Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Last night, we talked over both a remake and a prequel and how they tried oh so very hard to marry itself the concept of its original source, to overall lackluster results. What about when we get to a movie that doesn’t just lack that determination to be mistaken for its originator, but bounces off the walls in complete disregard for anything that isn’t as frivolous as the world it lives in, leading to both laughs and screams? In addition, I had been playing around for the first two days with starting with this movie and after a friend of mine mentioned every time he thinks of Lovecraft, he thinks of me, I thought “what the hell?”
If I didn’t know better – and I honestly didn’t until I saw the Masters of Horror episode “Dreams in the Witch-House” – I’d swear Stuart Gordon has never read an H.P. Lovecraft work. Now, not only do I know better, but I seem to have a hypothesis on why Gordon approaches his many adaptations of Lovecraft all throughout his career. When I got into Lovecraft, I was already in high school and reading his stories and novels on an approach very much inspired by my love for the novel Dracula… the idea of a scientific failure to rationalize the irrational events of horror really really intrigued me, especially at a time when I was being forced to read books on Anatomy, Physiology, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and other sciences by my strict dad (like most Arab fathers, he spent a great amount of raising me in the goal of making me a doctor).
It wasn’t until college when I learned that there are other kinds of fans of Lovecraft, in fact, a greater deal more than the type I was. There are fans of Lovecraft who are not as amused by the pseudoscience as the gory, grisly details in the descriptions of all the monstrous imaginative terrors Lovecraft conceived of on the page. And these are the same camp into the EC Comics and monster films like Godzilla and the show Tales from the Crypt and the zombie films. And I don’t doubt Gordon falls into both types of Lovecraft fans, but it’s very clear who he was catering to when he made Re-Animator.
If you don’t know Lovecraft, I don’t care how many horror movies you have claimed to see or how many Edgar Allen Poe poems or Stephen King novels you read, you do not know horror. He’s certainly not the most definitive name in the whole spectrum, but he is probably one of the most influential, the one most horror driven artists owe themselves to. He’s been graced with many an adaptation and much more a reference to his works in. He’s inspired nearly every worthwhile name associated with horror since him from Blue Oyster Cult to Garham Harman, and then some stinkers too. But a lot of those adaptations have proven to not entirely be faithful and there’s kind of a point to that.
Lovecraft, for all his imagination and for all I love him and use to eat him up in high school, was not a good writer. Even giving him the doubt of his stories trying to re-enact the tedium and verbose manner of science journals and other diagetic documents (which honestly did not even hurt Stoker’s Dracula one bit), the man’s prose is not half as engaging when it’s trying to continue the narrative as it is when it is illustrating some horrid visuals and expressing some fatalistic philosophy. And he doesn’t have a sense of coherent structure or pacing when a good storyteller. If any of his books were made word by word into the big screen, it would feel like Atlas Shrugged in movie form. It would be kind of boring.
But that doesn’t change just how shocking and expansive his horror ideas were and how easily they could attract the pulp crowd that was growing at the time he wrote, even when it became a chore for them to finish his works.
And so we get to Stuart Gordon, who loved Lovecraft so much that most of his movies are based on Lovecraft’s works. Gordon, however, knows Lovecraft’s modern audience a lot better I certainly did the first time I saw his cult hit Re-Animator – that is to say, he knew they were more into the grisly than the rationale behind the grisly – and took as much of the original story as he felt necessary and began to sew in as much as he could a better and more genuine sense of storytelling while really bringing out the comic book and pulp elements that the concept just fucking begged for. That, to me, is one of the smartest approaches to making an adaptation of any work whatsoever and so the problem isn’t the execution in itself so much as where Gordon felt satisfied.
