Written by: Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon and William Norris
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Reviewed by: Dave Dunwoody
H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” is one of his best-known works in the mainstream, perhaps second only to “The Call of Cthulhu” in its notoriety. The basis for Stuart Gordon’s splatter masterpiece, as well as the story that introduced the fictional Miskatonic University to Lovecraft’s mythos, “Reanimator” is also a story that was reviled by its author. Originally written as a serial for a friend’s publication, Home Brew, at a pay rate of five dollars per installment, “Reanimator” was considered pulp trash by Lovecraft - who penned the tale as an gory, farcical version of Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, many of the legions of fans who adore Lovecraft’s mythos list this story among their favorites, and horror buffs around the world regard the film adaptation as a classic – as well as one of the best Lovecraft movies ever produced.
Director Stuart Gordon - who would go on to make the well-received Lovecraft-inspired works From Beyond, Dagon and the severely under-appreciated Castle Freak – takes a not-so-serious approach to Re-Animator, just as HPL did. The movie is filled with darkly comical moments right from the start, in a prologue where young Herbert West (Jeffrey Fucking Combs) resurrects and summarily dispatches his Swiss mentor before departing for Arkham, Massachusetts. There he joins the other medical students in Miskatonic’s program, studying under the arrogant Dr. Carl Hill. West and Hill butt heads as soon as they meet, clashing over the theory of brain death. Watching the confrontation is the idealistic Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), our protagonist - though he is always eclipsed by Combs’ anti-hero.
Dan is dating a Miskatonic dean’s daughter, Megan Halsey (the delectable Barbara Crampton). When West discovers this, he’s able to blackmail Dan into accepting him as his roommate. With a new workspace for his reagent experiments, West sets about finding a test subject. We’re spared the moment of fatal cruelty when he decides upon Dan’s cat. However, when the cat is brought back to life, and attacks West, we get to watch the scene unfold in all its mad glory as the re-animator and his new roommate are forced to beat Rufus down. Now that Dan knows West’s strange and terrifying secret, he can’t help but become his lab partner.
The next huge mistake the duo makes is reviving a corpse in the School of Medicine’s morgue. Megan’s daddy shows up at just the right moment and gets his head pulped. What to do? Well, there’s that syringe of glowing green fluid…Unfortunately, as West and Dan discover, reviving a freshly-deceased corpse does nothing to preserve the subject’s spirit. Dean Halsey becomes a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic.
While suspicious of the circumstances of Halsey’s “accidental injury”, the villainous Dr. Hill sees an opportunity to manipulate young Megan into his pants. He takes Halsey, lobotomizes him and sticks him in a padded room. Only then does he set out to learn what West has been up to – and when Hill finds out the truth, West has no choice (right?) but to sever the guy’s head from his neck with a shovel. Presto! Another fresh test subject. West now has a talking head in a dish on his desk. And Hill’s none too happy about it.
Hill isn’t like Halsey, though. He has managed to retain his memory and intellect. Not only that, he can telepathically control his decapitated body – oh, as well as any other re-animated corpse in the vicinity. Nice, huh? After incapacitating West, Hill’s attention returns to what he cares about most, nailing Megan. It’s a simple matter of abducting her, re-animating some medical cadavers to build an army of the undead, and then…well, and then…
If you haven’t seen this movie yet, shame on you. But I have to admit it was only four years ago that I first saw what has become my favorite horror film. And even though I was already an adult and a seasoned horror fan, I was still pleasantly disturbed by Re-Animator’s finale, in which “giving head” takes on a new meaning, and we learn the dangers of letting sentient intestines roam free. I should also note that this movie first turned me on to Lovecraft; and even though HPL himself loathed the story, and never wrote another one quite like it, I now regard him as my favorite author and the biggest influence in my own writing.
Richard Band’s score, with a theme ripped from Psycho, sets the perfect tone for the film. Dennis Paoli’s script, while not 100% faithful to the source material, is excellent. (In fact, this movie doesn’t adapt the entire “Reanimator” serial – a lot of that was saved for the first sequel, Bride of Re-Animator, which sadly pales in comparison.)
At the time of this writing, there are two sequels, Bride and Beyond Re-Animator. Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna have ambitions to produce a whole new trilogy of sequels, starting with House of Re-Animator, which will reunite the original cast (sans David Gale/Carl Hill) with the satirical story of West being brought in to revive a dead Vice President of the United States. William H. Macy has reportedly been cast as the Dubya-like Commander-in-Chief. As for the following sequels, it looks like the filmmakers want to explore the rest of Lovecraft’s mythos, bringing West into contact with the Old Ones in a post-apocalyptic setting – as well as having the good doctor fall in love. It all sounds very intriguing and I hope it comes to fruition. For now, we’ve got this cult classic to sate ourselves on – and you know it’s Essential!
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