Re-Animator is about as close to the classic “Mad Scientist” movie as you can get. It’s hard to make an archetypal film, especially when the specific genre you are going for has many different ways to progress through it’s story, but Re-Animator touches all the bases that fans love. First and foremost, we have Herbert West, a clever take on the mad scientist role, played by the incomparable Jeffrey Combs. The story is (loosely) based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, so at it’s heart it is a deep discussion of man’s place in the cosmos, not just the goofy romp it seems like on the surface. While the dialogue itself is not overly technical, lay viewers still get the feeling that they are being audience to a little bit of behind the scenes medical knowledge, the kind of thing the average person isn’t supposed to know. Even with all of these deep undercurrents running through the movie, Stuart Gordon still puts on a show that is highly entertaining, funny, and downright disgusting all at the same time. Talk about packing a punch!
The acting in Re-Animator is classy, and that’s the best word I can use. Bruce Abbot gives every bit of life to Dan Cain as is allowable by the script. With a little more freedom here and there he may have been able to make Dan as memorable a character as West, but Abbot brings upon a great empathy to the character. The character of Cain is in a peculiar situation that we see a lot in genre films: That of the protagonist who is really not the main character. Re-Animator is about Herbert West, the brilliant, somewhat diabolical young doctor who has discovered the secret to returning life to dead tissue. Cain is the vessel through which West’s story is told. Jeffrey Combs, who plays West, gives one of the more memorable performances of the 80’s with his take on the young scientist. Both frightening and pitiful, mad and more grounded than anyone else, Combs plays a highly dynamic and thought provoking character. The main players certainly are the stars, but it would be belittling not to mention the other talents in the film. David Gale is awesome as the counter to Cain, the corruptible Dr. Carl Hill, who truly makes the transition from good to evil as he discovers the power that West has created. Robert Sampson and Barbara Crampton also do well as the supporting father-daughter duo who add an interesting element to the story, as well as some important plot devices (corrupted father, damsel in distress, etc.).
Stuart Gordon really makes a name for himself in his debut, but more importantly makes a cinematic statement that many have tried to emulate over the years. The pace of Re-Animator is great, seamlessly transitioning from slower, story building segments to fast paced action segments. Gordon allows the writers to develop each character in a methodical way, but keeps the story moving in the midst without ever worrying about losing audience members. The tale itself is presented masterfully, with minimal set and scene changes and a talented eye for showing us exactly what we need to see. With the exception of the decapitated monster “rape” scene, Gordon leaves a tremendous amount the imagination, which in my opinion is not only the mark of a great director but that of someone that truly knows the story he is telling. The cinematography is clean, and camera angles, lighting and sound are all used to convey the story, not as unnecessary show off elements.
I can’t say enough about the visual effects in this movie. It’s no “The Thing”, but the physical effects are nothing short of amazing. The make up effects on the dead bodies in the morgue look very real and believable, which enhances the realism of the whole movie. Those same effects turn into the key elements to the horror and cheese later in the movie. Blood splattering and dismemberment is just over the top enough to be entertaining to hardcore horror fans, but it will still get some squirms out of the less experienced in the audience. The last bit of visual dynamite is the re-animation serum. It’s a minor thing, but the fact that it is super neon green just makes me smile inside. As with most of the rest of the decisions made in the movie, would it not be completely stereotypical that the mad scientist’s concoction would be neon green?
Re-Animator is fun, has a good story and some solid acting, but it’s a bit more than that. It is one of those few movies that are especially important to the genre. First of all, it’s one of the first good “Lovecraft” stories, which signals the transition of one of horror’s most beloved storytellers into the realm of film. There were attempts before and after, but Re-Animator is probably one of the best and most well known. While I’m not saying it’s a faithful retelling, it is definitely an important step in ringing in the master of cosmic horror. It also brought life back to the “mad scientist” sub genre. It’s not a particularly big sub genre, nor is it one that comes to mind very often, but it is good to see that it is still relevant. “Frankenstein” is obviously the primary example, but I think modern folk will relate much closer to Herbert West than Dr. Frankenstein. Lastly, it’s a prime example of both classic 80’s horror and dark comedies. Even when taking all film genres into account, it’s hard to not list Re-Animator in your selection of great dark comedies. It has the wit, gags and lurking pure evil to stand with any of them.
In the end, Re-Animator is twisted, stylish, fun and interesting. It’s not the most original of stories (and maybe that’s just coming from the fact that it’s 2013), but it is still a great story. It was filmed in a great way, where everything you see furthers the plot and hardly anything is unnecessary. Among horror circles, Re-Animator is liked well enough, but I feel it is very under appreciated for what it is. Outside of horror, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that’s ever even heard of it. Anyway, with it’s recent release on Blu-Ray(get it here), hopefully it will see a bump in popularity as young blood experience it for the first time and old fans (like me) revisit it.