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Class of 1985: “Re-Animator”

by on June 28, 2015
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Not even decapitation can stop Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) in "Re-Animator," Stuart Gordon's cult-classic adaptation of a series of H.P. Lovecraft stories.

In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (in an upcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.

Beloved by many as such movies may be, the “campy” label still carries inherently cruel connotations. It suggests reckless, feckless filmmaking that’s fast, cheap and out of control — perversely inaccessible stories, bloody misadventures at the boundaries of taste, amateurish acting, visual ineptitude or a lab-mistake hybrid of all four. Perhaps the unkindest cut of “campy” is its insinuation that success is accidental or, worse yet, ironic — that these people didn’t really know what they were doing but somehow lucked out.

“Re-Animator” is frequently described as “campy,” but the pedigree of this 1985 horror classic suggests that term has been hastily applied. Splitting time between vivid shocks and sly suspense, “Re-Animator” remains a preeminently woolly, wackadoo omnibus of body horror. It revives tropes of Washington Irving’s ghastly “Sleepy Hollow,” wades through equally gray matter and ethics a la Roger Corman or George Romero, and builds anticipation for its eventual broken dam of gleeful, gelatinous gore.

Concerning the increasingly irresponsible use of a radioactive-green serum to resurrect the dead, “Re-Animator” exponentially ramps up the eww factor in a final reel that’s still an uncomfortable mixture of sexual impulse and violent action. Its iconic image is that of a decapitated man toting his own head around in a pan, his face marinated and his neck basted in blood to keep him alert and aware. And someone’s intestines, granted steroidal strength and size by the reanimating agent, coil around one character like a boa constrictor and pull him to his presumed doom.

Yet even amid these outrageous moments, you always sense “Re-Animator” is under the control of a steady, confident hand with a plan. Some of that is due to forced-hand budgetary restriction; with only $900,000 and a walking, talking decapitated man to realize, a hilariously cheap-looking undead cat puppet is an understandable concession. But Stuart Gordon, a longtime theatrical button-pusher for whom this was a filmmaking debut, understands the difference between frenzy and anarchy.

Even in the cat sequence, Gordon uses long, single takes to sustain tension, lets a swinging fluorescent light mask what he couldn’t afford, and milks menace from skittering feet and sound effects until he must reveal the cat. (If it’s pure camp you want, check out — or better yet, don’t — the sundry sequels, in which the aforementioned decapitated head has wings grafted onto it.) Like any great horror director, Gordon’s strategic attack is unpredictable invasion and retreat, up to a point that you never know just when, or how wildly, the film’s id will explode in goopy, Grand Guignol delights.

(A side note: The unrated version, available to stream on Netflix, is the one you want. Although they are commonplace now, commercially available alternate versions of films were rare when VHS tapes cost $90 a pop. Still, as some video stores considered unrated films an X-rating by proxy, an R-rated version of “Re-Animator” was created that is longer, less cohesive and comparatively lame.)

Loosely adapted from episodic stories by H.P. Lovecraft, “Re-Animator” locks into one of that writer’s boldest, most bedeviling concerns — a man’s measure of obsession, insanity and irrevocable madness. Every horror here is born of unmistakably human ideas, as monstrously magnified as some of them become, and three of its performances tap into that vein more deeply than you may suspect.

Lovecraft’s letters suggest the cliffhanger chapters of the novella “Herbert West — Reanimator” were but pulpy parodies of “Frankenstein” with which he persisted only because he earned $5 per installment. Although Lovecraft scholars consider it his weakest output, “Reanimator” remains notable as the first appearance of Lovecraft’s fictitious Miskatonic University — whose extensive occult library featured prominently in mythology for Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s signature octopus-dragon-man deity. (“Re-Animator” ports the Miskatonic setting to modern times.)

It’s also the Lovecraft work that a friend recommended to Gordon when he complained there weren’t enough Frankenstein films to counter the proliferation of Dracula remakes and knockoffs. Fascinated by this novella, Gordon tried to mount something for the theater. You can see that intimacy in the movie’s close quarters and tight blocking, its farcical comedy-of-errors in a climactic corpse battle royale, and its later rebirth as a musical complete with splatter-zone seating.

After all, the stage is where Gordon’s provenance for provocation began. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he staged a play called “The Game Show” at which the audience was locked in, several audience plants were seemingly humiliated and beaten, and those abused retaliated in a riot that stopped the show. He was arrested on obscenity charges for a politically vitriolic version of “Peter Pan” that challenged the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago. And as a fixture on that city’s stage scene, Gordon directed numerous hot-topic plays, such as David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” (which became “About Last Night …”).

Gordon then rejiggered the “Re-Animator” idea as a half-hour TV series, although for what network other than pay cable and what timeslot other than the graveyard shift in the early 1980s would be anyone’s guess. After meeting with producer Brian Yuzna, Gordon was persuaded to go Hollywood, as it were, to handle visual effects.

