Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Film Appreciation - The Horror of Re-Animator

Cody Hamman takes Film Appreciation on a tour of the Re-Animator trilogy.


While working as the artistic director of a theatre company in Chicago, Stuart Gordon began to take notice of how many of his theatre friends and acquaintances were starting to become involved with the film business as well. He began to think that he should follow their lead and make a movie of his own.

It's commonly said that the best way to break into the film business is to make a horror movie, and plenty of filmmakers have proven it to be a wise choice, so Gordon decided that was the genre to pursue. When he mentioned to a friend that horror seemed to be lacking Frankenstein-type stories in the '80s, the friend suggested that Gordon read the short story Herbert West - Reanimator, written by H.P. Lovecraft in the early 1920s.

Lovecraft's Reanimator was indeed a take on Frankenstein, a story spanning seventeen years as a med student and eventually doctor named Herbert West conducts experiments in attempts to raise the dead. The story had potential to make a solid foundation for a movie, and it was public domain, so Gordon took it and ran with it. The six chapters of Herbert West - Reanimator consisted mostly of just descriptions of how his experiments repeatedly went horrifically wrong, so there was a lot of room for Gordon and co-writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli to expand the story and flesh out the characters as they developed the screenplay.

The film begins with two separate scenes introducing the characters of medical students Dan Cain and Herbert West, in which they're both trying to beat death.

In Cain's case, he's doing it in the traditional manner while working in the Miskatonic Medical School university hospital in Arkham, Massachusetts, performing CPR on a woman who has flatlined. As other medical professionals and hopefuls look on, Cain desperately continues the chest compressions even when the doctor says it's time to call time of death, not wanting to give up, he doesn't know when to stop. It clearly disturbs him when he loses a patient.

While doing independent research on brain death with Doctor Hans Gruber in Zurich, Switzerland, Herbert West has developed another method to try to overcome death with. He has mixed up a glowing green serum that when injected into the corpse of an animal like a rabbit, a guinea pig or the like, has shown promise in bringing them back to life. When Gruber drops dead one day, West decides to use this as an opportunity to experiment on a human subject. He injects Gruber with the serum... and Gruber returns from the dead, screaming, writhing, spasming. His eyeballs explode, and he again drops dead. West gave him too large of a dosage.

With nothing left for him in Zurich, West returns to the states and starts attending Miskatonic, where one of his teachers will be Doctor Carl Hill, an expert in brain research. As West has less than zero respect for Hill, considering the doctor's most famous bit of research to have been stolen from Gruber and his strong belief that there is a six to twelve minute limit to the life of the brain stem after death to be outdated, the interactions between the two are instantly antagonistic. While sitting in Hill's class, West causes distraction by snapping pencils in half anytime the doctor says something he disagrees with, and even openly telling the doctor in front of other students that what he's teaching is drivel.

Cain is dating and talking marriage with Megan Halsey, daughter of the Miskatonic Dean, but for now they have to keep their relationship outwardly low-key because of her father's puritanical outlooks. Doctor Hill has an unhealthy interest in Megan himself, even giving a creepy toast to her during dinner with her father, saying that she is "the obsession of all who fall under her spell", but the Dean doesn't point out how inappropriate Hill's leering is. Possibly because Hill provides Miskatonic with such large grants.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cain is struggling financially, so he needs to share his house with someone. West answers his ad. Agreeing to rent his guest bedroom to West and allowing him the use of the house's basement changes Cain's life.

When Cain's cat Rufus turns up dead one day, Cain becomes aware of West's experiments, as Rufus becomes a subject of them. The serum is injected into the dead cat, it springs back to life and into a violent rage. This is a side effect West hasn't worked out, the violent reaction the dead have when re-animated... More experiments are necessary.

West is obsessed with conquering death, Cain is obviously bothered by the death of patients. The serum, once perfected, could make them rich, Cain needs money. West needs a supply of fresh human corpses, Cain has access to the Miskatonic morgue... And so, Dan Cain becomes Herbert West's assistant in his ghoulish pursuits.

As in the short story source material, West's experiments go horrifically wrong every single time he injects something with his serum, and yet that never slows him down or makes him hesitant to do it again. His serum tests produce raging maniacs, bloodthirsty zombies, and creates for West a monstrous adversary. He forges on.

