For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s books.
I feel the same way about them that I do about Dragon Ball Z: Every time I come across them, it seems like a lot of buildup with no payoff. Sure, the descriptions of the monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos are supposed to be so terrifying that they cause instant madness to those unfortunate humans who discover their existence … but the dreaded beings are mostly sleeping or off in some other part of the galaxy, waiting for their moment. And that’s boring.
Perhaps in Lovecraft’s day, it was a novel new approach to horror and the supernatural, but I like my monstrous overlords to be more hands-on. It doesn’t scare me to imagine that somewhere there’s an Ancient One taking a power nap until the day comes when it will awaken and destroy mankind in one fell swoop.
It bears noting that I’d never read or even heard of Lovecraft when I first saw Re-Animator shortly after it came out on video. (The VHS cassette likely was released in early 1986, so that seems to be around the first time I viewed it; I was too young to have seen it in the theater without parental supervision.) So none of Lovecraft’s particular worldview was impressed upon me when I saw it. All I knew was that, as an avid Fangoria magazine reader, it looked like it was going to be scary and gory. Up until then, the grossest horror movie I’d ever seen was the original Dawn of the Dead, but my older brother worked at a video store so I was ready to start devouring some of the most disgusting splatter movies out there: Maniac, Bloodsucking Freaks, Pieces, The Evil Dead, Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night, Bloody Night, Demons, every Halloween, every Friday The 13th, every Nightmare On Elm Street, every Faces Of Death … but it all truly started when I saw Re-Animator.
The thing about Re-Animator, though, is that it really isn’t scary. It’s funny. Gross, yes, but also hilarious. There’s only one scary set-piece in the movie, involving the revival of a dead feline and the ensuing pandemonium of trying to make it dead again. Re-watching the movie for this review, it still sends a shiver down my spine in a fashion that no adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary could ever top or equal. The rest of the movie, however, is one sick joke piled upon another, something that would later help me determine the greatness of many horror flicks like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive or the legendary Evil Dead II. The mid-to-late 1980s was a fertile time for mixing jet-black gallows humor with nausea-inducing practical effects. It’s what makes a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 wholly distinct from its predecessor; laughing in the face of horrific doom soon became a potent metaphor for getting through the ‘80s.
For the uninitiated: Re-Animator is the story of nurse/ med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who is dating the daughter (played by scream queen Barbara Crampton) of the dean at Miskatonic University, a college and location that features in a lot of Lovecraft’s fiction (as I was to learn later), and who takes in one Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, looking way too much like Dead Kennedys bass player Klaus Flouride) as a boarder in his dorm room. West has been doing his own research into the reanimation of dead flesh tissue, and soon he recruits Dan to assist him in his medical (and highly illegal) excursions.
Although Dan is the protagonist, Re-Animator is really all about the deranged and arrogant West, who steals every scene he’s in and is the character upon whom all the events in this movie turn. Combs plays West with deadpan precision, making him compelling despite his bizarre philosophies and amoral tactics. He’s the archetypical mad scientist, true, but as a viewer I found myself going along with West for nearly every step of the way simply because I wanted to know what he’d do next. This is a factor of the movie that holds up to this day; I’ve seen Re-Animator countless times and still find myself wanting West to succeed in his endeavors somehow. This might be because he’s by far the most … likable, for lack of a better word. Crampton is likable (and often nude) but her character lacks depth, even with the histrionics she delivers throughout; Abbott is plain vanilla, the straight man to Combs’ mercurial take on West; Robert Sampson as Dean Halsey is a stick-in-the-mud who changes into a mindless ghoul halfway through the flick; and David Gale is a delicious villain but utterly despicable in the third act as you actively root for him to be stopped.
The movie eventually devolves into a literal bloodbath, with reanimated corpses writhing about the hospital and over-the-top Grand Guignol pyrotechnics. Director Stuart Gordon (who also directed From Beyond, a spiritual sequel of sorts to Re-Animator) originally intended the film to be a theatrical production. Somehow that makes sense. The third act is the cinematic equivalent of a horror house at an amusement park, with all kinds of terrifying beings popping out at you from every angle. It was also briefly considered as a half-hour television pilot; I have no idea what that would’ve looked like. The movie got an X rating (re-edited as an R for VHS purposes) and certainly earns it. Re-Animator may not be that scary to me, but I certainly wouldn’t show it to anyone under 12, which is the age I was when I first saw it.
The movie made such an impression on me that afterward, I sought out the works of Lovecraft only to be disappointed in the results. Apparently, the bulk of what he wrote about was more about abstract horror, concepts and atmosphere instead of grisly action. Oddly enough, I never read any of the stories upon which Re-Animator is based until a few years ago; I was startled to see how close the movie stuck to the source material. Aside from the time frame (the stories took place over the course of decades, while the movie presents it all in a matter of days) and the contemporary details, Gordon did a masterful job of streamlining the events of the episodic, serialized stories into a coherent narrative.
So if I were to recommend any of Lovecraft’s fiction, it would be the Herbert West stories, which the author professed to not highly regard. That is usually the case with artists and their works: The ones they tend to take no pride in are often the best-known, most popular or highest-quality works in their oeuvre. It’s sort of a metaphor for the whole genre of mad-scientist movies and books, too: The creator despises his creation because it is beyond his control, taking on an obscene life of its own. I’ve read that Lovecraft was consciously parodying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a classic work that predates the West stories by over a century — almost the same amount of time difference between Lovecraft’s publication of the West stories and today. Both works deal with the notion of bringing the dead back to life, with dire consequences. By the time both got made into movies, however, the emphasis was on audiences in seats, and chills and thrills. Re-Animator isn’t as scary as Boris Karloff’s star turn in Frankenstein, but it’s just as classic. I just wish I’d first seen it in a theater.
And as recommendations go, I’ll ride to the grave hailing Re-Animator as one of the best horror / sci-fi movies ever made, something that you should definitely watch on Halloween night or at least the week before it. Just make sure the kids are tucked into bed and fast asleep.