This is one of the greatest films ever made. Period. There’s no need to be guilty when expressing the great pleasure this film inspires. It’s breathless, outrageous, erotic, gory, jaw-dropping, genre-busting, groundbreaking, ridiculous, shocking, and altogether exhilarating filmmaking. If you somehow missed it or only caught the R rated version produced for Blockbuster, drop that Lord of The Rings DVD you’re going to watch for the 700th time and give this disc a spin. It’ll leave you laughing and screaming like a punch-drunk hyena.
Stuart Gordon’s film is as Grand as Guignol gets with a narrative based on what H.P. Lovecraft considered complete hackwork, a series of short stories updating the “Frankenstein” theme called, “Herbert West, Re-Animator”. While that series paid the bills so Cthulhu could live another day, it remains the most earthbound narrative the purple-prosed writer would leave behind. In adapting it to the screen, Gordon and his co-writers remain relatively faithful while updating the action to the 1980s and adding a female love interest. It’s still basically the story of obsessed Miskatonic University student Herbert West, who is in the middle of a series of dangerous “experiments” with a serum that can bring the dead back to life. Trouble is, they seem VERY angry to have been called back and impossible to control. Maybe it’s the dosage. Maybe Herbert should just leave the dead alone.
It’s from this basic premise that Gordon and his co-screenwriters William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli expand into a narrative with considerably more dramatic conflict. They also toss in mad buckets of blood, tons of full frontal nudity and a real mischievous sense of humor, all of which would’ve caused Lovecraft to go as mad as one of his own narrators. H.P. preferred his horrors to be suggestive, but this is a film that considers a man strangled with a re-animated intestine suggestive.
The newly designed plot gives us a straight man, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) to act as the audience’s only sane identification figure. Cain is a medical student on scholarship at old Miskatonic U and committed to making something out of his life. He seems to have it all when the movie starts, a free ride at a respected med school and a great relationship with the very attractive Megan Halsey(Barbara Crampton) who just happens to be the daughter of the Dean(Robert Sampson). What he’s looking for is a new roommate to help pay the bills. This turns out to be the new weirdo on campus, Herbert West, a student who has just transferred from a school in Switzerland where things got a little out of control following the death of his professor, Dr. Gruber. Cain soon finds himself in over his head and the heads of others when West involves him in his mad experiments. Soon, their evil, credit-seeking teacher, Dr. Hill, comes looking to steal the formula and ends up losing his own head. This doesn’t stop him, however, and he ends up pursuing a more prurient interest in his desire for Megan Halsey. This leads to the film’s most famous scene: the cinema’s first real visual pun as he puts his head to more literal use between the young lady’s legs.
Tasteless? You bet. But it’s also remarkably witty. This truly cinematic landmark was only matched by Gordon himself in 1995’s Castle Freak, in which the cannibalistic title character actually “eats out” a prostitute. I am not being facetious for a second when I refer to these scenes as cinematic landmarks. The sly wit that can create this kind of mad satire within the context of splatter horror is very, very rare.
What’s more is that the screenwriters have obviously played a game of one-upmanship in trying to create more outrageous, more thrilling twists and turns and they somehow come up with the next best thing over and over again. The circus act style of the film makes it seem like some kind of plotless hellzappopin smorgasbord, but it’s not and that’s the key here. The film, for all it’s mad shenanigans, manages to stay focused and tell a riveting, page turning story as well. It’s set pieces are also very well arranged, placed in order of outrage, with the elephant act brought on last.
Gordon was one of the founders of the Organic Theater company in Chicago and had built a reputation as a very skilled director of exciting and original work. Years of training in live theater taught Gordon how to play to an audience with nothing more than a small stage, a few lights, and committed performances. Although there are quite a few gory effects in the film, it still remains the simple and effective staging, pacing and performances that make this movie work.
There are those that have criticized the acting in this film. They do not understand acting. The performances here are pitch perfect for the style and traditions the movie is based within. An actor cannot be over the top when he is addressing a headless body with a head in his hands. Everyone in the cast knows their place from Bruce Abbott’s straight arrow Dan Cain, to the slimy John Carradine-esque David Gale as Dr. Hill and of course, Barbara Crampton playing the most courageous role of all and keeping a straight face.
But Herbert West is the most amazing creation. A character with the obsessed genius of Dr. Frankenstein and the razor sharp wit of Oscar Wilde. He is both the smartest guy in the room and the craziest and, as played by Jeffery Combs, he’s as real a person to me as my neighbor. Combs finds the motivation for the man’s serene madness and sticks to it to the end. West is completely self absorbed and self impressed and will not suffer fools. Combs just nails the dialogue perfectly, particularly when he confronts Dr. Hill in the middle of his oral delight. Combs surprises him with, “I must say, Dr. Hill, I'm VERY disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You're not even a second-rate scientist! Get a job in a sideshow!”
Gordon still wears the albatross of his filmmaking debut. It was a film so distinctive that it immediately typed him as a “Master of Horror”, a label which, unfortunately, damns more than faintly praises those who are so appointed. Such a label traps talents like Gordon, for whom the genre was really just a launching pad for his own brand of grand guignol comedy. While citing many influences as a director, from Roman Polanski to Antonin Artaud, I always suspected that it was actually the notorious Monty Python sketch, Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days, that was at the secret, spiritual heart of his work. That sketch features an English afternoon outing plagued by a series of intensely gory accidents that grow bloodier and bloodier to the point of total absurdity. Absurd but not offensive since there is such an infectious charm behind it all, an infectious charm that makes Re-Animator a movie that can be watched over and over again.
Even though this is a bit of a double dip by Anchor Bay, it still deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for Greatest DVD Deal of 2007. If you picked up 2002’s “Millennium Edition” then you already have many of the extras and commentaries included here. Anchor Bay has ported them over for this “Limited Edition”. The only new extra is the documentary, but since that’s a mini feature onto itself, “only” seems to be a lame description. Besides if you don’t own the “Millennium” edition, this low priced 2 disc set contains everything anyone would ever want or need.
Like a commentary with your movie? This edition has 2 separate tracks, one with Gordon and the other a party track with producer Bryan Yuzna, and the cast! Want a “Behind the Scenes” documentary that goes a little more in-depth than the usual 5 minute featurettes? This edition has a 70 minute long documentary that covers the entire production from conception to release! Top it all off with a series of lengthy video interviews and a music scoring “seminar” with composer Richard Band. Band explains in detail why his main theme has always sounded like the disco version of the Psycho score. What else could any Re-Animator fan want?
How about Fangoria editor Tony Timpone placing the film in the proper historical perspective of a horror film coming right in the middle of the slasher boom of the mid-80s? Or, how about the original story by H. P. Lovecraft and the shooting script? Both are here as a DVD-Rom feature. Print out the PDF files and make notes with the special gift included in the package, a glowing green Re-Animator highlighter.
There’s also a vault full of deleted and extended scenes, trailers, TV spots, and galleries to tour at your leisure. This is a very expansive “Limited Edition” indeed. Hats off to you, Anchor Bay. Maybe next time you could’ve placed it all in a Re-Animator lunch box. That would’ve been fun.