Monday, July 13, 2009

Re-Animator (1985): or, Getting Ahead in Horror

Barbara Crampton Week: Episode One!

There exists, although its numbers are very few, a class of movies that approach cinematic perfection. Films in which every directorial and scriptwriting decision appears to have been the right one, in which the cast seems perfectly suited to their roles from the star right down to the nonspeaking extras, where the slightest change in editing or music or set design would necessarily be for the worse. Casablanca. The Godfather. My Life as a Dog. These movies approach the apotheosis of their genres, and stand as shining monuments of their creators' genius to which others can only aspire. Movies that are, for all intents and purposes, perfect.

Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985) may well be the perfect B-movie.

If you were a horror geek coming of age in the 1980s, as I was, Re-Animator hit you like an atom bomb. With its mix of mad science, incredible effects, hilarious black humor and sex sex SEX, the movie couldn't help but impress itself inexpungably on the brains of an entire generation of horror fans. It made a horror superstar not only of its director, but an instant icon of Jeffrey Combs for his legend-making performance as Mad Scientist nonpareil Herbert West, and a Scream Queen par excellence and permanent Vicar's Happy Place-resident of Barbara Crampton as the plucky, innocent, and fearlessly naked damsel in distress Meg Halsey. It didn't hurt Richard Band's reputation as a horror-score composer, either.


Watch Closely, Now

I'd wager it's hard to be a horror fan worth your salt these days and NOT be intimately familiar with the movie's plot, but for the benefit of those under the age of twenty who've been weaned on PG-13 horrors and needless remake/reboots, here's the Readers' Digest version: kicked out of medical school in Sweden after a shocking pre-credits experiment goes awry and leads to his mentor's eyeballs exploding out of his head (could have happened to anybody), neuroscientist prodigy Herbert West (Combs) transfers to Miskatonic University in Massachusetts to continue his research. Needing a place to live and work undisturbed by prying eyes, West answers a "Roommate Wanted" ad posted by clean-cut med student Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott), who just happens to be dating Megan (Crampton), daughter of Miskatonic U's puritanical Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson). West wastes no time getting on the wrong side of the college's eminent neurosurgeon and grant-machine Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who also has a creepy-old-man affection for Meg. When West uses his dayglo-green chemical reagent to re-animate Dan's dead cat and draw his roommate into the wonderful world of Mad Science, it's not long before neon-accented, goopy-gory hell breaks loose.

Would You Rent a Room to This Man?

In my previous gushing review of Stuart Gordon's follow-up to Re-Animator, the also-gobsmackingly-wonderful Lovecraft-inspired From Beyond, I marveled at how Gordon never seems to waste a single frame of film, instead packing every minute of screentime with more symbolism, resonant images, and forward-thrusting fun than dozens of lesser films contain in their entire runtimes. In Re-Animator, Gordon and frequent collaborator/scriptwriter Dennis Paoli similarly hit on all cylinders, never spending time on anything that won't come pay off in spades later. The economy with which Gordon fleshes out his characters, for instance, is a master class of show-vs.-tell movie-making. In twenty minutes he's not only introduced all the principals and deftly established their motivations and eccentricities (West's mad genius, Dan's fear of/desire to conquer Death, Dr. Hill's egotistical narcissism) but he's also given us at least two memorable gore scenes--the pre-credits disaster and Dr. Hill's lecture on cranial autopsy techniques, which also wittily and wonderfully sets up West and Hill's antagonism--and a glorious love/nude scene from Ms. Crampton--a scene that also is not gratuitous, but serves to impart necessary information to the audience about her character and her relationship with Dan.

When Dan goes to Dean Halsey to tell him about West's groundbreaking discovery, the Dean's overly harsh reaction makes sense in light of his previously established puritanical bent and his feeling that no one is good enough for his daughter, least of all an irresponsible med student exposing her to a madman's experiments. His loans revoked, his relationship with Meg in a shambles, and his dream-career in jeopardy, Dan suddenly has a vested interest in helping West procure subjects for his experiments--if he can prove the prodigy has indeed conquered brain death, the Dean will have no choice but to rescind his punishments. Of course things go terribly, horrifyingly wrong in the morgue, and a rogue musclebound corpse murders the Dean before Cain and West can neutralize it. West sees the Dean as a perfect test subject, and Cain agrees because he doesn't think Meg would see him the same if she knew he was partially responsible for her dad's death.

