Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Re-Animator

By Brian M. Sammons

reanimatorRe-Animator. Director: Stuart Gordon. Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale.

Welcome back, my fellow cinecephalophiles. I figured it was about time we talked about a movie actually inspired by a H. P. Lovecraft tale. Yet oddly, it’s not very Lovecraftian. Yes, I know, by definition it must be Lovecraftian because Lovecraft wrote the original and yet, all the things most people think of when they think of “Lovecraftian” are not found in this film. There is no cosmic horror, no hidden history, no inescapable dread, no evil tomes, no cults, and no supremely powerful undying beings with unpronounceable names. How can that be?

What this story was, back in the day when H.P.L. wrote it, was a serialized update of the Frankenstein mythology. What this film was, back in 1985 when director Stuart Gordon made it, was an over-the-top gorefest with buckets of blood, loads of humor, and lots of naked woman parts to ogle over. In short, it was largely based around three things you would never, ever find in a H. P. Lovecraft story. But since I was about 15 or so when I first stumbled upon this movie, I loved every second of it. This flick smacked me upside my head and held my attention rapt from the first eye-popping moments (and I mean that literally) until well after the infamous “head” scene. If you’ve seen this movie, then you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t yet, then boy, do you have a surprise coming.

Ok, I can see you now, scratching your head and wondering aloud, “So, this is a movie based on an actual Lovecraft story, but it’s not Lovecraftian and its chock-full of stuff that Lovecraft would never of had in his stories, yet I’m getting the impression that this Brian guy likes this movie.”

Yes, that about sums it up perfectly. While my love for this film in my teenage years could be passed off as just another horny horrorhead giving a big thumbs up to any movie with gratuitous use of Joe Bob Briggs’ “Three B’s” (that’s blood, breasts, and beasts for the uninitiated), I still enjoy the hell out of this film today. That might be because I’m still a dopey kid at heart, and I freely admit that, or it could be that this flick attains something that few rarely do. This movie is wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor fun. Nothing is taken seriously; even the gross and sick bits are done with a smirkl and Herbert West is one of the best deadpan, black comedy characters ever put to celluloid.

“Who’s Herbert West?” you say. Oh yeah, the story. Might help things if I tell you a little about it, huh? Oops, my bad.

This movie takes place at the illustrious institute of higher Lovecraft learning, Miskatonic University. Specifically, the action is set in their medical school into which a highly-gifted, and very odd, grad student named Herbert West, played to utter perfection by Jeffrey Combs, comes. Now, a couple things happen right away: first, Herbert rents a room from a fellow student named Dan, largely because the house has a basement. Hmmm, I wonder why innocent little Herbert needs that? Dan’s girlfriend, and daughter of the university dean, Megan, immediately picks up on the creepy vibes pouring off of Herbert. Lastly, from the get-go, Herbert is at odds with one of his instructors, Dr. Hill, whom West accuses of plagiarism and small-mindedness. These three threads start to tie up nicely once dead things start becoming not-so-dead anymore. It begins with Dan’s very feisty cat in a scene that is just wonderfully filled with dead-puppet-cat hilarity, but soon, bigger and more-human-shaped dead things start coming back from the other side of the flatline.

After the cat incident, West takes Dan under his warped wing, largely because he needs his help to obtain fresher, and more human, specimens to play with. Whereas, Dr. Frankenstein used electricity to revive the dead, young Dr. West uses syringes of glowing green goo that looks like Predator blood. Injecting this chemical concoction directly into the brain of the recently-departed jumpstarts them back to life. It also makes them incurably insane and very homicidal but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Herbie and Dan continue their ghastly, gore-drenched experiments until things start to fall apart after Megan’s father gets squished by a hulking formerly-dead dude. Knowing that having a dead university dean might raise suspicions that slow his work, Herbert convinces Dan to bring the poor man back to some semblance of life and have him locked away in the local asylum. This, in turn, piques Dr. Hill’s curiosity and, since he actually is a raging plagiarist, not to mention a dirty old man with an icky fascination with the dead dean’s daughter, Meg – and, let’s not forget, the proud possessor of some serious Professor-X-style mind control powers (no, seriously) – he soon learns of Herbert’s amazing discovery. In short order, Dr. Hill is determined to steal West’s work, Dan’s girlfriend, and presumably rule the world with an army of mind-controlled, re-animated murder machines. With that much greed and naked ambition, how much you want to bet that Dr. Hill will lose his head?

(snicker, snicker)

From start to finish, Re-Animator is chock-full of gore and goofiness. While not Lovecraftian in any sense of the word, or ever really frightening except for some gross-out moments and jump scares, this movie more than deserves its status as a horror cult classic. It was followed by two sequels of varying quality. Bride of Re-animator was essentially a retelling of the first movie with much of the original cast returning, but it offered nothing new and was nowhere near as fun as the original. Then, eighteen years after the first film, Beyond Re-animator came out, this time telling the story of what happens when Herbert West goes to prison and has to do his resurrecting from behind bars. Sadly, this latest movie only had two good things going for it. First and foremost, there was Jeffrey Combs reprising his role as Dr. West and that alone is worth the price of admission. Second, there was a re-animated severed penis running around attacking people. That was pretty neat, too. Regardless of the sequels, the original Re-animator is a must-have for horror fans, gorehounds and perhaps even Lovecraft collectors, as well.

Final Verdict: Re-animator is not Lovecraftian at all, but it is a hell of a groovy movie in its own right.
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