Stuart Gordon passed away this week. A Master of Horror, Gordon was also a theater director, a writer, a producer and a mentor to a generation of filmmakers who grew up on his over-the-top 80’s brand of splatstick horror. Though he also made family films – he co-created the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise – as well as science fiction and experimental theater, he’s probably most well known for a handful of Lovecraftian horror films. Certainly that’s how I came to know and appreciate the man’s work. While I’ve seen and enjoyed a lot of Stuart Gordon films – like Robot Jox, Fortress, and The Beyond – it was his first film I immediately thought of when I got word of his passing.
“Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow. “
Illustration by me
I’m not sure why it has such a hold, but Re-Animator remains I movie I can watch again and again. I don’t think anyone’s ever mentioned watching Re-Animator and had me say “nah, I’ve seen it 999 times, let’s watch something else.” I’m always up for it, especially with a group of friends.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I first saw it – it seems like the sort of movie that would have stood out in the rows of direct-to-video slasher flicks that crowded the shelves of the Horror section at my local video store. However, I can’t remember ever watching it while I was in high school, so it’s likely that I first saw it with my roommates Bill and Chris in the late 80’s.
Our local video store back then had two floors and the horror movies were relegated to the second floor along with the pornos. You got it via a twisting staircase that always sounded like it was about to fall in – I think the owners used it a security device, as they could always tell when someone was heading upstairs. The heat in that small space during the summer was stifling and there always seemed like there was the danger of heat stroke while you perused the videos. The horror movie section was relatively large for the size of the store and it wrapped around the walls to blend, almost seemlessly, into the porn. Nothing was in alphabetical order, either, so there was no warning. You’d be passing by Ghoulies II and suddenly be looking at the cover to Anaconda Jones in the Temple of Boobs or something.
We spent quite a bit of time arguing over what movies to rent. We were college students and didn’t have a lot of extra cash. Each of us would stake out a different section of the wall and look for something that looked interesting. Then we’d bring the box back to the others, who would, inevitably, curl their lip at it – “Redneck Zombies? No thanks – how about this one, Cannibal Hookers? No, it’s not a Porno.”
We did have one simple rule when it came to picking videos – it had to have gore or it had to have nudity and IDEALLY it would have both. Re-Animator would have been like the video gods coming down from on high and saying “BOB, BILL, CHRIS – HERE IS THE EXACT MOVIE YOU’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR YOUR WHOLE LIVES.”
I do own a physical copy of Re-Animator – the double-disk release from Anchor Bay that came out in 2007. The picture quality is very good, though not high-def by any means. The extras are pretty fantastic, including two commentary tracks, a 70 minute documentary as well as multiple interviews, stills, deleted/extended scenes, the screenplay and more. One note about the packaging – one of the reasons I picked up this version was because it came with a green highlighter pen shaped like the syringe from the movie. I have no idea where it is now – I can only assume a pale, cadaverous student of the dark arts has stolen it for some nefarious use.
Re-Animator is currently streaming for subs on Shudder and can be bought for $3 on Amazon Prime. You can rent it for $2, but for a buck more you can own it in HD! There’s a recent Blu-ray release from Arrow Films that I’ve got my eye on as well. Maybe someday.
Re-Animator is a loose adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft story, “Herbert West: Reanimator.” (The complete text of the story is available on the DVD – and freely available on the internet, as it’s now public domain.) The plot follows an idealistic young medical student, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), as his life is torn apart by the arrival of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) – a mysterious fellow medical student who has transferred from a school in Switzerland. Herbert, you see, has been dabbling in bringing the dead back to life…
Dan’s fiance, the Dean Halsey’s daughter, Megan (Barbara Crampton), doesn’t like West from the outset and her instincts prove to be correct. When West is attacked by a cat he’s brought back to life, both Dan and Megan are drawn in – and in the aftermath both Dan and Herbert are dismissed from the school.
Of course Herbert is not one to allow a little thing like being expelled to stop him from his experiments, and he manages to browbeat/blackmail Dan into helping him move on to human subjects. Dead ones, of course. Things spiral completely out of control from that point and just when you think things can’t get any worse an ambitious faculty member named Dr. Hill (David Gale) steps in – and things get worse.
Despite my saying that the movie follows Dan he’s not really the focus of the movie – though he’s obviously supposed to be the audience protagonist. It’s Jeffrey Combs as West who is the star, with his manic and inspired performance. From the very first scene (in which we find out WHY Herbert had to leave Switzerland) Combs hogs (and hams) every frame he’s in.
Which is not to say the other actors are slouches. I’ve given short-shrift to Bruce Abbott in the past – calling him the weakest of the cast – but watching the film this time around I realized the he’s actually fairly good in all his scenes. His problem is that he shares so much screen time with Combs, and Combs is just so good, that Abbott’s performances seem lacking in contrast. Barbara Crampton is great and, in a movie which requires a LOT of screaming, manages to do some of her best work when she’s not making any sound at all – her facial expressions are sometimes priceless. David Gale nearly matches Combs in the hamming-it-up department and makes for one of the most memorable horror movie villains ever.
The cinematography is mostly excellent, with good framing and lighting. You’d never know that this was Stuart Gordon’s first film, as the camera work and editing are top-notch. The music is very ‘Phsycho’ but, to my ear, manages to be unique enough that I can instantly identify it as Re-Animator in a few notes. The writing is very good, with lots of humor and pathos – and the Stuart Gordon manages to bring out both without going too far into slapstick or maudlin melodrama – for the most part, anyway. There is one scene with Dan and Megan that strays over that line, but it’s momentary.
Of course the gore effects are one of the reasons this film has such a reputation and the majority of them still hold up. There are a few issues if you look for them, but the sheer number and innovation keep you from focusing on the minor drawbacks. The scenes with Dr. Hill’s headless corpse are incredible (and in one particular scene, incredibly creepy beyond even what you would think possible with a severed head).
The Bottom Line
To my mind this movie remains the best modern re-imagining of a Lovecraft tale. Gordon himself hasn’t been able to repeat his success in adapting Lovecraft (The Beyond is great fun, but not in the same league, and neither are the sequels.) That may have something to do with to the unique position the original story holds in Lovecraft’s bibliography (being a for-hire tale, intentionally humorous in tone), but I’m still amazed that there hasn’t been another adaptation that’s had the success this one has.
Stuart Gordon’s first film is still my favorite, but he’s such an inventive and irreverent filmmaker that you can find something interesting, enjoyable and often over-the-top in just about any film he’s had a hand in. I’m sad he’s gone, but his influence remains. Time to re-watch a few more favorites – and finally get around to his films I’ve somehow missed.