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste...that's why I use Tupperware™"

The slavering, brain-damaged beast the Dean becomes makes Dr. Hill the Big Man on Campus, and also starts him wondering whether West really has re-created life. Blackmailing the young scientist into handing over his notes and reagent so that he can steal the glory, Hill is distracted by a microscope slide long enough to allow West to decapitate him with a shovel! (I'm going to go ahead and call a spade a Frankenstein-reference.) Unable to resist a fresh corpse, even in pieces, West injects both parts with his reagent. Of course like so many mad scientists before him, he has CREATED A MONSTER! Dr. Hill, toting his own head under his arm, escapes the scene, leading to a confrontation in the hospital that will involve an army of re-animated corpses, proof courtesy Dean Halsey of the persistence of personality after death, and the most re-wound/re-watched minute of videotape in the history of horror movies, courtesy the smokin' hawt Ms. Crampton and an absolutely monumental visual pun.

I've seen Re-Animator many, many times now (certain parts of it even more than others), and it never fails to sweep me up in its breakneck pace, amazing practical effects, and fantastic sense of gallows humor. Jeffrey Combs, in the role he was clearly BORN to play, just freaking OWNS it from frame one, investing his line readings and mannerisms with such delicious arrogance, intelligence, and MADNESS that most viewers would not be surprised to find out the actor actually had a basement full of bubbling beakers and body parts where he spends his hobby time. (He doesn't...as far as I know.) A scientific cipher for most of the movie, he inhabits the character so thoroughly that his one moment of real humanity--when in shock from the undead cat's attack, he plays an ill-timed joke on Dan and collapses in nervous laughter--is less "out of nowhere" than a surprising look behind his mask of SCIENCE. A tour de force performance than I never tire of watching.

"Now you may feel a little pressure..."

I never used to be as big a Bruce Abbott fan as many reviewers, but over my last few viewings I've come to appreciate the quiet intensity he brings to the "Everyman" role, how his desire to do good gradually leads him into more and more outrageous situations as the script's fiendishly constructed domino pattern tumbles around him. And David Gale incredibly matches Combs parry-and-thrust in the Mad Scientist Wars, making you believe that below that calm, intense surface lies a world of madness and horror just waiting to be tapped. And when it IS tapped via West's impromptu craniectomy and ill-advised chemical jump-start, you believe there's no limit to what this madman will do. And you're right.

(Deleted scenes and commentary on the special edition DVD of the film reveal that originally there was a lengthy subplot to do with Hill's Svengali-like mental powers, which enabled him to hypnotize other characters like a snake and was meant to be the explanation for his ability to think and speak post-death when everyone else became an inarticulate zombie. Gordon wisely decided that "there was enough going on in the movie already," and cut all those scenes. It's a testament to the intensity of Gale's performance that his incredible willpower is more than evident without it, and that I for one never questioned his personality survival.)

"So...do you come here often?"

I've waxed poetic (and otherwise, IYKWIM) about Barbara Crampton's performance in this movie more than once on this site, but it bears repeating: she is a wonderful actress at the top of her game here, juggling Meg's devotion to her father with her love for Dan in a believable, dramatic way--a subtlety of performance that many a lesser actress would have overlooked, opting instead to be the spoiled teenager counting her father a villain and her boyfriend a hero without further depth. She establishes her Scream Queen worthiness with several ear-piercing shrieks and facial expressions that would make Evelyn Ankers proud to call her "sister." And her bravery and devotion to the cause of practical effects-horror is well-documented. Barbara, I love you. You made me the man I am today.

"Vicar, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

Re-watching the flick for this review, I picked up on a lot of images and techniques that had escaped me before. Gordon never misses an opportunity for a resonant image and often quotes early scenes later in the movie to subtle but wonderful effect. For instance, in Meg and Dan's initial love scene, Dan pulls the covers up over his head and rises from the bed like a sheet-covered corpse; it's all playful and giggly here (though Meg is clearly disturbed as she laughs), but of course is a direct foreshadowing of later events, when Meg will be similarly menaced. More fun that that one are the trio of "Wall Splat" scenes--first when Dan flings his zombie cat against the wall, directly echoed by the muscular zombie tossing Dean Halsey at the bricks (even down to the blood spot!), and capped by the zombified Halsey pitching Hill's head at the wall like a fastball! If you don't cheer every time, get out of my club. And a regular recurrence of extremely effective over-the-shoulder POV shots serves to put the viewer in a given character's place, further immersing the audience in the film.

