scores, it’s difficult not to notice the similarities. Regardless of this, it’s tremendously effective.
Why It’s Still Relevant:
Horror and comedy are a bit like oil and water. They’re an uneasy mixture at best, and generally fall apart at the end. There have been a few notable exceptions (Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive), but more often than not, filmmakers are rarely able to pull it off effectively. Re-Animator manages to achieve the nearly impossible, by walking the line between funny and scary. There’s a feeling that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and when it does happen you can’t believe what you’ve just seen.
Re-Animator pushed the envelope of mainstream horror, and remains an antithesis to the numerous tepid PG-13 offerings that have passed for horror in the past decade. There’s a gleeful disregard for the rules, and a desire to push the boundaries of taste – one scene in particular comes to mind (If you’ve seen it, you already know what I’m alluding to.). It’s exactly the sort of thing that polarizes the audience, and it’s indicative of the kind of risky filmmaking that you rarely see anymore. Your sensibilities have truly been disturbed, but that might be the root of good horror. Gordon wasn’t afraid to offend people with his film, and it’s a refreshing approach that contrasts the pervasive blandness of so many recent genre films.
For Stuart Gordon, this was the first of several forays into H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, and it’s easily his best. Purists would probably object, and Lovecraft himself would most likely have been appalled by Gordon’s take on his material, but it’s exactly this fast and loose approach that makes Re-Animator so memorable. I’d like to do some sacred cow tipping myself by going on record that I am not the biggest H.P. Lovecraft fan. I admire the worlds he created with the Old Ones, Cthulu, and so forth, but I have never quite felt that his stories were completely fleshed out. His awkward prose seemed more like sketches for great stories rather than great stories themselves. Lovecraft’s stories were ripe with ideas, if not execution, and were the perfect springboard for horror films, and I think that’s his greatest legacy (There, I said it! I feel better now!). Because his stories are such a good framework, it’s more than a little strange that paradoxically there have been few good adaptations, but Re-Animator is among the best.