West and Cain are nearly killed by their serum zombies on multiple occasions, bystanders pay the price for their illegal activities, murder is committed, characters endure tragedy, Hill attempts to steal West's work much like he stole Gruber's, and his obsession with Meg culminates in one of the most famous scenes/images in horror movie history.

Like Sam Raimi with The Evil Dead, like George A. Romero with Night of the Living Dead, Stuart Gordon managed to produce a horror classic his first time making a feature film.

Although very creepy, dark, and disturbing, with some absolutely disgusting moments of gore, Re-Animator is also imbued with a nice sense of humor, with laughs coming from exchanges of dialogue, just how uncomfortable some scenarios are, and from some brief moments of slapstick and absurdity provided by the re-animated Doctor Hill, who continues on with his treacherous ways even after his head has been separated from his body.

The cast does fantastic work in their roles. With his performance as Herbert West, Jeffrey Combs (who, aside from hair and eye color, matches the description of the character in Lovecraft's prose perfectly) became a horror icon and earned the respect of fans around the world. Bruce Abbott capably handles the role of straight man Dan Cain. While West is the brains of the film, Barbara Crampton provides it with its heart as Megan Halsey, and her character has to deal with some terrible things simply because her boyfriend got a lodger. David Gale makes Doctor Hill a wonderfully slimy villain.

When filming began, Robert Ebinger (Student Bodies, The Being) was the cinematographer, but when Charles Band, who had agreed to distribute the finished film through his company Empire Pictures, saw the dailies, he suggested that Ebinger be replaced by his frequent collaborator Mac Ahlberg (Trancers, Ghoulies, Hell Night). The look Ahlberg captured gives scenes an effectively unsettling atmosphere, and Gordon was clearly happy with him, as he went on to work with Ahlberg on several more films.

The working relationship with Charles Band also landed Gordon his composer, Band's brother Richard. Richard Band composed a great score for the movie, with the main theme taking clear inspiration from Bernard Herrmann's Psycho theme. It's nearly a duplication, which can be a distraction from how good the rest of Band's music is, the Psycho-copy theme is what gets the most attention.

While Lovecraft's original story was, despite being considered one of his lesser works, a good and creepy read, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator is one of those rare cases when an adaptation actually elevates the material. Gordon and his co-writers took the elements Lovecraft created and assembled them into a much more dramatically satisfying, well-rounded story. They populated it with a group of characters that are a mixture of entertaining, relatable, pitiable, and repulsive, and then put them through a grotesque hell.

The list of classic and notable genre entries to come out of the '80s is a long one, and Re-Animator is near the top of that list.


Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna took over the director's chair for the sequel, and also co-wrote the screenplay with Rick Fry and Woody Keith, who had written his directorial debut, the same year's Society. Together, the trio were able to extract enough elements from H.P. Lovecraft's short story source material that hadn't made it into the first film, these elements primarily coming from the last two of the story's six chapters, to build an entire second film around. Yuzna also took the series further down the path of being a twist on the Frankenstein tale, as the title gives away.

Although four years had passed between productions, the sequel picks up just eight months later. In Lovecraft's story, Herbert West's quest to acquire fresh human specimens on which to conduct his experiments attempting to bring the dead back to life led him and his assistant to enlist in World War I. Since the cinematic adaptations were set in the modern day, Bride of Re-Animator opens with West and his reluctant sidekick Dan Cain volunteering as battlefield medics during a civil war in Peru.

Lovecraft wrote that West eventually found tissue from reptiles helpful in his research. Yuzna, Fry, and Keith write that it's amniotic fluid extracted from iguanas that West has found to be a fine new ingredient for his glowing green reanimation serum.

In their medic tent, West and Cain do their best to save the lives of the wounded soldiers that are brought in to them, but if a soldier happens to die from his wounds, West doesn't mind at all. He injects them with his serum, they come back to life, he takes notes of how the process went, then kills them again with a shot to the head.

When their tour of duty comes to an end, West and Cain return to Arkham, Massachusetts, moving into a large home right at the edge of a cemetery, a house that used to belong to the cemetery caretaker. A perfect place for these ghoulish doctors. They even find that an old crypt can be accessed by knocking a hole in the basement wall.

They also go back to work at the Miskatonic Medical School and hospital, where their experiments inadvertently led to a massacre eight months earlier. Investigations are ongoing.

