Two Dissolve writers keep the Re-Animator conversation going...
Scott: This is a roundabout way of getting into Re-Animator, Tasha, but stay with me. I recall sitting down for a press screening of my first Takashi Miike movie, Ichi The Killer, at the Toronto International Film Festival, knowing little about Miike other than his reputation for “extreme” horror and the promotional barf bag I was given at the door. Fifteen minutes in, I can remember wanting to bolt, I was so repulsed at the things I’d seen, like a naked man being hung from the ceiling by hooks, flat as a pancake, while his tormenter pours hot oil on his torso. But I chose to stick around, and after a while, I started to laugh—first quietly and guiltily, then more robustly. I had suddenly realized I was watching a comedy, and that the extremity of the images was heightening the experience. It was exhilarating.
I wonder if audiences felt the same way when encountering Re-Animator, which is bloody, gross, and disturbing, but also hilarious and witty in its deployment of cartoonish macabre. Seen today, the tone is familiar from horror-comedies of its kind, like Evil Dead II and Dead Alive, but I admire the leap Stuart Gordon took in 1985, when this sort of mix-and-match was uncommon. The film starts with a great stinger to get you primed for it, as Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) unsuccessfully revives his dead professor, but Gordon keeps upping the ante as the movie goes along. He starts with the grotesque scene with the revived cat—and the revivified remains of said cat—and progresses to the scene where the lecherous Dr. Hill (David Gale) is split into head and body, guiding himself into doing unspeakable things. You should feel ashamed for laughing at it, but Gordon has led you down this sick, twisted path. Did you have a similar reaction?
Tasha: Oh, sure, especially upon re-watching it today. When I encountered it in college, I wasn’t at all familiar with H.P. Lovecraft, the pioneering horror writer Gordon is sort of adapting here. I also wasn’t familiar with Roger Corman, whose anarchic, low-budget, prurient spirit Gordon was channeling for this production. So I took it a little more seriously the first time I saw it… until about the point where the reanimated body of Dr. Hill is holding his head between a woman’s legs, waggling his tongue suggestively/threateningly at her crotch as she shrieks. It took that long for me to really relax into the over-the-top spirit of the thing. Sexual assault isn’t funny, but this bit of business plays more like a jokey pantomime of sexual assault, acknowledging the sweaty, undersexed leer at the bottom of all those 1950s science-fiction/horror magazine covers with a slimy alien or shiny robot running off with a barely dressed woman. It’s pulp fiction, and it’s cheerfully aware of its origins, and its ridiculousness.
That aside, one of the main reasons Re-Animator plays as a lurid comedy—and one of the reasons it plays as more than a lurid comedy—is because of Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West. He walks a pretty narrow line here between camp figure and evil visionary, taking his insane work so seriously that it’s easy to snicker at him and feel unnerved at him by the same time. He’s a laughable figure, with his unsavory obsessions and dripping contempt for everyone who doesn’t share them. Yet he does awful things without the slightest hint of remorse for the results of his actions, and that alone is frightening, because it suggests there’s no end to what could happen next. How do you take his performance?
Scott: You describe Combs’ appeal in this role perfectly. I’ve always enjoyed his particular strain of comic weirdness, but there’s an edge to it here that’s absent from a straight-up Looney Tunes performance like the one he gives in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners. He’s largely responsible for carrying the tone of the movie—part inspiration, part madness, part comedy—and he’s the one who lets us know it’s okay to laugh. I particularly love his adversarial relationship with Dr. Hill, whom he shows absolutely no respect, even though Hill will be the one passing or failing him at the end of the term. He’s the stand-in for all those times you’ve had to stand in front of a superior and hold your tongue, even if you feel that person is a total boob.
I love your observation about the film finding the undercurrent of leering sexuality to 1950s science-fiction/horror covers. Gordon seems conscious of women’s bodies in general here, both in terms of doing the business of exploitation, and commenting on how they’re treated like slabs of meat. If you’ll recall, the first naked body we see at the morgue is plump, shabbily handled, and put on display, and it reads like an attempt to jab the audience for expecting to be turned on. Or maybe I’m over-interpreting it.
My question to you: As someone far more schooled in Lovecraft than I am, what of him remains in the movie? You call it a “sort of” adaptation. Is the spirit kept alive? Gordon’s admiration for Lovecraft didn’t stop with this movie, so I assume it was not his mission to desecrate his hero.
