H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator
****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras A
starring Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Jeffrey Combs
screenplay by Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris and Stuart Gordon, based on H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West--Re-Animator"
directed by Stuart Gordon
by Bryant Frazer An extremely loose adaptation of a generally unloved short story by H.P. Lovecraft ("Herbert West–Reanimator"), Re-Animator is a genre miracle: a low-budget horror movie with a smart script, strong performances, genuinely nightmarish gore effects, and a wicked sense of humour that avoids smugness or condescension. Director Stuart Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay with gothic fiction specialist Dennis Paoli (from a teleplay by William J. Norris), moderates the ghoulish overtones of Lovecraft's Frankenstein parody by first establishing an ordinary young-doctors-in-love scenario. In this version Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), an idealistic young M.D.-in-training at Miskatonic University, is covertly romancing Meg Halsey (Barbara Crampton), the daughter of the med-school dean (Robert Sampson), when the arrival of transfer student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) starts to put a strain on their relationship. Strapped for cash, Dan takes West in as a roommate over Meg's objections, and he proves to be a problem tenant for a few reasons. Most obviously, he is a prideful twerp who begins his studies at Miskatonic by picking a fight with one of the teachers, the towering, imperious Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), whose work West regards as derivative. ("So derivative," he opines in the deliciously bitchy scene that introduces the characters to each other, "that in Europe, it's considered plagiarized.") But West is also a budding sociopath with a monomaniacal focus on developing the green-glowing serum he believes brings the dead back to life, and he's looking to procure fresh bodies on which to experiment. The trouble really starts when goodness is corrupted--when the generally level-headed Dan decides to help him with his research.
Credit Gordon's experience at the helm of Chicago's Organic Theater Company with earning him the chops to balance Re-Animator's two modes of operation: earnest romantic drama and full-on splatstick spectacle. It's largely a matter of performance, with Abbott and Crampton playing Dan and Meg as all-American boy and girl. Dan is That Kind of Doctor, the one who won't stop trying to administer CPR even when the patient is well past the point of no return and the supporting players are pleading with him to give up already. Abbott gives Dan a well-scrubbed demeanour, bright, polite, and sort of hapless. Likewise Crampton, who's presented as both sexy and serious--a smart and moderating influence on a boyish beau who should listen more. Crampton is a great screamer, but otherwise the two of them steadfastly refuse to acknowledge what kind of movie they're really in, and that makes all the difference. Though their characters' relationship may be wrecked by West's arrival, Gordon is still giving them chances to rebuild their lost love well into the film's final half-hour, having these two gaze into each other's eyes and wonder about what might have been. Set aside its most powerful scenes of perversion and Re-Animator is at heart a romantic tragedy, fixated until its final frames on an ill-fated love affair. You could even read it, without the horror trappings, as the cautionary tale of an idealistic union ruined by its close encounter with all-consuming ambition. In contrast to the sincerity of Dan and Meg, Combs portrays West as an impatient, hilariously vituperative conversationalist with little capacity for human empathy. Dr. Hill, meanwhile, is an arrogant old lecher with a lust for youth, given spectacular form by Gale, who embodies the role in form, tone, and action. Gale is only 6' 1", but he towers over both Combs (5' 7") and Crampton (5' 4"), amplifying the feeling that he's always the tallest man in the room. As it turns out, Hill is a plagiarist and a creep: Not only does he seek to take credit for West's discoveries, he also nurtures an unsavoury fixation on Meg herself. In short, while West may be the villain of the piece, Hill is the real monster here.
Re-Animator has enough laughs in it, most of them driven by Combs's now-iconic turn, that it's often described as a comedy, yet what's funniest about it is how cheerfully disgusting it is. In a bare 86 minutes, Re-Animator gets its kick from a sustained series of knowing transgressions that barely gives the audience room to breathe. The first of several show-stopping displays of body horror--it involves a pair of exploding eyeballs--comes before the opening credits roll, and Gordon and company don't slow down from there. On-screen shenanigans include a queasily realistic autopsy, a dead (then alive, then dead again, then alive again) housecat, and, in a gimmick that Re-Animator boldly makes its own now and forevermore, a disembodied talking head in the tradition of The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Working from the theory that it's not a spoiler if it's revealed on the original one-sheet, I guess it's OK to reveal that the head is that of Dr. Hill, who surprises West in his laboratory and reveals his plans to blackmail him before West decapitates him with a spade. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Hill's body remains ambulatory, and his brain uses the body to carry the head around. Worse, he has special plans that involve a table in the morgue and a damsel in distress.