A doctor named Graves is in charge of all the body parts left over from the massacre and spends his time trying to figure out why they're not decomposing... and also messing around with the bottle of West's serum that he happened to come across in the aftermath.

Police detective Leslie Chapman is very determined to get to the bottom of what happened at Miskatonic. Partly because a naked maniac attacked his partner when they responded to the call about bad things going down at the hospital, and partly because of the condition of some of the survivors of the massacre. People who were declared dead before the events of that night, but are somehow still alive... Mindless zombies, locked up in the psych ward... And one of those dead people turned psych patients is Chapman's wife.

On top of all the other mysteries, body parts have been coming up missing at the hospital recently. Now, who could be stealing body parts?

Why, of course it's our franchise star, Herbert West.

While Cain continues to struggle with the death of his girlfriend Meg eight months earlier, herself a victim of the massacre, he becomes fixated with a cancer patient named Gloria, even coming to think of her as Meg. "Meg who lived." Unfortunately, Gloria doesn't live much longer than Meg did, soon succumbing to her illness... And further breaking Cain's heart and mind.

Cain has a secondary love interest in the film, Francesca, an Italian woman who served with the doctors in Peru, and Francesca finds that spending the night in the house shared by Cain and West can be a very terrifying experience...

West eventually reveals to Cain what he has planned for the body parts he has stolen from Miskatonic. Inspired by how his nemesis Doctor Carl Hill had been able to control his body even after his head was severed from it in the previous film, West believes that consciousness resides in every part of the body, not just the mind, and so individual parts of a person can be re-animated, it doesn't have to be a complete corpse.

After testing his theory by making monstrous, nightmarish things like a creature made of nothing but fingers and an eyeball, West wants to go all the way with this experimentation - creating a whole new human being from parts assembled from multiple corpses, "the remnants of a meaningless existence". The feet of a ballet dancer, the legs of a prostitute, the womb of a virgin, the arms of a waitress, a lawyer's hand, the hand of a murderess... And he wins Cain over by including the heart of Meg and the head of Gloria.

As ever, West's experiments go horrifically wrong all through the picture, creating disgusting abominations and more crazed, raging zombies. While most of the reanimated are mindless shells of their former selves, the decapitated Doctor Hill retains his intellect, and when Graves revives the severed head he becomes a servant to it on its mission for revenge. Hill is even able to telepathically communicate with his fellow reanimated, ultimately leading them on a charge against the man who made them what they are... And since his body was destroyed, Hill needs another way to get around, so he has bat wings attached to the sides of his head so he can fly.

That paragraph likely gives away the fact that the humor that was present in the first movie was amped up a great deal for the sequel. While still unnerving and at times quite serious, Bride of Re-Animator is also a very funny movie at times. The lines and antics of the head of Hill are quite amusing, Cain trying to keep Detective Chapman from spotting the finger creature as it scampers around the house is pure comedy, and West's lines are often funny, even though he certainly doesn't intend them to be.

My favorite laugh line of the film is delivered by West during a frantic moment: "He's a wife beater, Dan, use the gun!"

Jeffrey Combs again did fantastic work as Herbert West. The character is totally fixated on his research and goes to extremes to keep it on track, even resorting to murder when necessary, but he's not the total creep that Lovecraft wrote about. The narrator of Lovecraft's story, West's assistant, always feared West, feeling like he could snap and kill him in the name of science, but here West actually shows some warmth and caring toward Dan Cain, in his own strange way. Bruce Abbott plays the role of Cain very well, displaying that his character is now very tortured by his conscience. It's not entirely logical that he would stick by West's side, but he has obviously been driven slightly out of his mind by what he has experienced. David Gale is wonderfully amusing as Hill('s head), and actresses Fabiana Udenio (Summer School) and Kathleen Kinmont (Halloween 4), always welcome presences in any movie, are the sympathetic Francesca and Gloria.

Since her character provides the head, Kinmont also gets to play the titular Bride when she rises from the slab, performing with jerky movements reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein... But like every West experiment, the creation of the Bride doesn't go well.

Bride of Re-Animator is a great sequel, effectively recapturing the tone of the first film, adding some more humor to it, and expanding on the story in a smart and entertaining way, not only focusing on the continuation of West's experiments, but also dealing with the aftermath of what those experiments caused the first time around, and examining how those events affected the characters' mental states.

