Last month, the world of horror cinema bid a sad farewell to one of its more unique voices when Stuart Gordon passed away at the age of 72. I first saw his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft‘s Herbert West – Re-Animator (a short story published back in 1922) in my early teens. At the time, I had been given a freer rein to watch the kinds of films I wanted to watch and was devouring horror films the way I now devour cheeseburgers.
I was unfamiliar with the source material; I had heard of Lovecraft, but, fiction wise, was far more interested in modern-day writers like Stephen King and James Herbert.
The opening of the film takes us to a medical school in Zurich, Switzerland, where we see the Dean of the school burst into the room of a Dr. Gruber, along with policemen and a nurse to investigate a loud commotion. We see an unnamed man, his face purple, in obvious distress, holding onto his head as his eyes burst in their sockets in a pop of claret.
“You killed him!” The nurse says to another unnamed character, a bespectacled man who seems to be trying to record vital signs, clutching a syringe.
“No, I did not!” The man looks at the camera, “I gave him life!”
Wow! I can remember thinking how I was already invested in the story and wanting to see what would happen next. The main theme kicks in as the opening credits appear and, if your ears don’t betray you, there’s music eerily similar to Bernard Herrmann’s iconic piece from Psycho (1960) emanating from the screen.
It is not long after before we discover the identity of the man in the glasses. This is Herbert West, a brilliant scientist who has created a serum that reanimates the dead. This serum glows green and is more than just aesthetically interesting, in particular for a certain scene occurring much later in the film. (Years ago, I bought a copy of the film on video as it came with a syringe-shaped marker pen filled with luminous green ink I still have to this day)
West, played with the right amount of obsessive madness by genre legend Jeffrey Combs, has come back to the US to study under noted brain specialist Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale who sadly passed in 1991 here has a Christopher Lee vibe to him, though there are certain actions performed by this character that Lee might have not been prepared to do)
There is immediate animosity between West and Hill, the former accusing the latter of plagiarizing the word of the late, eyeball challenged Dr. Gruber. West moves in with fellow student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott playing the nice guy “hero” looking for a roommate) who gets sucked into West’s experiments.
This is our principal cast and the story can continue.
A cat is the first beneficiary of Wests’ serum upon his return to home shores; a cat that belonged to Dan Cain. West claims he found the animal dead (which we, the audience, as well as a disgusted Megan, seriously doubt) and finally lets Dan in on his big secret and ultimately makes him his accomplice in his future experiments.
The resurrected cat has, to put it mildly, returned with some heavy behavioral issues. It becomes clear that anything brought back returns with a primal savagery that only a second death, if you will, can put an end to, at least, as West says, until he has successfully mastered the dosage. Things continue to escalate as tragedy strikes and now we’re getting into the reanimation of human subjects.
Dr. Hill discovers what West is up to and West himself discovers an alternative use for a shovel and it is from here that we charge fully towards the climax of the film.
Hill kidnaps Megan, forcing Dan to come rescue her and West to face the consequences of his science.
It’s here I wanna talk about the three cuts of the film I’ve seen. There’s the original “cut version” which was the only one I was familiar with for years. Then, we have the “unrated version” which was the directors intended cut and finally the “Integral version” which became available on Blu Ray only recently. This version is the longest of the three and is the unrated version as well as including deleted plot scenes (the biggest of these being Dr Hills ability to control minds and the version I would most recommend watching even if you’re very familiar with the unrated version).
Re-Animator has been described as a horror-comedy or comedy-horror and, though it’s a deliberate parody of Frankenstein, Mel Brooks it is not.
There are funny moments and lines, but not “jokes” per se. Yes, the film is wonderfully over-the-top at times (especially in the “shit hits the fan” final act) and tongue-in-cheek, but it is still, first and foremost, a horror film.
I could go into insane details across the board regarding this film but I’ll save some things for you to discover yourself if you revisit it or watch for the first time.
The performances of the cast throughout are excellent but, and this is with no disrespect to anyone else, two stand out for me. Barbara Crampton deserves a medal at the least for what she was prepared to be seen to endure on screen in an encounter with a severed head you’ll never forget. A true “Scream Queen” (and boy, can that lady scream) she’s gone on to appear in a lot of horror movies over the years including “Chopping Mall”, “You’re Next” and “We Are Still Here” as well as reuniting with director Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs in “From Beyond” and “Castle Freak”. Seemingly ageless, Barbara Crampton is still happy to embrace the genre and the films she’s made within it and continues to appear in horror to this day.
Jeffrey Combs IS Herbert West in a performance he looks like he had a lot of fun with. In this film, he knows he’s playing a mad scientist but it’s a character who doesn’t know and wouldn’t believe that he is a mad scientist. Another true living legend of the genre, Jeffrey Combs would reprise the role of Herbert West in the two sequels (Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator). Neither are quite as good as the original but are still both well worth checking out. Though he’s had a prolific career in movies and TV, this is still the character I most associate him with (another favourite of mine is Peter Jacksons “The Frighteners” and he’s great in that as well).
Another shout out to the special effects in this film. Pre-CGI and without a mega-budget to work with, the practical and bloody effects in this film are great and I’ve certainly seen a lot worse in far more recent films with bigger budgets.
The final shout out goes to Stuart Gordon. As well as the films I’ve mentioned here I would also recommend Dolls, The Pit and the Pendulum and Dagon, if you can find them all. The man knew horror. He wore his influences on his sleeve (you could tell his love for the classics of the genre) but still made his voice unique.
I can’t recommend Re-Animator enough. Not just one of the better horror films of the 80’s but on my top twenty horrors of all time list (and the amount I’ve seen goes deep into four figures).
It’s got enough of the red stuff to satisfy the gorehounds but will still raise a smile amidst the insanity. It’s well acted and familiar without being overtly derivative. Do yourself a favour and indulge in a little bit of escapism. For me, Re-Animator is a film that will continue to live in my heart as a big reason I love this genre. For that and to all involved.