Monday, December 13, 2010

Re-Animator (1985)

The Movie: Aspiring doctor Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) seems to have it all. He is top of his class at Miskatonic Medical School, and held in high regard by Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson). He’s also engaged to (and, unbeknownst to her father, bedding) the dean’s nubile daughter, Megan (Barbara Crampton). Sure he’s a bit obsessive about his work, and he lets the people in his life dominate him; but he’s a good guy. Unfortunately, all that’s about to come crashing down with the arrival of a new roommate.

Herbert West (the amazing and prolific Jeffrey Combs, in his first starring role) has come back from independent studies in Switzerland. It’s clear from the beginning that West is trouble. When introduced to the respected brain surgeon Doctor Hill (David Gale), the school’s main source of grants and West’s soon to be professor; he immediately initiates a pissing contest with the man, calling him a plagiarist to his face. For us viewers there’s also the movie’s opening scene, which shows the disastrous end to the experiment that prompted West to leave Switzerland.

It turns out that West has been experimenting with dead tissue reanimation; and he has created a serum that will restore life to newly dead organisms. He convinces Dan to help him perfect the serum by demonstrating its effects on Dan’s recently deceased cat. Dan jumps at the opportunity of such a great medical discovery.

Unfortunately, there are a few bugs. As the formerly friendly pet’s return to life as a homicidally psychotic fur ball shows, the subjects lose a lot of their old selves in the reanimation. Also, when Dan tries to inform Dean Halsey of West’s discovery, the dean is convinced that Dan has lost it. Things go from bad to worse when the dean barges in on an experiment in progress and gets killed by the rampaging specimen. His subsequent return to life doesn’t improve matters much, although West is able to convince the police that Halsey has gone insane.

West, it turns out, was right about Doctor Hill’s character. Hill is a plagiarist. He’s also long harbored a barely concealed lust for Megan. With his old “friend” under his care, Hill is able to determine that Dean Halsey is really dead. He attempts to blackmail West out of his serum, but loses his head in the process. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for everyone else, West has his serum on hand.

The decapitated Doctor Hill proves to be Herbert West’s most catastrophic success. Retaining all of his memories and cognitive facilities, but now completely psychotic, Hill overpowers West and steals his serum. Hill has big plans involving that serum, as well as an invention of his own. He also has equally unpleasant plans for Megan Halsey….

The Review:
You’ll never get credit for my discovery, who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a side show!"-Herbert West

This is it ladies and gentlemen; this is the movie that forever spoiled me for mainstream Hollywood fare. Around late junior high, early high school; I became obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft. I read about Re-Animator in a book on horror movies and was fascinated. I talked to a friend of mine who, it turned out, had seen it in his young and impressionable years (explains a whole hell of a lot); and he told me about the infamous “giving head” scene between Gale and Crampton. I had to see it. Fortunately, the local video store had a copy of the unrated version.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. By this point I had seen a few R-rated horror movies, but most of them had been rather tame gore-wise. I had definitely never seen anything like the infamous sexploitation scene mentioned above. Young, impressionable me ended up seeing a film that was wild, twisted, repulsive, bizarre, and very socially unacceptable. Oh gods did I love it.

I have seen many attempts at “horror-comedies,” movies that attempt to be both funny and scary. Unfortunately, they present a very difficult tightrope to walk. You have to do it just right, or otherwise either one of the two elements will overshadow the other, or they will both cancel each other out. Re-Animator is one of the few movies I have seen which manages to nail that balance perfectly. It has a really warped sense of humor throughout it. However, at the same time, it has some truly scary and unpleasant moments that aren’t overshadowed by the humor at all. And then there are a few moments, such as the notorious “giving head” scene, where you’re not sure whether you want to laugh or scream. So you try to do both.

On a technical level Re-Animator is masterfully done. The effects are all too convincing, and used in ways contemporary Hollywood movies probably wouldn’t touch. On the commentary, the cast talks about taking a trip to a morgue to understand what dead bodies look like, and that shows in the movie’s walking corpses. On my last viewing, I took notice of how you could actually see the rigor mortis on Dan and Herbert’s first disastrous experimental subject. That’s a detail you almost never see in most walking dead movies.

This is even more impressive when you consider that Re-Animator was done on a low budget. Most of the extras are apparently crew and family members, and the director even stood (to be pedantic, lay) in for one of the corpses a few times. This was all done on the cheap, and yet all of the settings and the effects are absolutely perfect.

The script is also very well done. The only part of it that doesn’t really jell is Dean Halsey’s reaction to West’s experiments. However, the movie has such momentum, and Sampson pulls the dialogue off so well, that you don’t really notice it until afterwards.

The whole cast is just amazing, but Combs is the one who carries the movie. Jeffry Combs is probably my all-time favorite actor, and he has held that position for quite a while. I have seen him in some of the worst movies and given some of the worst roles; yet so long as he has something, anything, to work with, he always manages to do something engaging with it. Overall I find him a pretty amazing actor.

Re-Animator is Combs’ first starring role; and in my humble opinion it remains his best. He is given all of the best lines in the movie, and he delivers them perfectly. What’s more, Combs takes what could be a two-dimensional caricature and turns him into the very best part of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to deal with Herbert West in person even if he wasn’t reanimating corpses. On screen however, Combs makes him fascinating, engaging, and a lot of fun.

For the most part, Bruce Abbot’s role as Cain is mainly to play straight-man to West. However, the straight-man role is needed, and he pulls it off very well. What’s more, Abbot makes Cain identifiable and sympathetic. As Cain is our point of view character, this is essential for the movie to work.

Crampton’s role pretty much just requires her to do three things; scream, get in trouble and get naked. However, she does all three very well. Also, she actually makes Megan likeable and sympathetic. We the viewers actually care about her, and horror movies really don’t work unless we care about what happens to the protagonists. It’s sad how few directors and studios seem to realize this.

Sampson does a good job as Dean Halsey. In fact, he effectively plays two parts; the living dean and the reanimated corpse. Both of them are effectual, and he even manages to play an effectively mindless corpse while still investing it with a personality. That’s talent.

Finally, Gale is wonderful as the villainous Doctor Hill. For the first half of the movie he comes across as slimy and distinguished, just barely holding his desires in check. In the second half, when Doctor Hill loses his head in both the literal and figurative meanings of the expression, Gale goes into full psychotic mode. He presents us with a repulsive villain who we love to hate. Even more impressive, as a foil for West he actually makes it easy for us to forget what an unpleasant character the latter man is.

In total, Re-Animator is one hell of a ride. It is bizarre and outrĂ©; yet director Stuart Gordon keeps such a tight hold on all of the outrageous elements, and drives them with such energy and momentum that they hold together effectively until the very end. If you have a fairly strong stomach and really really warped sense of humor, Re-Animator is highly recommended. If that doesn’t describe you, I would suggest moving in the opposite direction as fast as possible.

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