Unlike some sequels, Bride of Re-Animator isn't just a cash-in thrown together without any real thought behind it. Yuzna and his cohorts came up with a good reason to return to the world of Herbert West and crafted a story worth telling. They put in a very commendable effort.

Herbert West gets the credit within the film itself, but his monsters were actually created by a special effects dream team including the likes of John Carl Beuchler, KNB, and Screaming Mad George, who did terrific work bringing these horrors to life. After death.


Brian Yuzna had always planned to make a third Re-Animator. He started kicking around ideas for what one could be about as soon as Bride of Re-Animator was finished and released in 1990. Unfortunately, horror hit a rough patch in the early '90s and when it was revitalized in the second half of the decade, the type of horror movies that distributors wanted weren't along the lines of something like Re-Animator. It was the era of Scream. So for an entire decade, Yuzna was unsuccessful in getting Re-Animator 3 off the ground.

Enter the 2000s, with its "everything old is new again" mentality. Remakes, reboots, sequels to long dormant franchises. In this new age, Yuzna was finally able to make the second sequel happen with himself back at the helm. But by the time it could be released, thirteen years would have passed since Bride. The time jump would have to be explained within the story, and it would also require a different approach than had been planned earlier.

The screenplay by José Manuel Gómez and Miguel Tejada-Flores begins in 1990, with a sequence that Yuzna intended to be a way to ease the new generation of horror fans into the world of Re-Animator, starting off with the feel of a slasher movie.

It's a dark night, and at his house by the cemetery, young Howard Phillips (named after Lovecraft) is having a sleepover with a friend who he's doing his best to scare with tales of a cannibalistic child killer stalking their town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Howard's teenage older sister Emily is walking around the house in a robe, listening to music. Their parents aren't home.

The kids hear strange sounds and walk around in the dark, investigating, seeking the source... A door is mysteriously open, muddy footprints leading up to it... The youths bump into each other while looking around the house, laughs are had, it appears that everything is alright after all. And then a hideous zombie makes its entrance, attacking Emily and bashing her head in before police officers can arrive on the scene and shoot the zombie down.

In shock over the death of his beloved sister, Howard wanders outside, where he sees Doctor Herbert West being loaded into the back of a squad car. This night is the same night that Bride of Re-Animator ended on, and the events of the previous two films have landed West in police custody. On the ground, Howard discovers a syringe full of West's glowing reanimation serum.

Following the title sequence, the movie has jumped ahead thirteen years to then-present day 2003 to find that Herbert West is still serving out his prison sentence. Of course, West hasn't let imprisonment get in the way of his research of death and resurrection, experimenting on the rats the prison is infested with. Zapping rats to death with a makeshift electrical device, West has made a discovery that takes his theories "beyond" what they had been before.

A new doctor has arrived to oversee the prison's infirmary, and his first interaction with the sadistic Warden Brando is interrupted when an inmate goes into cardiac arrest. Since the infirmary seems to be under-staffed, the doctor has requested than an inmate with medical history assist him... That inmate is Herbert West. And so, West is in the infirmary to witness the new doctor go to great lengths trying to revive his emergency patient. It recalls West's former associate Dan Cain, who ended up turning state's evidence against him, and how disturbed he was when he would have to let go of a patient.

The new doctor is unable to revive his criminal patient. He has everyone except West clear out of the room... That's when he reveals himself to be Doctor Howard Phillips. He still has the syringe full of serum he picked up thirteen years earlier, and he wants to work with West. His sister being killed by one of West's subjects hasn't turned him against the mad doctor, losing her has instead made Howard want to help West find the way to beat death.

Stories for earlier incarnations of Re-Animator 3 also involved the character of Dan Cain, but given that it took more than a decade for the movie to get in front of cameras, Yuzna decided that it was better for the film's marketability to write the Cain character out so audiences wouldn't have to deal with having two middle-aged men in the lead roles. And so, the twenty-something Howard Phillips was created to be West's new assistant.

Yuzna never planned for the third film to be set within the walls of a prison, either, but the budget it ended up with made it a wise choice to keep locations to a minimum. With Howard's help, the prison becomes West's new laboratory.

His serum back in hand, West immediately tests it out on the dead inmate. This, like all of his experiments in these movies, turns out to be a bloody disaster. Not bloody in the British slang way, but bloody as in bodily fluid leaking from split flesh.

