Viking Night: Re-Animator
By Bruce Hall
February 11, 2015
It takes a big man to pull himself back together after someone's gone through all the trouble to hack you to bits.
That's what I took away from Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon's mid-‘80s send up/reimagining of an H.P. Lovecraft series of tales. Lovecraft, of course, was a respected horror pioneer who went largely unappreciated during his lifetime. He lived surrounded by madness and gloom, and died in bewildering agony, not unlike some of the characters in his books. If you're not sure who he was, either Google him or better yet, mention him in a room full of pretentious hipsters and watch them fall all over themselves to be the first to tell you how many Lovecraft books they’ve read. You'll probably need to stab someone to end the fracas.
The characters in Lovecraft's stories were often men of science, equal parts arrogant and curious, and nearly always obvious victims of their own ambition. That's pretty much the deal with Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a brilliant young scientist who's introduced to us just as his mentor's eyes explode. When accused of murdering the man he defiantly (and proudly) declares:
"I GAVE HIM LIFE!"
I can't stress enough how fantastic Combs' delivery is. The first three pages of the screenplay (penned in part by Gordon) read like the opening to any conventional mad scientist yarn. But just like a West Coast offense is useless without the right quarterback, a story like this needs someone to do the heavy lifting as well. And Herbert West is the Joe Montana of mad scientists. He's short, reedy and handsome in that ruddy way nobody ever sees until you're already successful. As such he gets by on his innate brilliance, never having mastered any social skills. Having been ejected from school in Switzerland on account of the whole exploding face incident, he settles into a residence at Miskatonic University in New England.
Despite his slightly negative reputation, his arrival is keenly anticipated by Dean Halsey, who is always looking for fresh young talent to attract those lucrative Old Money grants. West immediately clashes with Dr. Hill (David Gale), the school's preeminent brain expert. Content with having made a mortal enemy his first 10 minutes on campus, West moves in with Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), another aspiring student who happens to be schtupping the Dean's daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton). Dan and Megan are upstanding, hardworking types who look like they live in a shampoo commercial. So they ask few questions when West shows up with a wad of cash and a bunch of oddball medical equipment he wants to set up in the basement.
Things immediately get weird when Megan's cat disappears and turns up dead in West's refrigerator. It's never clear whether West killed it or "found it dead" the way he claimed. What's more important is the answer to the question "why was it in the fridge?" This answer is confirmed later that night, when Cain finds West wrestling with the formerly felled feline in the cellar. West explains that he and his late mentor (awesomely named Hans Gruber) had been researching life from death, with West himself having perfected a serum for the same. It works, with the only notable side effect being the fact that the re-animated patient suffers from homicidal rage. But Rome wasn't built in a day, right? Cain is sufficiently intrigued to approach Halsey with the discovery. Not only is he rebuked, but he and West are summarily expelled from school.