Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Herbert West Makes A Perfect Dead Head


RE-ANIMATOR

I confess I didn't "get" Re-Animator when I first saw it.  I was perplexed by whether this was a horror film or a comedy.  After second viewings, I figured it was both.  Re-Animator is a film that one can't quite take seriously but that one can't help but admire for some strong performances and quite good visual work.

Dan Cain (Bruce Abbot) is a medical student having a semi-secret affair with the Dean's daughter, Megan (Barbara Crampton).  Into his class comes one Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), recently come from Switzerland after some curious experiments.  West has contempt for Miskatonic University's eminent professor, Carl Hill (David Gale), convinced that Dr. Hill is a borderline quack with nary an original idea in his head.

Through a process all his own, West has created a syrum that allows him to bring back the dead (or re-animate) going past the twelve-minute barrier when brain death becomes permanent.  He's been able to bring out the dead so to speak, but somehow, it never quite turns out right... 

Dean Halsey not only doesn't believe Cain (even after Cain witnesses West bringing a dead cat to life) but cuts off his student loan.  Desperate to keep his studies and Megan, he goes along with West to the morgue to select a body to try out the serum.  As is the case with West, it doesn't quite work out, with the re-animated corpse going out of control.  In the chaos, Dean Halsey himself is killed, but West, always eager to find the freshest subject possible, merely injects Halsey with his serum.  It revives him, but again, not exactly the way he would have liked: Halsey appears to be insane rather than merely a walking dead.

Hill realizes that Halsey is clinically dead and traces all these antics to West.  At first he attempts to merely steal West's idea, but since West brooks no challenges to "his genius", he kills Hill.  Not letting a good opportunity go to waste, he takes Hill's severed head and revives it, along with Hill's decapitated body.  Bad move: Hill still knocks West out and steals his formula.

Now Hill can not only achieve his own world domination, but can also finally have his way with Megan (with her semi-dead father a zombified servant).  West and Cain go to the morgue for a rescue: Cain to rescue his fiancee, West to rescue his formula.  Hill has suspected they might come for him, so he has contingency plans.  While Hill is ultimately defeated Re-Animator ends with some question marks: Herbert West is last seen desperately trying to untangle himself from Hill's large intestines which had burst out of his body after West gave his headless corpse an overdose of the serum, and Megan's scream can be heard in the darkness when Cain uses said serum on a recently killed Megan. 

I confess to not quite figuring out exactly what I was watching when I first saw Re-Animator at the behest of my friend/fellow cinephile Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead).  I wasn't working out some of the points of logic Re-Animator appears to play with (such as how exactly does a brain function without lungs or a heart to operate it or how a body can function without the brain directing it).  However, as I kept thinking about Re-Animator, what I found was a fun film that didn't take itself seriously (as opposed to the character of Herbert West, who took himself far too seriously).

Re-Animator may bill itself as a horror film (and I would argue that it does have horror elements (such as living corpses, dismembered bodies, and blood galore) but it also is a remarkably funny film. 

The chief credit for maintaining the balance between horror and comedy comes from Jeffrey Combs' performance.  As played by Combs, Herbert West is a man completely blind to anything but his efforts to re-animate the dead.  I've long argued that West is at heart an almost gleefully optimistic character: no matter how often he fails (and he does) and no matter that perhaps the dead might not want to brought back to life (or at least the afterlife West provides them), Herbert West keeps trying, convinced that eventually not only will he get it right but will be thanked for his work.  

Combs never makes West a figure of ridicule or exagerrates West's lunacy.  Instead, he plays it perfectly straight.  When he faces off against Hill in their final confrontation, he doesn't appear shocked or horrified, merely irritated that Hill is wasting his time getting his jollies with co-eds.  In short, Combs' portrayal of West is of a man who is so thoroughly focused on his work that he fails to see just how bizarre things look to anyone else. 

West never states exactly why he wants to bring back the dead.  We don't get any backstory about traumatized childhoods or delusions of power.  The closest he ever comes to expressing a motivation is when he tells Cain if he agrees to help in West's plans, "You'll be famous...and live five times."  Combs gives a simply extraordinary performance: he is creepy without being camp, obstinant, certainly egocentric (when a corpse fails to come around and Cain tells him he's failed, West snaps back, "He failed. Not I"), but Combs also makes him seem a bit like a child eager to show his newest toy.  When a horrified Cain asks West if Hill is dead, Combs' reaction and the way he looks almost sheepish when he tells Cain, "Not anymore," is both oddly endearing and hilarious. 



The fact that Combs, who is a small man, clearly dominates the much taller Abbot (and really everyone else in Re-Animator) makes West a more powerful figure in how he cajoles everyone.  One can almost admire him for being so persistent, even if he clearly is not interested in the unforseen consequences of his actions.     

Abbot plays the straight man to Combs, and together they form a perfect double-act: Combs' tightly-wound West versus Abbot's more casual creation of Cain as a good man who finds himself part of this insanity.  Abbot makes us see that Cain is in love with Megan and that he tries to do the right thing, but when push came to shove (in some cases quite literally) he would take desperate steps to save his medical career.

I confess to enjoying Gale's Dr. Hill, who never played up the lecherous nature of the bad doctor until he literally loses his head.  Again, the balance of horror and comedy (as when his head is about to give some to a screaming Megan) never is off: one can either sit stunned at what one is watching or smile over where the story is going. 

I don't think Crampton gave the best performance as the somewhat naive, somewhat ditzy Megan, but she could scream with the best of them.

There is a certain economy in Stuart Gordon's directing and his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's short story Herbert West-Reanimator (along with Dennis Paoli and William Norris) in that we move quickly from one point to another without lingering long on the characters or their situations.  We get subtle and not-so-subtle hiints about the characters merely by their actions: Hill's sexual desire for Megan are clear when he gives her a toast, West's lack of morality/total dedication to his work when he is not awed by having brought back Hill's head but in inquiring what Hill is thinking.

There are also some most impressive work in Marc Ahlberg's cinematography: the final battle with Hill's zombie army and West/Cain is beautifully shot, and the make-up work on the various dead is still, nearly twenty-five years later, expertly rendered and holds up.

Even Richard Band's score (whose opening is an obvious rip-off of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score) appears to be at times more played for laughs than for shock.  At first I was appalled that Psycho was so evident there, but now I see it as being so patently clear that it signals that Re-Animator is not to be taken completely seriously.      

Re-Animator has some outrageous moments that might be shocking but which are actually quite funny.  This time though, the humor is intended.  Anchored by a simply brilliant performance by Jeffrey Combs as this brittle, narcissistic, yet almost endearing nutjob Herbert West, Re-Animator has earned its place as both a true horror film and a wicked black comedy. 

Herbert West: Icon.
            

DECISION: B+

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