The reanimated have always returned from the dead confused and violent, but West believes he has found the way to restore rational behavior to them. He has discovered an energy that exists within every cell of the body, it's the essence that is expelled when the body dies, the reason why a person loses a certain amount of grams of weight when they pass away. The religious would call it the soul. West calls it Nano-Plasmic Energy, and he captures it in little glass bottles by shocking it out of bodies. As the reanimation experiments continue, West revives a corpse with the serum, and then attempts to restore them to their normal state by sticking some Nano-Plasmic Energy into them. West considers Nano-Plasmic Energy to be completely neutral, it is exactly the same in every living being and thus interchangeable among people and even animals. So he believes, or at least he tells Howard he believes, that it doesn't matter if one person's NPE gets injected into another, or that a rat's NPE gets injected into a human... But it does, and while the reanimated act differently than they did before the NPE discovery, the danger of mixing energies becomes apparent in their behavior soon enough.

In between conducting their experiments, West has to deal with threats from fellow prisoners, Howard romances an investigative journalist named Laura Olney who has an ulterior motive for getting involved with him, and Warden Brando gradually reveals himself to be more and more insane, ultimately proving to be a homicidal sex offender.

All of the plotlines and characters collide in a third act explosion of violence as West's experiments go out of control and the inmates start a riot that causes the prison to descend into pure madness.

Departing from the H.P. Lovecraft short story, aside from the presence of "Herbert West - Reanimator" and his serum, Beyond Re-Animator is entirely original from the ground up, but Yuzna and his collaborators managed to craft a great new chapter in the Herbert West saga without needing to lift anything from Lovecraft's prose.

It's great to have Jeffrey Combs back in the role after a thirteen year absence, and it's no surprise that he delivers a captivating performance as the older, prison-calmed West. Jason Barry doesn't make much of an impression for me as Howard, he just helps the plot roll along. Simón Andreu makes Warden Brando a delightfully horrendous scumbag of a villain, and Elsa Pataky has some memorable moments as the duplicitous and tormented Laura.

Of course, time, style, equipment, and film stock had changed since the '80s, so Beyond doesn't quite have the same look and atmosphere as its predecessors, but it's still a fun balance of horror, humor, and gore, with some nice effects coming in during the prison riot sequence.

The low budget that restricted locations does at times come through in the finished film, but doesn't effect it too badly. One issue about the movie and how it was made is the fact that it was shot in Spain, where Yuzna lived and at the time was running a company called Fantastic Factory. That means a lot of the cast were Spanish actors speaking accented English despite the fact that these films are set in Massachusetts. A Spanish accent here and there is no problem, but there's an abundance of characters with them, and from some have the accent that shouldn't, like Howard's sister. I'm not blaming the actors for their accent and it's a nitpicky thing that really has no reflection on the quality of the production overall, it's just something that stands out.

Beyond Re-Animator was warmly accepted by most fans of the franchise, and now that he was back in the Re-Animator business, Yuzna was ready to keep the series going.

The original film's director Stuart Gordon made plans to direct a follow-up to Beyond, which would have been written by Dennis Paoli, co-writer of the original. To be titled House of Re-Animator (in the tradition of House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein), the film would have been a satire of the George W. Bush administration. William H. Macy was attached to play the Bush-like president (or perhaps W himself), with George Wendt as the Vice President, who is truly in charge... until he dies of a heart attack. To keep the country running smoothly, Herbert West would be brought in to bring the VP back to life. Although announced years before the Bush presidency ended, the project didn't come together in time to be released while W was still in the White House, and Gordon abandoned it when Obama took office.

House of Re-Animator would have paved the way for two more entries in the series; Re-Animator Unbound!, which would see West encountering the monstrous gods Lovecraft wrote about, and Re-Animator Begins, which would have returned West to the school in Zurich where he was at the beginning of the original film. There would be flashbacks to West's childhood, and the story would have shown what happens when Herbert West falls in love, something which he always advised his assistants against doing.

Unfortunately, several years have passed since Yuzna made any mention of pursuing more Re-Animator sequels, so it appears that House, Unbound, and Begins are all dead in the water.

Beyond Re-Animator may have been the last time we'll ever see Jeffrey Combs in the role of Herbert West. At least in the end he regains his freedom and walks off into the night, so we can all rest comfortably knowing that Herbert West is still out there, continuing his work.


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