Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #84
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: October 18, 1985
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $2,023,414
Running Time: 86 minutes
Director: Stuart Gordon
Producer: Brian Yuzna
Screenplay: Stuart Gordon, William J. Norris, Dennis Paoli
Based on: Herbert West, Re-Animator by H.P. Lovecraft
Special Effects: John Naulin, Bret Culpepper, Richard N. McGuire
Cinematography: Mac Ahlberg
Score: Richard Band
Editing: Lee Percy
Studio: Re-Animator Productions
Distributor: Empire Pictures, Anchor Bay Entertainment, Vestron Video International
Stars: Jeffery Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson, Gerry Black, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Peter Kent, Barbara Pieters, Al Berry
Suggested Audio Candy
Richard Band “Re-Animator Suite”
Certain filmmakers wear their inspirations on their sleeves proudly for all to see and Stuart Gordon is one such fellow. Throughout his career he has crafted a number of features motivated by the works of the great H.P. Lovecraft. From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dagon and his Masters of Horror entry Dreams in the Witch-House all provided hearty translations of the master’s short fiction and Gordon makes absolutely no attempt to conceal the fact that Lovecraft’s ingenious works have played a monumental role in placing him where he is today. It is encouraging to see the past remembered with such fondness and unquestionable fervor and I will always respect him humongously for that.
Indeed, the film that shot him to overnight fame offered a modern-day slant on another classic from the novelist’s dense vaults. Titled Herbert West, Re-Animator, Lovecraft’s original short story featured a deranged scientist whose beliefs that death needn’t be the end led him to dedicate his life to his studies with suitably monstrous results. Gordon takes great inspiration from the source fiction and Re-Animator honors its heritage by offering its own bang-up-to-date incantation of the titular character. Straight off the bat, he does his master proud and his casting choice for Herbert West is truly inspired.
Jeffery Combs has enjoyed considerable success off the back of his wonderfully unhinged performance here and owes Gordon a great debt of gratitude for showing such faith in his leading man. It works both ways as Combs has the raving mad scientist routine down to pat and provides a true Victor Frankenstein for our eighties sensibilities. Desperate to beat Seth Brundle to a Nobel Prize, West arrives at Miskatonic University with a serum synthesized with properties which can revivify the dead and looking to further his studies in an environment conducive to his highly sensitive research.
In an attempt to remain inconspicuous, the goofy medical graduate soon shacks up in rented accommodation with Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and, before long, has coerced his new friend into assisting him with his further experimentation into the garish green formula. While it all begins perfectly innocuously, Dan’s steady girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) is far less convinced and feeling a tad uneasy with the obsessive compulsive tendencies shown by her lover’s eccentric new friend.
Her doubts continue to escalate with the relocation of her beloved pet cat from nice warm radiator to West’s refrigerator. Fret not Megan or cat enthusiasts as the furry feline is soon on the prowl once more, albeit now asking for directions to the Pet Sematary and proving quite a handful for our double-team in the process. Meanwhile, all this commotion alerts green-eyed rival Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) who has his own designs on the serum and is dedicated to beating West to the punch by whatever means necessary. Needless to say, the shit hits the fan in absolutely no uncertain terms and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
As very much expected, Combs steals every last scene he features in and his confidently cuckoo characterization does more than enough to ensure that Lovecraft rests easy. Re-Animator marks the first of a long string of collaborations between Gordon and his leading man, most recently in 2005 for the fascinating Edmond and never once has he failed to repay this kindness tenfold. Indeed, Combs’ appearance in the director’s frivolous 1992 future fest Fortress helped me to overcome my illogical fear of Christopher Lambert and he was a joy to behold, even with Lambert’s contorted cranium creeping into shot far more than I was ever likely to be comfortable with. However, Herbert West will ultimately be the film he will be forever remembered for.
Abbott is similarly on-point as his reluctant assistant Dan, while Crampton (another Gordon favorite) is both incredibly game and fantastically feverish as the desperately unfortunate Megan. She is really put through the ringer here and her rewards have been incalculable as Crampton is now remembered as one of the eighties’ most eminent scream queens and is still working to this very day. Moreover, she too has been a regular in Gordon’s works and, as Susan in his effective 1995 Gothic chiller Castle Freak, went on to give arguably a career best performance. Here she is no less magnanimous and displays every bit of the courage and conviction that makes her such a pleasure to watch.
Meanwhile, Gale couldn’t be more perfectly cast as the thorn in West’s side and reprised his role for the 1989 sequel Bride of Re-Animator in what was to become one of his last performances. Sadly, he passed away at the ripe age of 54 but his legacy will live on eternally thanks to his gloriously over-the-top turn as the nefarious Dr. Hill. Indeed, many of the film’s numerous standout moments come courtesy of Hill’s skulduggery, even more so once his head has been subtracted from its root.
In other news, Dennis Paoli’s sinister script wisely focuses on iniquitous humor rather than obvious slapstick and, although based loosely on Lovecraft’s short, his treatment is stupefying. Mac Ahlberg’s cinematography is no less gratifying and compliments Gordon’s sturdy direction to the letter. And how could I not offer a hearty nod of the Crimson Quill to Richard Band, whose live wire composition knowingly echoes Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score and places its own exclusive spin on it to wonderful effect.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling fact about Re-Animator is that it came in at under a million dollars as it certainly doesn’t show. Gordon was forced to invest $15,000 of his own personal stash just to get the film completed. Gale come off worst however as there wasn’t sufficient funds left in the kitty to pay for a prosthetic head prop so he shaved his head and donned a toupée all in the name of art. Whoever said actors aren’t committed? It all paid off as the film went on to become an overnight hit with aficionados the world over, thrilled to be gifted a genre movie every bit as frenzied as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead from five years prior. Now that would be a match-up I would pay a princely sum to witness – Ash vs. West. Similar to Raimi’s classic, Gordon’s tale didn’t have any pretense to logic, merely to encourage the audience from their seats which it did unanimously.
When speaking of the ultimate eighties horror flick, Re-Animator would invariably make most people’s short lists at the very least. Pound for pound, Gordon’s film stands head (in petri dish) and shoulders above most of its contemporaries and continues to be regarded as one the decade’s true shining lights thirty years later. The reason for this simple as it is clear to see the care and attention that Gordon devoted to getting this from page to screen. Curiously he originally intended to shoot in black and white to give it a granular edge but I’m eternally grateful for his change of heart as red is a color of which Herbert West is decidedly well suited.
Dedicated to David Quentin Gale (2 October 1936 – 18 August 1991)
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: The grue is delivered by the vat load and is splashed about with gay abandon, to the tune of around twenty-five gallons of spatter. What John Naulin and his team achieved on such meager outlay is nothing short of astonishing and no expense is spared in making sure that the splash zone is considerable. The moment where Hill’s detached top box attempts to direct his blundering torso is pure comedy plutonium and there are many other instances to sate the most considerable appetites. As for pleasures of the flesh, Gordon really is the gift that keeps giving. Crampton butt-naked on a mortuary slab with legs akimbo, what’s not to like? Granted, she doesn’t appear best pleased by the disembodied head providing her with a sound slathering but, in my mind, that’s two pretty hefty boxes ticked in one fell swoop.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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