That's Re-Animator's most notorious scene, layered with different levels of discomfort. It depicts an attempted sexual assault by Dr. Hill's bloody severed head, which his body is holding, menacingly, between Meg's thighs. Meg has been kidnapped by a lobotomized Dean Halsey, who has fallen under the sway of Dr. Hill; in an upsetting circumstance, it's her brain-controlled father who kidnaps Meg from her home, strips her, and straps her to the autopsy table in preparation for the attack. There's a great moment where she looks up and sees the bizarre cutaway anatomical dummy head rig that Hill has balanced precariously atop his shambling cadaver. She manages to slap at the grotesque apparition with one hand and the pieces tumble away, revealing the even more disturbing viscera underneath. Crampton screams bloody murder. Did I mention she is nude throughout this ordeal? The camera is in close and her body's immodestly lit as Hill's head, held aloft, licks her face and chest. As if the idea of this violation weren't repellent enough, it gets an extra visceral kick since the film has already made a pastime of rendering Gale's actual face in such detail, lighting it to accent his eye sockets, which appear dark and cadaverous, the exaggerated dimples, where his skin sinks in towards his skull underneath each cheek, and his lips, which part with an asymmetry that suggests a perpetually disdainful drawl. Imagine that face closing in on your nether-regions in decidedly non-consensual fashion. Yes, Re-Animator is guilty of using rape as a device, and perhaps even as a punchline when you realize that the scene can be read as a sophomoric visual pun on the idea of "giving head." But it's a wilful provocation, a riotous offense against good taste, and a self-conscious culmination of the modern horror film's oft-criticized penchant for conflating sex and death. The scene is horrifying, titillating, depressing, and elating all at once; the sheer gall of the thing is cathartic. It kicks Re-Animator into orbit because, you figure, if this film is capable of that, what else might it be willing to do?
Despite its financial success, the movie never got a proper follow-up. Gordon revisited Lovecraft twice, in From Beyond and Dagon, but producer Brian Yuzna took over for the sequels, Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator. It's easy to wonder what would have been possible if the original writing and directing team had remained on board. (Gordon had first developed the property as a television series before revamping it as a feature film, hence Norris's credit.) While I can't say Re-Animator brings a lot of fresh ideas to the horror genre, at least it borrows some of the best. And Combs's performance is something special. His Herbert West is a totally unwholesome character, but he's also an antihero of sorts, reprehensible in the particulars yet so charismatic that the particulars aren't a deal-breaker. It's West we see in the prologue, his overzealousness having created, oh, let's call it a physiological crisis in his lab partner. And it's no coincidence that it's West whom we see striding into the morgue in the nick of time to spare Meg from further debauchery; Dan loves her, but only West has serious beef with Dr. Hill. (Dan is seen sneaking into the morgue in the background moments after West arrives to save the day, a detail I didn't notice until my umpteenth viewing of the film.) I also appreciate Re-Animator's resolutely secular take on death and dying and the finality of the grave--corpses everywhere, and nary a human soul to be found. But what really tickles me about it is how cheerfully unconcerned it is with mainstream appeal. Derivative? Yup. Exploitative? Sure thing. Gratuitously violent? Hey, we got an exploding body cavity that chokes a dude with its large intestine. Failure to conform to accepted critical standards? Well, Re-Animator was actually pretty well-received, although it did inspire Dave Kehr to gripe in the CHICAGO READER that it "gives garbage a bad name." which is good enough for me. In the annals of post-modern horror, Re-Animator stands alone as a disreputable masterpiece, a highly efficient gross-out that brings on more uneasy fun on a minute-by-minute basis than any other movie I can think of.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Arrow Video's two-disc, Limited Edition Blu-ray reissue of Re-Animator, sourced from a new 4K master, is a solid improvement on the still-available Image Entertainment release. Film grain that was mushy like oatmeal on the latter is much sharper here, and the image is clearer across the board, like a layer of foggy plastic adhesive has been peeled back from the TV screen. The whole thing was re-timed from top to bottom, meaning some shots are brighter and vice-versa, to mostly good effect. For instance, the climactic scene in the morgue is somewhat darker in this version; some of the blacks are subsequently lightly crushed, making it a little hard to see details in the shadows. On the other hand, the atmosphere is improved tremendously--the more dimly-lit morgue makes for a significantly spookier setting. Skin tones are generally stronger, although I wonder if reds aren't pushed a bit too aggressively: flesh seems to lean pink in many scenes, and in one shot Abbot is sitting on a couch wearing a red sweater that pops unnaturally.
