"It is uncommon to fire all six shots of a revolver with great suddenness when one would probably be sufficient, but many things in the life of Herbert West were uncommon..."So begins the third chapter of Herbert West: Re-Animator by H.P. Lovecraft. Apparently my big themes this month are Lovecraft, Vincent Price, and A.I.P. Oh, well.
Herbert West: Re-Animator was the first story Lovecraft wrote on commission. It was serialised by an amateur publication called Home Brew, which published it in six installments between February and July of 1922. Lovecraft was paid $5.00 for each, and though he was initially very happy with the result, he felt hampered by the requirement that each episode begin with a recap and end on a cliffhanger. Eventually he came to despise it as "hack work." The original stories are not that bad, though they compare poorly to his later work. You can see him trying to work out his writing style.
The film, Re-Animator by Stuart Gordon is an unusual adaptation, in that it completely misses the tone of the original work, but retains an impressive number of small details that most screenwriters would ignore. Gordon has done quite a few Lovecraft adaptations (Castle Freak, Dagon, From Beyond, Dreams in the Witch House), all drenched in blood and jiggling with sex. Lovecraft, whose works were impressively sexless, would have hated them, and yet they all show a certain die-hard reverence for the original works. They feel somewhat misguided, but then again, text-accurate Lovecraft adaptations are both difficult to make and too boring for an uninitiated audience.
Re-Animator begins as Herbert West is disgraced at the Zurich Institute of Medicine. We take it as read that the faculty at the Miskatonic University School of Medicine are unaware that he was possibly (read: unmistakably) connected to the death of his old tutor, Hans Gruber. West moves in with med student Dan Cain, and begins taking classes under the tutelage of Carl Hill, Miskatonic's resident grant magnet.
West butts heads with Hill, whose work West considers to be derivative of the late Dr. Gruber's. While Hill is obsessed with the physical location of the will in the brain, West's pet project is the reanimation of dead tissue, and the mastery of brain death. First he manages to revive a dead cat into a spitting, yowling demon. When West and Cain attempt to try the serum (I mean, reagent) on a human subject, the dean of the school bursts in just as the spark of life is rekindled in the test subject. The subject's reduced mental faculties prevent him from doing anything more brain-taxing than foaming at the mouth, bleeding, and throwing things, and he kills the dean during his rampage. West manages to subdue the test subject with a bonesaw (perhaps subdue is the wrong word), and injects the dean with his reagent.
Once the action is over, Dr. Hill shows up and immediately takes the not-exactly-dead dean into his care. Not long after he pays West a visit, and makes it very clear that if West does not hand over his research, the murder of the dean will be exposed. West beheads Hill with a shovel, and then injects the head and body back separately, which turns out to be a bad idea.
There's a lot more story, and more sex and gore than I've let on. There's also a superfluous love story. The film adapts about half of the original story, the other half of which is massaged into a new story in Bride of Re-Animator. The third installment, Beyond Re-Animator, again features West and his reagent, but that's the only real connection to the previous films. West is played in all three by Jeffrey Combs. This is practically the role that built his career. You may also recognize Barbara Crampton, who can be seen wearing just as few clothes in From Beyond, and several other mediocre '80s splatter films.
That's what Re-Animator is, really: a splatter film. It's so amazingly, trashily excessive that it transcends that stagnant and indefensible sub-genre into something sublime. These are the same heights that would be scaled again a few years later in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, the same depths that would be plumbed by Sam Raimi in Evil Dead 2. It's also very funny, in a horrible, horrible way. Two of the people I watched it with tonight had not seen it before, and both had a good time, despite the fact that I don't think they will voluntarily watch it again. That says something.
Here's the trailer, and also the terrible music video from the third movie.
Those with more free time may wish to peruse the original story, which contains the fabulous quote from the beginning of this entry.