Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Re-Animator (1985)

Complaints I hear about modern horror films often are centered on the lack of practical effects and their replacement by CGI. The argument goes that so much of the blood and guts in these films are created on a computer, as opposed to using red corn syrup and sheep brains, and that it doesn't have the same effect as the old effects did because it lacks the presence and weight that you can see onscreen. Even if the red corn syrup looks super fake, it's clearly a fake something, captured on film, as opposed to pixels created after the fact. The actors can then really react to it and make it feel more integral to the scene.

I agree with this, to a point (clever animators can make CGI gore just as fun as practical gore if they use their tools right) but I think an even bigger thing missing from modern horror are the sounds. The squishes as somebody's intestines get ripped out, or the cartoony "SPLATS" of blood hitting a wall. If you watch Berberian Sound Studio you can see how integral these pieces of sound design are to the creation of a movie. Because it's not visual, however, these contributions often get overlooked by moviegoers still reeling from what they've seen onscreen.

Re-Animator, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, is a very gory movie. It has blood and guts all over the place, spraying out of a decapitated head or gushing from a zombies mouth. But more important then that, it sounds gory. Ever drip and drill, every squirt and screech, all are used to enhance the action onscreen in a way that turns the squick factor up to 11. A bloody head I can stand, but hearing the squish of the needle sinking into the neck as the plunger pushes it's serum into the body is a whole other world of disgusting, and Re-Animator knows how to uses these methods to their greatest effect. It's gross, and all the better because of it.

Dan Cain (Bruce Abbot) is a medical student at Miskatonic University, where he is a pupil of prestigious brain surgeon Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) and is dating the Dean's daughter, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). When Herbert West (Jeffery Combs), a new student straight from Switzerland, becomes Dan's new roommate, people begin to notice strange things about Mr. West. Like the cat disappearing, or weird noises coming from the basement. It turns out that West has been developing a serum which, when injected into a corpse, can restart brain activity after the brain has died. But one can only test animals for so long before needing to go through human trials, and maybe Herbert's new friend Dan can help him get some new subjects.

Re-Animator is a zombie horror-comedy, a genre that has become quite full and tired in recent years. What this movie has going for it, besides the fact it was made decades before the rush of these types of films, is that it plays it all fairly straight. There's no too-clever-by-a-half dialog nor is there any wacky juxtaposing of the characters doing things not normally done in a zombie movie. In fact, the zombies themselves don't truly show up until fairly late in the picture, and the focus of the movie is never really on fighting them. Instead the movie is far more interested in the science! behind it all. I say science! with an exclamation mark because it's not interested in any realistic depiction of bringing a person back to life. Heck, the serum itself is a glowing neon green, like out of a comic book. But the movie does like showing the experimentation, the laboratory equipment, the maniacal laughter, that whole bit. You know, science!

But what truly grounds the movie is Jeffery Combs performance as Herbert West. Jeffery Combs is right up there in the B-movie actor hall of fame, next to Michael Moriarty. His performance is funny and hammy, but the trick lies in with how he never undercuts it. He never winks or flinches, he fully commits to the character, and it shows. With lines like "Cat dead, details later," and "Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow," he is able to take this silly dialogue and make it sublime. David Gale gives another memorable performance as the dastardly Dr. Hill, and considering about half his screentime is as a talking decapitated head, that's saying something.

This movie isn't perfect. Sometimes the humor falls flat (one scene, involving Dr. Hill's reanimated head licking a naked Megan Halsey, is trying to go for funny but only comes across as uncomfortable) and sometimes the film slows down and takes a while to get back up to speed. But for the most part, Re-Animator is a fun and bloody thrill ride, willing to go for broke on it's goofy premise and completely delivering in every regard. On the Wicker Scale, Herbert West is reanimating a very pleased Christopher Lee.

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