Just as Image did, Arrow has transferred Re-Animator at the slightly-incorrect HD-native aspect ratio of 1.78:1, but more picture information is now visible on all four sides of the frame. Unlike any previous U.S. release, Arrow's package also includes, on a separate disc said to be restricted to this Limited Edition, the "integral" version of the film. Here's the scoop on that: Re-Animator came out in the mid-1980s, at a time when many video stores (cough! Blockbuster! cough!) refused to carry unrated titles. So even though Re-Animator went into theatres in the director's preferred 86-minute cut, he needed to prepare an R-rated alternative, removing some of the gore and nudity, for home video. As part of the process, Gordon had film editor Lee Percy edit some deleted scenes back in, padding the film so the censored version ran about seven minutes longer than the gorier director's cut. Only during the last few years has a new "integral version" been released in a few countries, incorporating all of the blood and guts (and most of the nudity) of the unrated Re-Animator alongside the extended scenes of its R-rated cut. Most notably, Dr. Hill is revealed to be a master hypnotist who uses his powers to poison Meg's father's thoughts against Dan. In another scene, West admits he has become addicted to his own reanimation serum. These aren't bad scenes, exactly, and the business about hypnosis does clarify a few story points. But the additional footage slows the movie down and, more damagingly, it adds unwanted complication to the plot--just one supporting character with a fantastic pastime is plenty. West's addiction is a nice, if superfluous, character note, though let's be honest: West is already addicted to the smell of his own genius. He hardly needs another vice. Despite the fact that this is an inferior edit, many Re-Animator fans will be happy to have the longer cut at their disposal.
It's funny how sound for home-video releases--especially of the kind of genre titles that are collected by the kind of fussy movie nerd who reads this far down in a review written by another fussy movie nerd--has become a choose-your-own-adventure proposition. The listening options on offer for the unrated Re-Animator include centre-channel LPCM mono and LPCM stereo (which can be decoded to a surround mix). Both versions feature a 5.1 DTS-HD MA option. Having seen no indication in the closing credits that the film was mixed for multichannel, my first inclination was to use the monaural track. As usual, I found it to be more focused and muscular than the spacier stereo tracks that spread the mono elements around the room. The Richard Band score sounds much better in stereo, as you might imagine, but I'm not a fan so I don't mind confining it to a single channel. In any event, the isolated score gets its own 5.1 DTS-HD MA track here, which should please the faithful.
What I wasn't counting on were outright flaws in the monaural mix that are fixed in the multichannel versions. For instance, there is a moment at around 44:45 where Barbara Crampton bursts into the morgue and yells, "No!" and her voice has a little sizzle on the mono track. The same line is completely clean in the stereo and 5.1 mixes. On the other hand, the sound effects can be pushed to distracting levels in the multichannel mix. There's a scene where Dan accidentally falls into his basement, accompanied by a bang and clatter that amply conveys the aural notion of a guy tumbling down a flight of stairs. In 5.1, the same FX sound like Optimus Prime rolling around in a Wal-Mart shopping lot. So although I'm tempted by the undeniably higher fidelity of the remix, I probably still prefer the lighter touch and punchiness of the mono track. (I auditioned the 2.0 version briefly, but it seems like the worst of both worlds, offering neither the precise directionality of the 5.1 mix nor the tight soundfield of the 1.0.)
The unrated cut gets no fewer than three audio commentaries, including a new one recorded specifically for Arrow featuring Gordon with actors Jesse Merlin and Graham Skipper, who played Dr. Hill and Herbert West, respectively, in Re-Animator: The Musical, which brought Re-Animator to the stage, finally, in Los Angeles, New York, Edinburgh, and Las Vegas in the early 2010s. It's a bit of an oddball extra, given that the majority of listeners are unlikely to have seen the stage production under discussion. That said, the participants are lively and discuss the process of adapting the film into what sounds like a sickeningly visceral live experience on a scene-by-scene basis. There's even some singing that is, well, what it is. It's at least a new way to think about Re-Animator after all these years. Meanwhile, the two holdover tracks--one with Gordon by himself, the other bringing Yuzna and actors Abbott, Combs, Crampton, and Sampson along for the ride--more than adequately cover the requisite anecdotes of the film's conception, production, and release.
