Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson
10 out of 10 stars.
The horror film has a long history of being a disgraceful genre, second only to porn. More often than not, scary movies are mostly associated with exploitation than with any art credibility. The problem starts with a lot of producers and filmmakers who see these pictures as mere funhouse rides instead of a way to tap into our fears and nightmares to find something meaningful about ourselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with a simple fun ride, of course. There have been plenty of exceptions throughout the century. Frankenstein, Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs are examples of those that try to transcend the genre. Re-Animator, on the other hand, is a thoughtful film that also brazenly relishes in being completely disreputable, making it quite possibly the perfect horror movie.
Loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, “Herbert West, Re-Animator”, the movie follows medical student Daniel Cain (played by Bruce Abbott). Cain attends Miskatonic University, is a very promising yet naïvely optimistic prodigy, and has the sweet bonus of dating the dean’s daughter, Megan Halsey (the lovely Barbara Crampton). Looking for a new roommate, Cain falls into a brilliant, but quite mad fellow student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). West has secretly developed a serum that can re-animate dead animals, and when Cain stumbles onto his experiment with a dead cat, West lures Cain into his insane desire to move up to human cadavers. What insanity it is, as the duo’s attempts to bring dead people back to life results in extremely bloody, and extremely funny, consequences. Waiting in the shadows is Miskatonic’s resident brain surgeon and West’s nemesis, Dr. Carl Hill (the late David Gale), who wants the serum to attain his own fame, to take Megan from Cain, and to make an example out of West.
Rather than being completely faithful to Lovecraft’s tale, or content with being just a modern day, gross-out take on the Frankenstein mythos, Re-Animator excels at being all of that and more thanks to the brilliantly collaborative effort by everyone involved under the singular vision of first-time director Stuart Gordon.
The writing of Dennis Paoli, William Norris, and Gordon is exceptional. They use the original text as a springboard for a story that would work better for a film, but never fail to pay homage to it. By making the narrator of Lovecraft’s story a more fleshed-out person (giving him the name Daniel Cain), these three create a character with whom the audience can identify. Megan is also a creation of the writers, and serves as the lone figure of rationality and beauty in the mad world of Miskatonic. In addition to the tried and true battle of rational vs. irrational in a story such as this, Re-Animator’s other major conflict is between the young and the old. It’s a bitter war between the two factions, with Dean Halsey and Dr. Hill representing the establish order, and West, Cain, and Megan as the opposition. Adding to that drama is that in each of those sects, there are those who are vying for control over others.
Despite the depth of story and the skill in its presentation, the film isn’t afraid to be a horror movie. Although Re-Animator is exceptionally well-written and well-shot (cheers to cinematographer Mac Ahlberg), Stuart Gordon doesn’t feel the need to justify his choice of genre. Re-Animator goes for the throat, as special makeup effects artists Anthony Doublin, John Naulin, and John Carl Buechler all chip in to create- to this day- some of the goriest effects ever shot. From realistic corpses and procedures to the most outrageous abominations against nature, the work of all three men blend together seamlessly to induce shock- or illness- in audiences. What’s even more shocking is the slapstick nature of all the grotesqueness. But that’s part of the greatest asset Gordon brings to the film. Re-Animator is tempered by a subversively comedic tone, some of which is brought out by the cast. Working closely with his ensemble, the actors deliver a straight-faced sense of melodrama that’s actually funny, not parody. Even though the cast work well as a whole, it’s Jeffrey Combs as West who turns in the star performance that also perfectly embodies the spirit of the movie. The humor, brisk pace, and exciting score by Richard Band (which deliberately screams Bernard Herrmann) are brought together by Gordon to make Re-Animator the fun ride it was meant to be, preventing it from being pretentious and oppressive.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment for Re-Animator is the fact that even after nearly a quarter of a century, the film is still as sickeningly fresh as ever. Horror today remains a mostly exploitive genre, and the “important” films tend to be so serious they’re almost stifling. Re-Animator is one modern horror movie that towers over all others for being both incredibly insightful and a gloriously depraved good time!