So, let’s jump into the concept of this idea: Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has returned to New England and enrolled Miskatonic University after having recently worked his medical studies in Switzerland. He’s clearly causing a ruckus in his presence as he clearly interests Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), the student whom he is renting a room from, yet disturbs Dan’s fiancée Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). In the meantime, Megan’s father and Miskatonic Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) is not having any of West’s shit since, in addition to his peculiar behavior, West has been accusing one of the professors Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) as first a plagiarist and then afterwards incompetent in general as a professor. It is not elaborated on whether he was kicked out or if he left of his own volition, but what is clear is that his time in Switzerland left him with a very effective reagent and that, after a humorous incident with Dan’s cat that convinces him of West’s genius, the reagent is in fact able to reanimate the dead. Of course, the consequences of West’s deranged drive begin to bring consequences that threaten the personal life of Dan and outright threaten Miskatonic’s both literal and social standing…
It’s an out-and-out zombie movie with a bit of mad scientist to it, which is pretty much fine. That’s how Lovecraft’s serialized short story “Herbert West – Reanimator” went about and it was able to carry a sort a little more sober a weight and he still hated it (I’m not very sure Lovecraft had much of a sense of humor – one of a few qualities alongside his pretentious defense of racism making him an artist I do not find myself wanting to be in the company of). Gordon doesn’t need that sobriety. It’s a ridiculous concept, why not make it ridiculous in tone? Why not have a great deal of tentacles shooting out to strangle people or giant naked cadavers with very comic book colors of blue and pink on their skin resembling a bloated Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein (in fact, the music video for the Misfits’ “Scream” resembles heavily the climax of Re-Animator). Why not have it with wacky leaping undead cats and heads that express bloody hatred even though they have no windpipe or lungs any more? Hey, it’s not like the movie doesn’t earn this ridiculousness. It provides a world that harkens at both science-fiction and horror influences with its sustained use of shadow and cold interiors, not to mention that the reagent itself is a very gorgeously glowing alluring green that stands out in every single moment it is pulled out. But are the actors willing to play around with it as well?
Well, the actors are honestly hit and miss and some of it comes from a lack of effort or understanding how to go with these characters and some of the failings come from how you can write these lines, but really you can’t say them. Robert Sampson makes a much more exciting dead person than a living being, where he comes off as just inconsistently stuffy or doting depending on the scene. David Gale is not entirely ineffective as a villain as he pulls out the diabolical to 11 with trying to discredit or ruin West, but his more intimate moments of hatred are stone-dead looks without much else behind them. Again, Gale makes more exciting performances dead than living. And Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton are both pretty much the weakest link in the whole movie’s line-up, particularly in the scenes that diverge from the storyline to just have Dan and Megan express their uncertainty and display their romantic relationship. Abbott gives a deadline performance that just doesn’t convince me that he knows how ridiculous the movie is and yet doesn’t seem to realize this performance wouldn’t pass in a soap opera either, while Megan has not much else to her personality except getting the creeps from West and while Crampton is eager as all hell to play the screaming waif as the movie proves, it’s very undeserving of any actress.
Instead, let’s get to Jeffrey Combs as West. It’s very impossible for me not to associate an actor who appeared in any Star Trek related work with Star Trek. When people will try to argue that Combs really played a plethora of characters in the Star Trek franchise, dude, you don’t know how far my Star Trek obsession goes. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Trekkie as I just in general avoid labels, but it doesn’t matter how big or how small the role is – you’re in Star Trek, you’re Star Trek guy to me (in the last 31NoH article, I refrained from noting I immediately recognized Paul Rae as a bartender in an episode of Enterprise. A fucking bartender nameless and shit!).
Combs breaks past my association with Star Trek to make Dr. Herbert West, his own. He lives in the peculiarities and never once gives a sign of enjoyment like most camp performances would indulge in, but instead just makes West such a genuine essence that is the center of all of this madness and chaos that unfolds that in a performance that should by all rights be as hammy as the film it takes place in, he is not caught acting once. Not once. All the brilliance, all the narcissism, the struggle for Dan’s attention from Megan, the amorality, the relentlessness, it’s all stolen, not captured, by a very restlessly energetic but subdued performance out of Combs. He’s the mania of Dr. Pretorius with the casualness of… I don’t know how to put it, but the fact that such a crazed performance can restrain so much but give its personality away through mere speech in dialogue scenes astounds me. Combs is not Weyoun or Brunt or Shran. He’s Dr. Herbert West to me.
Anyway, the rest of the movie carries on as is for the first… maybe hour and ten minutes. The movie’s plot boils on as West and Dan continue to run through their unethical experiments until every once in a while an “Oh shit!” moment happens and West ends up using a solution that makes the situation even worse, affecting Megan, Dan, Dean Halsey and even Dr. Hill, who continues meddling into trying to find a way to ruin West’s career. Every once in a while, we’d get another unnecessarily banal moment between Megan and Dan, but to our comfort, they don’t last half as long as they could have if the movie didn’t realize we care less about their relationship as we do about West’s misadventures.
All the while these gory, speechless moments of hysteria and madness encompassed in shots of flailing bodies, both living and dead, trying to come to terms with the things they are going through that should not be really sell this movie’s source as a horror-comedy. If we choose to laugh, we can. If we don’t, it’s fine the movie is still doing its job by making us uncomfortable. It’s however unfortunate that it doesn’t play with this horror-comedy dynamic as smartly as, say, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, another movie that holds this same “slapstick from Hell” feel in spades, because it’s still based on a Lovecraft and since Lovecraft’s sense of humor was lacking, it was clear that Gordon really had to work for that tone to be fit into moments of West’s grandeur that would probably be melodramatic under another director. The comedy works along just well, though, and is very pleasing for the most part.
