Friday, January 27, 2012

The Late Shift: Re-Animator

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2012 at 4:06 PM

If you want an idea of how committed I am to this project, consider this: Three hours before the movie, my car was dead in Bellevue. Waylaid by a busted radiator in the ‘burbs, my No. 1 thought that wasn’t a monosyllabic swear word — so, let’s call it my No. 9 thought — was, "How in the hell am I going to get to The Belcourt tonight?”

Thanks to a tow truck, a ride from a tremendously kind stranger and a borrowed car, I managed to find myself safely in the warm, gooey embrace of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator with only seconds to spare.

So, I guess what I’m saying here is YOU’RE WELCOME.

But we're not here to talk about my automotive woes. We're here to talk about what may be the most (if not only) successful adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft story to date.

Before we get into it, there are a couple of programming announcements worth noting up at the top. First: Beloved disasterpiece The Room screens on the weekend of Feb. 17. Here's a fun drinking game to play with this column: Take a shot every time I mention The Room. Wait, no. Don't do that. I can't be held responsible for your eventual and inevitable death by alcohol poisoning. Be sure to snag tickets to that as soon as possible, as it will sell out. More on that in a month or so.

Following The Room will be Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, an absurdist comedy directly descended from the Adult Swim sketch series Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job. B$M just premiered to befuddled audiences at Sundance this week and will assuredly divide Belcourters when it screens in town on March 2 and 3.

Anyway! On to Re-Animator and a brief history lesson: Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft was a gothic horror writer active during the early part of the 20th century. His work primarily dealt with the madness that comes from being in contact with things that are incomprehensible to the human mind — elder gods, shapeless monsters, forbidden knowledge. If there are no words to explain it, chances are that Lovecraft had it terrorizing villagers in New England. For that reason, the bulk of Lovecraft's fiction had been long thought unfilmable. Well, that and his rampant, unchecked racism.

Re-Animator, however, is a different story all together. Conceiving it as something of a parody of Frankenstein, Lovecraft reportedly only wrote Herbert West-Reanimator for the cash. And honestly? It shows. Each installment reads like a half-assed aping of his contemporaries, especially thanks to the editorially mandated cliffhangers. The only really notable thing about it is that you could consider it as one of the earliest zombie stories. But that depends on how fast and loose you're willing to play with your definition of “zombie.”

And yet, Re-Animator — the movie — is surprisingly great.

The movie stars Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, a medical student teetering on the edge of madness who is determined to re-animate the recently deceased. Surmising the biology is all chemical, he invents a syrum that brings people back. Which works, in the sense that turning the newly dead into technically alive, shambling rage monsters “works.” As his experiments spiral out of control, the dean of the school and a jealous professor become victims in his pursuit.

Or in other words, to quote Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty, it's “that one movie with the body walking around holding its own head … and then the head went down on that babe.”

Re-Animator exists in a class of movies that seems tailor made for the midnight movie circuit. Not quite exploitation, but certainly exploitative, it could be used as a checklist to judge all other '80s splattercore horror flicks by: gratuitous nudity, animatronic zombie cats, gallons upon gallons of fake blood, an opening for a sequel. But what really sets Re-Animator (along with Evil Dead II and Dead Alive among others) apart from modern horror films — especially modern “mad scientist” or “evil inventor” films like Human Centipede and Saw — is its sense of humor.

Jeffrey Combs is the hands-down hero of this movie, not just because he's unsettling in his sociopathy, but because he's honestly funny in his role as West. He's sinister without being humorless. He's clearly a monster, but there's a degree of empathy buried somewhere in there. Human Centipede is all shock, all boogeyman. There's nothing about Dr. Heiter that connects with the audience. The difference between Re-Animator or last year's slasher comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and movies like Human Centipede is that one is fun to see and the other just makes you feel like a subhuman.

But is it ideal for a midnight movie screening? Like any gross-out horror/comedy, Re-Animator is more fun when you're surrounded by people who have no idea what they're in for. This wasn't so much the case on Saturday night — the crowd was a little thin and mostly looked like a combination of regulars and punk rock types who were already well aware of the flick. Which isn't to say they didn't get into it, it just would've been more fun with more newbies gasping in horror over decapitations.

Re-Animator certainly works as a midnight movie, but it'd do just as well with a handful of people gathered around a thrift store TV. Although, in that case you wouldn't be able to drink a drink modeled after West's re-agent, a rum-based cocktail with orange bitters, lime, simple syrup and enough green food coloring to turn it anti-freeze green.

Next Up: (Rowdy) Roddy McDowall fights vampires in Fright Night. Hope you guys are still into '80s horror movies!

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