Retro Review: Feeling Lifeless? Head to the Plaza Theatre for an appointment with Herbert West: RE-ANIMATOR!

RE-ANIMATOR (1985); Dir. Stuart Gordon; Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbot and Barbara Crampton; Starts Friday, Feb. 15; Plaza Theatre (visit website for show times and ticket prices); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre has become well-known for bringing new life to classic films. It makes sense, then, this week that the Plaza ins mot only making the dead return in FRANKENHOOKER, but also exhibiting the nefarious dead-raising actions of Herbert West: RE-ANIMATOR.

Prior to 1985, Stuart Gordon had been best known as a leading theatrical director in Chicago, having founded the Organic Theater Company with his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon. Gordon had overseen such important productions as the world premiere of David Mamet’s SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO, E/R EMERGENCY ROOM, Gordon’s own three-part sci-fi epic WARP! and his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s THE SIRENS OF TITAN. After 1985, however, Gordon became as inexorably linked with H.P. Lovecraft as Roger Corman once was with Edgar Allan Poe.

It all started with a desire to see a Frankenstein movie. Gordon had been discussing horror movies with a friend of his, who had asked if he’d read Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” itself a parody of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Though Gordon was familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction, this story had eluded him. He tracked down a copy at the Chicago Public Library, and was inspired to adapt the story for the stage. After struggling with the material, Gordon (along with his writing partners Dennis Paoli and William Norris) decided to update the setting and adapt it as a television series. After writing 13 episodes, the team was discouraged from pursuing a TV deal due to horror’s lack of success on the small screen. Instead, Gordon was introduced to producer Brian Yuzna, who was enthusiastic about turning the project into a feature film. Yuzna brought Gordon out to Hollywood to shoot the film and landed a distribution deal with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures.

The story, in short, is this: at Miskatonic University, Herbert West has arrived having already been driven out of Zurich for experimenting with a reagent that will reanimate dead bodies. He teams with fellow medical student Dan Cain to further test his reagent. First, Dan’s girlfriend’s cat is reanimated. Then it’s the school’s dean. And then the blood really starts to flow.

Lovecraft has long been a problematic author to adapt. His best-known tales are built on what has come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos, which postulates that this world was once ruled by alien Elder Gods that have since either fallen into a deathlike slumber or have lost their access to this plane of existence. Because a glimpse into these other planes or even merely a quick glance at one of the Great Old Ones is often enough to cause insanity in Lovecraft’s characters, it’s got to be pretty hard to translate the mind-bending incomprehensibility of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors to a visual medium with any chance of success.

Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

It stands to reason, then, that perhaps the most successful direct adaptations of Lovecraft are those not related to the Mythos. Which is where we find RE-ANIMATOR. Even though its sardonic humor and oceans of gore would seem to be far removed from the reserved and serious-minded attitude of Lovecraft’s fiction, the film hues remarkably close to its source material. The short story was written as a parody to begin with, so the film’s humorous tone is not a huge departure from Lovecraft’s intent. And as grisly as the film is, the events it depicts are largely taken directly from the first two chapters of the story and portions of the final chapter. None of this is to suggest that Lovecraft would have approved of the film, as he didn’t even approve of his own short story the movie is based upon, having unhappily written it purely for the publishing money. And even though the story is universally considered his least work, as an inspiration for a horror flick, it’s pure gold.

A lot is made of RE-ANIMATOR being a horror-comedy, but I think that what makes it work is that it’s more than just simply funny; it’s fun. It’s not a movie chock full of belly laughs, but it tells its story with such a perverse sense of glee that it’s hard not to get caught up in the movie’s charm. In addition, the screenplay never downplays the horror in favor of the humor, instead drawing the latter out of natural reactions to the former, and out of the well-developed chemistry between the film’s characters. And Gordon’s direction is surprisingly tasteful for such a bloody film. Every shot is composed thoughtfully, and his deft hand at pace and timing keeps things tightly-wound throughout. This may sound blasphemous to the devout film buff, but RE-ANIMATOR is precisely the kind of movie that James Whale would have made if he had made BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1985.

Barbara Crampton and a disembodied head in RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

However, all of this would likely be for naught if it weren’t for the remarkable performance of Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West. Combs plays West as remarkably arrogant and self-important while simultaneously nervous, brittle and on the edge of psychotically unraveling. Combs’ performance was instantly memorable, crafting a variation on the “mad scientist” archetype that is strong enough to stand with any of the legends. And while Bruce Abbott as Dan Cain is a bland (yet likeably bland) co-star, Barbara Crampton stands out in what could have been a throwaway part as Dan’s girlfriend Megan. Thanks both to the screenplay and Crampton’s solid acting, Megan transcends the mere “damsel in distress” role and becomes a believable, human character. Moreover, Crampton’s smart acting choices in every scene make her come across as being game for whatever “WTF?” moment the film throws her way (and thanks to the inventive effects work, there are plenty). As a result, the viewer doesn’t get pulled out of the film, their suspension of disbelief shattered, by suddenly becoming concerned about what the actress (rather than her character) is going through.

RE-ANIMATOR, in short, captures what is fun about horror movies without looking down its nose at them. It’s smart, energetic, delightedly (and delightfully) wicked and full of inspired set pieces and visuals. It’s not just one of the top horror films of the 1980s. It’s one of the top horror films full stop.

I was prescribed Ativan 1 mg 4 times a day. I use 2 pills before I go to sleep as it relaxes my muscles and I can sleep all night long.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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