And then there’s the really infamous part about this movie. Which will be added with a spoiler and NSFW image, so I’m just gonna put this sentence as a warning.
Now, before I move to this scene, let me recount the moment I tried to show this movie to a group of my peers. My hand to Odin, not a one of them was paying attention to the movie up until this point except me. Nobody really cared, rather doing dishes, on their phones, or doing homework. Nobody was really engaged by the movie as they all had better stuff to do.
Lo and behold, this moment came up and all of them were paying their fucking attention immediately with disgust and bemusement and it’s pretty obvious why.
A horror movie likes to play on shock factor and many of them will try it safe, while a lot will try to push the edges. In an era where we have The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film, movies are going to tear the envelope to shreds to open it and go “Ta-Da!” for it.
I honestly don’t know my stance on this moment, though. It’s obvious that they all worked a whole lot on it and its touches on the near pornographic fascinations that adults would, in the old days, condemn on the EC comics for their alleged perversity. This scene obviously goes to extremes to go there, though obviously. Megan is being sexually assaulted by Dr. Hill’s severed head in the middle of a zombie movie while the plucky heroes of West and Dan are going over there to rescue her. It’s a perverted mix between softcore indulgence and damsel in distress fantasy. And considering the rest of Barbara Crampton’s work, I don’t doubt she was very very into the scene anyway and wasn’t opposed. But, while I wouldn’t call myself a feminist (only because again, fucking labels for me, I completely agree with all mainstream feminist ideals I am familiar), this raises Sam Peckinpah levels of objection out of me. Was it really necessary? I don’t fucking know or care. It doesn’t disgust me, it doesn’t make me feel horror, but my main shock is simply out of saying “Wow, you went there, Gordon.”
It brings what was a pretty swell movie a few notches down for me and if that seems unfair, well, deal with it. I can’t possibly proudly say a movie that is so desperate for a scene like this has earned a glowing “IT IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER”.
But anyway, at any rate, we get past this quick scene to what might be one of the most rushed finales I’ve ever seen a movie go through after being patient enough to build itself up, a battle between Dr. Hill’s undead army (among them Megan’s father also reanimated) and West, Dan and Megan. And it’s a pretty crazy moment, where physics and logic go flying right the fuck out of the window as West’s secret weapon happens to be “OVERDOSE!!!”, but it isn’t the most level pay-off for everything else the film was promising. Just more extended scenes of moments of struggling with a large muscular zombie that we kind of got enough of in the middle of the film. It’s enough to keep me moving with the story, but really not as much fun or as interesting this time around and it’s clear Gordon’s imagination has run out.
Shortly after this action setpiece of contained tensions, we get a very brief scene of one character desperately attempting to resuscitate another as a casualty of the hijinks that ensued in Miskatonic and in said character’s desperation, we get one more gag that is a literal screamer. It’s a pretty effective ending that played very predictably but ended the movie on that very comic book “what have we done” note.
I don’t entirely get why Lovecraft hated “Herbert West – Reanimator”. It was indeed among the best structured of his works, the one where he felt most like a writer, but I’m sure he wouldn’t exactly go gaga for Stuart Gordon’s film. And he can go fuck himself probably for that. I myself wouldn’t go gaga, but I’m still somewhat satisfied by what we got: a decent hunk of story, a decent hunk of great performances, and a decent hunk of setpieces that come straight out of a Romero set.
But it’s still the wholly great deal it could have been. Sometimes moments falter, sometimes scenes shouldn’t exist, sometimes emotions aren’t convincing and sometimes we get to seeing that Gordon didn’t think the whole movie through (one of the biggest signs of this is the score “by” Richard Band… except it sounds exactly like every score Bernard Herrmann ever wrote for Alfred Hitchcock and it doesn’t fit the movie’s style at all). It’s not a great movie in spite of its intentions and efforts and it barely makes it by to the good movie category by the additional weight the good parts have to carry.
But again, we are lucky among those good parts happens to be Herbert West and when I have to smile and explain to mortified peers why I own this movie, it’s because of the revelation of a performance that comes out of Jeffrey Combs. And of course, we are also lucky that for Gordon’s understanding lack of dedication to Lovecraft this time around, we get a very very very fun movie for its first hour. It doesn’t get nearly enough credit for itself, but “hey, better it live unrecognized than stolen by a talking head that should get a job at a sideshow… ” I say in my mind…
“… and that forces itself on a young maid.” I tell myself as I keep skipping that 1 and a half minute moment.