Tasha: No, I assume not, since he went on to direct more Lovecraft-derived films that take his work a little more seriously. 1986’s From Beyond also stars Combs, and is tonally similar to Re-Animator, but cost $4.5 million instead of $1 million, and has a much weirder and more cosmic take on the universe—one that’s much closer in spirit to Lovecraft than this campy rendition. 2001’s Dagon was also low-budget, but special-effects money at the time went further than it did back in the 1980s, and it has less of a Corman-y makeshift feel. That one’s actually a bit frightening, and I’d call it one of the best professionally made, literal Lovecraft adaptations out there. (Both qualifications are necessary. There are a ton of amateur Lovecraft adaptations in the world—Portland’s annual Lovecraft Film Festival is always at least partly dedicated to them, and I highly recommend it for fans of less-heralded creepy cinema—and many, many professional productions inspired by his particular queasy style of cosmic horror, but not directly adapting his work.) I’ve never seen Gordon’s Castle Freak, which I’ve read is another Lovecraft adaptation, but his Lovecraft Masters Of Horror episode, “Dreams In The Witch House,” is solid. I think it’s fair to say he’s a real admirer of Lovecraft’s work, and not a stone-throwing sneerer.
Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West: Re-animator,” first published in six serialized sections over the course of six months in 1922, is about an obsessive Victor Frankenstein type who keeps trying to reanimate corpses, and keeps either losing the resulting crazed zombies to disaster, or putting them down himself when they commit atrocities. Like the Herbert West of the movie, he’s driven by the conviction that if he can just get fresher corpses—if he can restart the biomechanical processes before tissue damage sets in—he can conquer death itself, and that matters more to him than any ethical or even reasonable scientific considerations. But the print version is more repetitive and less shaped—which makes sense for a serialized story checking in with the character monthly, and reportedly written for $5 an installment—and focuses pretty exclusively on West, rather than switching the burden of the conflict to Hill. Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton, the ingenue pair who serve as witnesses and victims, are inventions of the film too, though the story does have an unnamed narrator. It’s particularly interesting to me that the film not only invents a new villain, it also invents heroes to fight him, leaving West as the amoral motive force in the middle. Also, the story has a distinct lack of hyper-mutated monsters with prehensile attack-intestines. Both versions are ghastly and gory, but reflective of their times; Lovecraft’s has more child-devouring, while Gordon’s has more nudity.
But both versions share an unsettling conviction that bodies are basically just animated meat, and that re-animating them isn’t particularly hard, though restoring brain function proves more elusive. That’s what that plump lady dying on a hospital table in the early scenes is about to me—her nether bits are covered to discourage thinking of her sexually, and her head is occluded to discourage thinking of her as a person. She’s just an expanse of pale flesh, neck to waist, to get people thinking of the meatiness of bodies, and the vast gulf between a person and a corpse. I think Gordon spends the movie encouraging that disassociation, so Dan’s desperate choice to try to reanimate Megan at the end will seem all the more awful. There’s some Cronenbergian body-horror in all this, and some tragedy, in the usual form—hubris leading to moral compromise and a fall. How well do you think all these elements work with the comedy elements?
Scott: As it happens, Gordon intended Dagon to be a follow-up to Re-Animator and another vehicle for Combs, but circumstances shaped into a more austere, dreamy, frightening gothic with a different lead actor, who happened to look uncannily like Combs. My impression of Gordon, who’s continually underestimated and underappreciated among genre specialists, is that he isn’t afraid to push unpleasant or garish elements to the absolute limit. His 2005 adaptation of the early David Mamet play Edmond got dinged in some corners for being rough around the edges, but I found it lurid and hot-blooded in a way that Mamet’s metronomic style doesn’t naturally allow. And I’m a huge supporter of his brilliant 2007 film Stuck, which took the torn-from-the-tabloids true story of a nurse who ran over a man with her car and left him to die in her garage and worked it into a nasty black comedy about the depths of human callousness.
To me, Re-Animator falls more on the “comedy” side of the horror-comedy divide, though again, it’s an example of Gordon pressing these elements as far as they can go and trusting he’ll get a response—even if that response is revulsion. In Pauline Kael’s positive review, which Keith referenced in his Keynote, she likens Gordon’s surrealism to Buñuel, but without the surrealists’ “self-consciousness (and art-consciousness).” And perhaps that goes a long way toward explaining why Gordon hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves; his films are low art (“indigenous American junkiness,” in Kael’s words), but brainier than they get credit for being. Re-Animator was a hit, and his one true cult favorite—despite my personal attempt to elevate Stuck to that status—has a sensibility that’s both unpretentious and uncommercial, which puts him outside critical and popular favor. In a perfect world, Gordon would have Sam Raimi’s career and Combs would have Bruce Campbell’s—or, more perfect still, they could all co-exist as cult heroes.
Tasha: Oh, that’s a great comparison! Combs doesn’t have Campbell’s chin or his grubby machismo, but he has a similar commitment to his camp role, and Raimi and Gordon are natural cinematic separated-at-birth siblings. They could make beautiful crossovers together.
Don’t miss Keith Phipps’ Keynote on how Stuart Gordon was pushing viewers’ boundaries before and after Re-Animator. And on Thursday, Andrew Lapin will survey director Stuart Gordon’s other adventures in adapting Lovecraft to the screen.