I said at the beginning of this rave that Re-Animator may be the perfect B-movie, and I stand by that. The essence of a B-movie, in my opinion, involves its bigger-than-life intensity, its ability to excite, thrill, and perhaps terrify, and a certain childlike glee that would seem indecorous in an A-list feature. Re-Animator has all these in spades, and its sheen has not dulled in the twenty or so times it's passed my eyeballs. Of course there's no accounting for taste, and there may well be some of you out there who don't understand all the hubbub I and other fans make over a silly little sci-fi/horror movie from the 80s, pointing out occasionally iffy effects (like the cat-puppet and Dr. Hill's dickey-o-flesh), questionable motivations ("Overdose theory"? WTF?), and the like. If so, allow me to take this opportunity to say: fuck you.

"Okay, I take it back! You DO have the guts!"

To rate this movie properly, I would need to collect all the thumbs ever lost in shop classes and industrial accidents, stitch them all togehter into some kind of gigantic Koosh-style Thumb Ball, and inject it with Herbert West's reagent to set it a-wigglin'. In short, Off the Thumb Scale. Watch it again; you won't be sorry.

"That's all, folks!"

Come back Wednesday for Crampton Week, Episode Two: The Duke of DVD's take on another Gordon/Combs/Crampton mmmmmasterpiece!



10 comments:

The Warfreak said...

Great review for one of my all time favorite flicks!

The Duke of DVD said...

Oh dear. I'm afraid you've gone and set the bar impossibly high for Barbara Crampton week, dear Vicar. What an amazing review! Truly the pinnacle for B-movies, no doubt, this movie remains the catalyst my young brain used to forcibly pull me into loving movies that are MMMMad in nature.

Splendid job, sir! Let us hope I can follow-up with something only half as readable.

Knarf Black XIV said...

Barbara Crampton. Woo! I was just working on a post about Chopping Mall coincidentally.

db said...

I have a hard time being impartial about Re-Animator and From Beyond, as those films hit me right in my middle-school gorehound phase and really shaped my ideal of how a movie should work, but that breakneck go-for-broke approach is something I'd love to see more movies go for. Also, the only walking corpses that really seemed creepy -- that headless chicken spasm gets me every time. Also, anybody who says "Sure, but that's not *really* what Lovecraft was writing about" gets a punch in the snout.

Ashton Lamont said...

fantastic review, fantastic film and a fantastic set of well rounded pert breasts on display for all to enjoy! (can you tell i was 15 when this came out? lol :D

Jay Clarke said...

Barbara Crampton week?! That's why I love this site. Awesome!

Al Bruno III said...

Great review, it reminded me what I loved about the film and made me want to see it again.

And in my opinion Jeffery Combs is one of the best character actors out there. He stole the show in THE FRIGHTENERS and I really enjoyed his voice work as The Question in the JLU cartoon.

I am surprised no one ever cast Bruce Campbell and Jeffery Combs in film together. Maybe something that involved them rescuing strippers from vampires or Amway salesmen or something like that.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

@Knarf Black XIV--I love love LOVE Chopping Mall (as my previous review shows)--just non-stop fun from one end to the other, and an early example of Ms. Crampton's amazing talents. :)

@db--You can see you're not the only one who was formatively influenced by the wonders of Re-Animator. (See the Duke of DVD's and Ashton Lamont's comments. :) ) And you're right about the spasmic zombie-walk--very creepy, and just the kind of uncanny detail that Gordon handles so well. As for the Lovecraft purists, I suppose they'd have preferred the flick to have NO women in it and be full of casual racism as well...but you can't have everything. ;)

@Ashton Lamont--What, you mean you're not 15 NOW? ;)

@Warfreak and @Jay Clarke--thanks guys! You're the reason the Duke and I watch all these movies! Well, you, and our ingrained cinematic deviancy...

@Al Bruno III--preach it, brother! Combs is definitely one of those guys who always makes an impression, whatever he's in. I love his work, but I would still posit that he was never better than right here. As for why a Campbell/Combs pairing has not yet occurred, I can only assume it's because such a confluence of awesome would shake the very planet to its foundation and bring about the End Times. Though what a way to go!

Stick around for more Crampton-centric goodies all week!

El Diablo said...

Wow...I am totally impressed by the length and depth of these reviews. Bravo!

I am holding out for a Reanimator in space project ala Jason X...but with better results? I can't help it, zombies in zero gravity would be HILARIOUS. Can't you just see it?

Nine-Fingered Menace said...

This is the movie that forever spoiled me for conventional, mainstream Hollywood fair.

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