The team used reference materials from morgues to precisely re-create flesh tones of how blood settles in the body after expiry, like mottled, easily mashed fruit skins. A scene when the decapitated head is tossed against the wall like a ruined roast prompted crewmembers to wear garbage bags, as they didn’t know how widely the steer meat and ground beef that constituted its brains would splatter. Dozens of films later, makeup effects team member John Naulin says “Re-Animator” remains his bloodiest film, having used enough fake red stuff to gas a Honda Civic twice over.

More than doubling its budget at the box office, “Re-Animator” became Gordon’s calling card for genre fare of all stripes — from directing ’90s sci-fi B-movie curios like “Robot Jox” and “Fortress” to co-creating gentle family franchises like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” — followed by adaptations of David Mamet dramas and works from his own pen.

After a Munich prologue in which the eyes of a prominent doctor named Hans Gruber (no relation) explode like éclairs, the title sequence pays specific homage to Hitchcock by way of legendary artist Saul Bass. Mysteriously annotated phrenology illustrations swirl about amid flashing colors, a window into the vibrant, violent mind of Herbert West (whom we’ve met only briefly at that point).

Composer Richard Band’s title theme is … well … fortunate that Bernard Herrmann’s estate didn’t sic its might upon it. Purposeful and loving as it may be, it’s merely a half-step up from “Psycho,” right down to the anxious eighth-note triplets. Call it a case of knowing their audience — what Hollywood law firm was going to inadvertently stumble into a screening of “Re-Animator?” — but this sure seems like a lucky break that would never happen in today’s step-right-up lawsuit bazaar.

We then find ourselves at Miskatonic University, where Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has skittered away after his research with Gruber reached a messy end. West has pioneered a serum that reverses brain death. The problem is figuring out the variables that keep those he resurrects from becoming crazed, insatiable killers.

Combs plays West as a physically slight, compact man with clenched features and the complexion of a dead fish. But West isn’t a nebbish nerd with a limp, clammy handshake. He’s the kind of guy who breaks pencils to communicate disgust — an assertive and amoral asshole who claims smug, superior victory in every conversation and who sports a classic trench coat that makes him resemble some sort of scientific secret agent. (Promotional photos for “Re-Animator” of Combs wielding a syringe like a gun only reinforce the snottily confident parallels to 007.)

Bruce Abbott might be first billed as dashing doctor-in-training Dan Cain, whom West ensnares in his work, but “Re-Animator’s” tissue-encrusted floor belongs to Combs. West is simultaneously the film’s hero and villain, the source of its chaos but often the only one bold enough to take initiative to stem it; in one scene, he drives a bone saw through the midsection of an enraged corpse named Melvin. (If Melvin’s muscles look familiar, actor Peter Kent once doubled for Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Also amusing is how cheerfully undaunted West remains. Even wading through blood, his perspective that this is an experiment never shifts. Dead bodies are just opportunity costs of trial and error — notations to be marked, mistakes for his rearview. “Why is it making that horrible sound?,” Dan asks West as he resurrects the cat. “Birth is always painful,” West cackles under his breath.

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So carefully does Combs craft West’s character that even as he’s about to off a nemesis, we sense him simultaneously calculating how to kill and preserve. Did “Re-Animator” corner Combs into a career of loathsome louses? Absolutely. But in blending Anthony Perkins’ fey menace with Peter Lorre’s clenched, off-putting looks, Combs has done more to distinguish his fiercely, instantaneously unlikable toads than most. (See also: His deliriously demented turn in “The Frighteners.”)

Robert Sampson and David Gale also excel as, respectively, the Miskatonic University medical school’s single-minded Dean Halsey and Dr. Carl Hill, a top-dog instructor whose grant money helps sweep his predatory peccadilloes under Halsey’s rug. Both characters wind up as botched experiments of the re-agent, but these actors find notes of tragedy and menace within.

Cowering in the corner with his eyes bugged out, Halsey seems ashamed at the loss of his faculties, as misguided as they were. Inasmuch as grunting and drooling can sympathetic, Sampson makes you feel for his plight. By way of Hill’s decapitation, Gale forces the audience to focus on his haughty countenance and hawkish nose. But he’s quietly dastardly before he’s disembodied; his creeper file on Megan (Barbara Crampton) — the dean’s daughter and Dan’s girlfriend — stops short of a stashed panty. Hill also instigates the most salacious moment, his brain’s pleasure center lighting up as his headless body gropes Megan … and then lowers the head downward. (Kudos to Hans Jonnason and Greg Rose as Hill’s body doubles, too, all fumbling hands and stumbling feet that heighten the realism of the whole affair.)

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“Re-Animator” achieves bizarre believability by rooting its rowdiest moments in West, Hill and Halsey’s rancid behavior. But it’s also easy to see the latter two characters as representative of the proverbial old guard against whom Gordon and company pushed like so many before them. Get beaten back enough times by rejection, doubt and persecution, and it’s only natural to want to forge something new, challenging and, perhaps, just a bit irritating to the status quo. That’s why to call “Re-Animator” campy and leave it at that seems a knee-jerk reaction to discredit, or disregard, the clear skill behind an excellent American horror movie.

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