Sunday, October 27, 2013

Horror Thoughts ‘13—Re-Animator (1985) ***½

UR, 95 min.
Director: Stuart Gordon
Writers: Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris, Stuart Gordon, H.P. Lovecraft (short story “Herbert West, Re-Animator”)
Starring: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Coombs, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson, Gerry Black

Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” is one of those cult classics that make the uninitiated scratch their heads and the cult followers relish the details. It’s campy and earnest all at once and makes for one of the most unique horror movie experiences out there. The plot follows the exploits of Herbert West, a young doctor who has taken his mentor’s beliefs about life after death a little too far.

West isn’t the hero of the piece, however, nor is he the antagonist. He is merely the eccentric catalyst of the strange and bizarre events depicted here. He becomes housemates with another young doctor, Dan Cain, a naïve med student with notions about saving everyone. Cain is dating the daughter of the university’s dean of students and studying under the reputable Dr. Carl Hill. West makes a bad first impression with Hill by insulting all his theories as either stolen or shortsighted.

Secretly, West is conducting experiments with a solution he’s developed that will re-animate the dead. Cain gets wind of this when his cat disappears and then he discovers West fighting with a beastly version of the cat in the basement. The special effects for the cat in this scene are probably one of the reasons for this film’s cult status. The message at the end of the film that states no animals were harmed during the making of this movie was never less necessary because no one watching will believe they are seeing a real cat being thrown around in that basement. I could film one of my son’s stuffed animals, one that wasn’t even a cat, and it would look more like a real cat than the one in this scene. But, boy they approach that ball of fur with conviction.

The ultimate nemesis of the film also provides a good idea of the cult appeal. One of the characters loses his head at one point; but once it is re-animated by West, the head becomes the film’s villain. Using its own headless body to carry itself around in a sterile tray and a bowling ball bag, it is one of the more absurd villains in film history; and yet it is also somehow menacing enough to make you believe the peril of Cain’s situation, especially once it is revealed that the head has an obsession with Cain’s girlfriend.

There is nothing in this film that could be construed as great filmmaking, yet its absurdity and pure conviction places it in such a unique category of its own that it somehow achieves greatness. Certainly, it is a greatness that must be acquired as a taste, but you can chew it and spit it out again. I suppose it’s something like chewing tobacco. I don’t chew myself, but there must be some appeal for others to do it. I think the makers of this movie would appreciate that metaphor. 

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