A metric ton of supplements are spread across the two discs, most of them ported over from previous editions of the film but interspersed with fresher material. Among the new arrivals on Disc 1 is "FrightFest: Barbara Crampton in Conversation with Alan Jones" (36 mins., HD). Recorded in 2015 during Film4 FrightFest in London, where Crampton was the guest of honour, it's a solid half-hour plus of journalist and critic Alan Jones discussing the entirety of Crampton's career with the woman herself, starting from her childhood summers spent travelling with the carnival that employed her father. (Carnival work, she ventures, is "really not all that different from what I'm doing now.") On the subject of Re-Animator and its well-earned notoriety, she says, "I was a carny girl. Maybe I was more open to being in a movie like that." The piece has a happy ending, as she explains how her almost accidental role in You're Next essentially brought her out of retirement to enter a vigorous second phase of her career as editor and, now, producer. Arrow has similarly unearthed 16 minutes of handheld video of Crampton taking audience questions at a convention (Chiller Theatre?) in the mid-1990s, when the long-delayed release of Castle Freak was a hot topic. An Easter egg buried behind the "Multi-Angle Storyboards" option on the special features menu (highlight it and press right), it's no great shakes--just an archival find, ultimately--but Crampton fans will dig it.
Arrow's new talking-head doc "The Catastrophe of Success: Stuart Gordon and the Organic Theater" (13 mins, HD) starts with Gordon's remembrance of being arrested on obscenity charges over a University of Wisconsin stage production of Peter Pan and goes from there, covering his early career on the Chicago theatre scene. He co-founded the Organic Theater Company, which he jokes became known in various circles as the Granola Theater Company and the Take Off Your Clothes, Scream and Bleed Theater Company, putting his approach to Re-Animator in some context. The Organic Theater was founded on the principle that performers should be paid a living wage, and that all of the plays should be original work. "We thought of ourselves as a rock group," he explains. (He also remembers scolding David Mamet for not knowing how to write a story.) It's illustrated with a few vintage photographs and news clippings depicting Gordon and his wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon in their adorable youth. Additionally new is "Theater of Blood" (12 mins., HD), in which lyricist Mark Nutter reflects on adapting Re-Animator for the stage. OK, but if the musical is really worth considering at this length, it would be nice to have a video record of it to go with all the background provided here.
Disc 2 contains just two pieces of bonus material alongside the integral version that may not survive if Arrow reissues Re-Animator as a single-disc Blu-ray. One of them is the newly-commissioned "A Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema" (54 mins., HD), in which a bow-tied, bespectacled Chris Lackey, who hosts something called The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, holds forth on cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft's work, starting with Roger Corman's 1963 The Haunted Palace, partly adapted from "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (though it borrows its title from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe). Lackey dives into detail on a slew of titles--including, of course, Gordon's own From Beyond and Dagon--aided by film clips, trailers, and advertising materials. His purview is wide enough to highlight movies that are only Lovecraftian in spirit, such as Alien, The Evil Dead, and the film he considers to be the most Lovecraftian of all, John Carpenter's The Thing. Also on board here is an audio recording of Jeffrey Combs reading Lovecraft's original "Herbert West--Re-Animator" in its entirety, a feat that takes 99 minutes to complete.
More stuff is ported over from prior issues of the film. Fans will be familiar with the excellent, largely comprehensive doc "Re-Animator Resurrectus" (69 mins., SD (upscaled to HD)), originally created for an old Anchor Bay DVD release. It covers the production from inception to legacy, and it uses a format I'm surprised isn't employed more often, where the talking heads--the actors, director, producer, DP, and make-up FX artists--are superimposed in front of selected scenes from the film. A lengthy and loose conversation between Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna (49 mins., SD) takes up another hefty chunk of real estate and is interesting mainly for its status as shop-talk about the process of getting movies made in Hollywood, but also for some of Yuzna's offhand observations about Gordon's directorial choices. Standalone interviews (all SD) spotlight composer Richard Band, discussing (and defending) his Herrmann-esque musical score at some length across multiple segments interspersed with music-only SD film clips (21 mins.), along with, in briefer contributions, screenwriter Dennis Paoli (11 mins.) and FANGORIA's then-editor Tony Timpone (5 mins.). All of the restored footage seen in the integral version--as well as a notorious and never-used dream sequence (3 mins.) notable for another appearance by Barbara Crampton in the altogether--is compiled, in standard definition, in a 20-minute-plus archive of deleted and extended scenes presented on disc 1. Crudely-drawn storyboards for three scenes meanwhile accompany the corresponding film clips. Bringing up the rear here are a trailer (2 mins., HD), a stills gallery, and four TV spots.
The full package, said to encompass art cards, a booklet featuring an exclusive Michael Gingold essay, reprints of a 1991 comic-book series, and more, was not made available for review. Still, this set is an admirable revivification of a beloved cult film--and, unless the high end of the market should grow enough to warrant a UHD upgrade, the most definitive video release of Re-Animator we're ever likely to see.