Welcome back to the tombs of THE UNSEEN HORROR. Last time, we examined the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story with THE HAUNTED PALACE. Since that first film, there have been many attempts to bring Lovecraft’s work to film. These results have been mixed, often due to the difficulty of modernizing/adapting Lovecraft’s complex work to the screen. However, one film has managed to become a minor horror classic. It’s the most well-known of Lovecraft’s film adaptations, so we’re going to examine it today. Taken from ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’, here is… well, RE-ANIMATOR.

THE PLOT

Herbert West is a newly arrived medical student at Miskatonic University. He quickly alienates the professors with his outspoken and quirky views on the window between life and death. West isn’t just talking though. He’s created a viable substance, re-animate, that can bring the dead back to life. However, West hasn’t yet perfected the formula, as his experiments produce incoherent, violent zombies. When a jealous professor tries to steal his formula, West adds him to his list of experiments. However, this may be the ingredient that pushes his experiment over the edge…

A Mixed Reception For A Mixed Source

While RE-ANIMATOR was a cult hit among horror fans, Lovecraft fans have far more varied reactions. Some of this is due to the source material. This tale is widely disliked among hardcore Lovecraft fans, even though it introduced the oft-referenced Miskatonic University. Even Lovecraft disliked the original story; he wrote it as a serial and hated ending each chapter on a cliff-hanger. However, fans generally consider it one of Lovecraft’s weaker works in general. It was event out of print for many years. The film itself has it’s own problems though. RE-ANIMATOR presents itself as a gory horror-comedy, albeit a fairly black one at times. Humor was a subject that did not exist in Lovecraft’s writing, and it’s easy to imagine fans not wanting to laugh at one of his stories.

RE-ANIMATOR
But how can you not? Image courtesy of https://staringatangels.wordpress.com

However, it’s also fair to say that even the original tale was built from a humorous source. Lovecraft wrote it as a parody of FRANKENSTEIN, which puts West’s constant failures and inability to accept defeat into new light. LURKER IN THE LOBBY: A GUIDE TO THE CINEMA OF H.P. LOVECRAFT also points this out when examining the film. In their own words on the negative fan reaction,  “the final criticism of the film might have been a bit more muted if these fans had actually read the “West” stories, which are pure exploitation.” Beyond that, the laughs don’t come from gags or pratfalls here. They come from the sheer insanity and unrivaled gore that builds as West’s experiments spiral out of control. It also features a tragic ending that is pure Lovecraft. So while it may be funny, RE-ANIMATOR knows quite well that it’s a Lovecraft story.

The Rise of the RE-ANIMATOR

The story of RE-ANIMATOR has many behind the scenes elements. However, the film would not function without the right cast to bring it to life. The film boasts a small, well used, cast. Bruce Abbott plays the all-important straight man role. While he does follow West’s experiments, he expresses enough disgust to counter the doctor’s enthusiasm. Barbara Crampon solidified her status as a scream queen, under going perhaps the strangest kidnapping in film. And David Gale is pitch perfect as the villainous Dr. Hill. Gale captures the concealed evil of Hill alive, and that same evil unleashed when he dies. However, there is one absolute stand out in the cast- Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West.

RE-ANIMATOR
Image courtesy of villians.wikia.com

West was Combs’ break out role, giving him a career playing odd, yet fascinating characters. He imbues West with obsessive qualities, much like a frustrated Dr. Frankenstein. No matter how many times he fails, West refuses to admit his work is flawed. Another actor might play this as evil, but Combs finds another way. West also has an unintentional dark humor, punctuated by how far his obsessions drive him. After he murders Hill with deciptation, he decides to bring the body and head to life separately. It ridiculous, but Combs makes it both urgent and funny, especially with his reactions. Combs also showcases how he can make even the strangest dialogue seem normal. If you want proof, look at my favorite line of the film.

“You’ll never get credit for my research, who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job at a sideshow.”

Without Combs’ charisma, it’s unlikely Herbert West would be as well remembered, or RE-ANIMATOR as entertaining.

RE-ANIMATOR: Worth the Injection

RE-ANIMATOR may not be the best representation of Lovecraft’s work. However, it showcases some of his themes (namely obsession and death) while doing so with gore and entertaining black humor. The performers shine in their roles, and Jeffrey Combs is a treasure to watch. So this year, grab the neon fluid and inject RE-ANIMATOR into your TV.

Next time, we’ll move away from Lovecraft’s Providence, RI, and into the darkness of England, where another writer waits with an army of monsters…

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