Monday, September 22, 2014

Monster Serial: RE-ANIMATOR, 1985


RE-ANIMATOR is a lot like crack cocaine: Nobody’s wasted much time or money trying to promote either of them, yet both have been insanely popular in selective social circles since the 1980s.

If you’re the kind of person who’ll read a blog like this, you’ve probably seen RE-ANIMATOR more than once. I don’t know if that makes my job as a writer easier or more difficult, though. On one hand, I don’t have to work very hard to win you over because you’re already hooked. There’s nothing in this world more passionate than a junky, and you’re probably hoping to hit the rock hard with this feature. Insert NEW JACK CITY reference here.

On the other hand, we’ve both been getting loaded on RE-ANIMATOR for so long that it takes a lot to get us off these days. So I’d better come up with some dazzling shit if I’m going to make any kind of impression on you.

“Herbert West is an asshole.”

That was my wife’s summation of H.P. Lovecraft’s original story, “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” by the end of its third chapter. It seems weird writing about her as though she’s not here, because you’ll find her bylines on other pieces elsewhere on this website. But, she didn’t mind when I posted photos of her childhood diary on Twitter, so she probably won’t get upset about a slight breach of manners here.

Yes, Herbert West is indeed an asshole of the highest order. But, I can’t exactly make any great claims to virtue: I’ve spent the last few weeks reading Lovecraft’s original 1920s story to my son in hopes that he’ll learn to recognize the sound of my voice. At the time I was writing this, the boydid not yet have a name and was still many months away from being born. Technically speaking, I’ve been reading Lovecraft to my wife’s belly and acting as though this was reasonable behavior.

If all of this seems a little premature, keep in mind I’m in fierce competition with one of our cats, who’s lately decided that my wife’s baby bump is his new favorite place to sleep. The cat has some kind of freakish mutation that amplifies the sound of his purr to Monster Truck decibel levels, and there’s been some concern that the baby is going to be born believing he’s a cat. So, in order to remain competitive with the household’s other potential father figures, I’ve decided to read to him.

I began with GREEN EGGS AND HAM, which took all of about 30 seconds to read. This prompted me to look for something a little more elaborate, so I turned to Lovecraft. It’s not like the baby understands what I’m saying, after all. I could be reading the letters pages from Penthouse Forum for all it matters at this stage. Every few years, though, I get in the mood to read Lovecraft’s nebulous prose. You might say the stars aligned.

And those stars are a lot more mean spirited than I remembered. That’s not to say I’ve ever forgotten Lovecraft’s penchant for bigotry. He was, after all, a man of his time, and that “time” was one of segregation, violence and wickedness. But, this was the first time I’ve seen his work through eyes other than my own. In some ways, becoming a father makes your own worldview increasingly obsolete. You’re living in someone else’s story, demoted from leading man to supporting player. And Lovecraft’s sprawling, occasionally racist tale of Herbert West and his quest to cheat death is just the first of many confrontations with outdated philosophies that I’ll have to ward off in the coming years. How does someone explain racism to a child? What about murder? Death? Gods? I imagine I’ll find some kind of puppet-based solution to explain these concepts in the coming years, but at the moment I’m at a loss.

Stuart Gordon’s 1985 movie adaptation, simply titled RE-ANIMATOR, abandons all of Lovecraft’s sprawl and racism, and ramps up the violence, humor and sexuality. The last proves to be a surprisingly good fit considering Lovecraft’s own troubles with the subject. It’s a safe bet that he would not have embraced Gordon’s take on the material, especially the climactic scene involving a reanimated severed head trying to perform cunnilingus on woman bound spread-eagle on an autopsy table. (I suspect the author would have secretly enjoyed the scene, even while publicly damning it. Hand lotion, tissues and a supersized tub of hypocrisy would have been involved.)

Conceptually, Lovecraft’s serialized novella and Gordon’s grand guignol are the same. Both tell the story of egomaniacal creeps who prefer the company of the dead, do some terribly dreadful things and receive their comeuppance in the end. Where the original author’s tone is one of a campfire horror story, though, the film’s director plays it for high camp. The movie is hilarious, audacious and thoroughly worthy of its “grindhouse classic” status. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see its like again.

Despite the film’s title, it’s not really West’s story. Instead, the plot circles around medical student Dan Cain, played by Bruce Abbott. It’s a role just slightly less thankful than that of Bruce Wayne in a BATMAN film. As the movie’s (weakening) moral center, Cain gets little to do except rant at West for his bad behavior while simultaneously enabling it. West is technically a supporting character, but Jeffrey Combs steals the picture with his dry, condescending portrayal of the character, and comes across as that kid in class who really wants everyone to know how smart he is. It’s hard to undersell Combs in this film. Much like Anthony Hopkins in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, his physical presence in the film is surprisingly limited. Had another actor been cast in the part, it’s possible we wouldn’t be talking about the film today, even taking its many other charms into account.

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It doesn’t take long to figure out that West isn’t interested in receiving a formal education, and is enrolled at Miskatonic University with a very specific goal in mind: To continue his illegal research into resurrecting the dead. He’s also incredibly reckless, and his misadventures with the town’s abundance of corpses eventually lead to murder.

As is typical of horror movies, the dead don’t return with sunny dispositions. Mostly they just slobber green goo and try to kill anyone within reach, making West’s otherwise brilliant discovery (a nameless, phosphorescent green serum) totally worthless. A devout believer in the Pretorian Oath (which is like the Hippocratic Oath, only evil), West continues on his quest to preserve human life by taking as much of it as possible. Members of the faculty die and are brought back to “life,” among them West’s chief rival, Dr. Carl Hill, played by David Gale. The movie crescendos with an extremely nude Barbara Crampton tied to an autopsy table, Hill’s corpse lowering his severed head between her legs.

The problems with West’s plan seems obvious from the start. In his search for “fresher” corpses on which to test his magical serum, its significance becomes less and less. What’s the point of re-animating someone if your formula has to be used within seconds of their death? There are certainly cases where such a compound would be important, but reviving someone who’s been dead less than a minute is hardly miraculous. It happens in hospitals every day. So, why do Cain and West seem so intent on exploring their findings?

The movie answers this question by omission. The root of their immorality is not that these men hope their discovery will genuinely aid humanity (though such a discovery would certainly ease whatever criminal charges await them.) They’re true interest is a lot less wholesome: They just want to see what happens next.

Cain and West are surrogates for the audience in this regard, because we didn’t buy a ticket to watch a film about cautious, responsible scientists in search of accredited, peer-evaluated discoveries. We just want to see heads explode. And, if we’re lucky, see those heads thrown against a wall with a wet splat (which we get in RE-ANIMATOR.)

Childish? Yes. Stupid? Maybe a little. But it can also be cathartic in its own, twisted way. We spend so much time quivering in anticipation of death’s impending arrival, so it’s nice to be able to laugh at that callous motherfucker every once in a while.

(When he's not reading inappropriate selections of pulp fiction to fetuses, Wallace McBride runs The Collinsport Historical Society.)

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