Before any rumors began flying around regarding Guillermo del Toro’s “At the Mountains of Madness” there was already a determined king of Lovecraftian film adaptations and his name was Stuart Gordon. Right at the top of Gordon’s filmography, somewhere way above “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”, is his 1985 cult classic “Re-Animator.” The film stars Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton in what is the first installment of the Re-Animator trilogy. The story follows Herbert West (Combs) after he discovers the secret to reanimating dead animal tissue. West chooses to further his studies at Miskatonic University and moves in with a fellow medical student, Dan Cain (Abbott) and his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Crampton). As the medical students strive to continue perfecting the formula for reanimation, members of the school’s faculty attempt to steal West’s discoveries to claim credit.
Stuart Gordon both wrote and directed this film and everything about the movie is riddled with his personal style. There’s a strong undercurrent of mystery, and while Lovecraftian stories nearly always deal with strong elements of otherworldly affects and the supernatural, Gordon’s writing and directing help keep the story feel grounded even when people are carrying around their own heads and commanding a room full of reanimated corpses (just as a very simple example). It’s worth noting that while there is an overall tone of darkness and gloom, “Re-Animator” certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is a number of laugh-out-loud visual gags and some very clever and quippy dialogue.
The acting helps aid the tone as well because, though it is a relatively low-budget film, nothing about it ever feels schlock-y in any way. Combs, Abbott and Crampton each command a majority of the screentime, and while most of the plot is driven through the male medical students, I find Crampton’s performance of Megan Halsey, the daughter of Miskatonic University’s dean, to be the most refreshing. Unlike a number of horror movie scream queens, Crampton is very calculated in her hysteria and fits very naturally in this incredibly unnatural world. I think much of the film’s final twist is predicated on the nuance of her acting and the payoff is certainly worth the wait.
Perhaps my personal favorite element is Gordon’s use of special effects, all of which are brilliantly executed. From Rufus the reanimated feline, to Herbert West attempt to fatalize a reanimated corpse with a bonesaw through its chest, to a headless Dr. Hill feeding blood bags to his own decapitated head. The effects are a lot of fun to watch, and while there is a lot of violence involved, Gordon does a brilliant job of deviating from cliche blood splatters and excessive gore. The effects themselves also have a sense of scale as the story progresses so that by the time we see a headless man holding a decapitated head while telepathically commanding a room of corpses to attack the medical students, it actually feels very justified and makes perfect sense within the carefully crafted world fo the story.
Stuart Gordon is one of my favorite directors and possibly one of the more underappreciated directors of the genre. The passion and commitment he placed into each of his films is palpable and is a real treat to any horror fan. Gordon often made movies that he felt had value and artistic merit regardless of whether or not the Hollywood studios chose to back his ventures. This is a mentality that seems to be increasingly rare in the current climate of the film world. I’ve gone through a series of emotions myself since hearing of his passing because I see him as a director who really helped pull me to the genre, but I take solace in knowing that he may be sitting somewhere in a bizarre alternate dimension working on the next great Lovecraftian screenplay while petting Rufus the reanimated feline.
Re-Animator is available to stream on Shudder and for rent/purchase on most Video on Demand platforms.