NOVEMBER 15, 2009
Yes, it’s true - I have never seen Re-Animator in its entirety. An attempt in high school ended in slumber, an attempt in college ended in everyone talking and eventually leaving the room entirely, and an attempt at the Rock n Shock convention in Worcester ended in “We can watch this at home, let’s go walk around”. So I’ve seen the first half hour of the movie at least three times, and still had no idea why a disembodied head seemed to be the film’s most memorable aspect (hell, I didn’t even understand why Jeffrey Combs got all the attention - I’d only seen about three of his scenes!).
So, once again, I have the New Beverly to thank for filling in a sad hole in my horror knowledge. A revival screening, attended by both Combs and Stuart Gordon (fresh from another performance of “Nevermore” in Hollywood - if you are in the area and you haven’t seen it yet - GO! NOW!!! It’s a perfect show.), allowed me to FINALLY see the film all the way through to the end. And it is testament to the film’s entertainment value (and, PERHAPS, the two coffees and two caffeinated sodas I drank before) that my awake to asleep ratio was well above my average; I estimate I only missed about 5-7 minutes of the 90 minute film (which began around 12:45 am). Go me!
As you probably all know, it’s a really great movie. While I was slightly underwhelmed with the same team’s From Beyond, Re-Animator has held up quite well; I never got a sense of that “I guess I saw this too late” feeling that I’ve gotten from a few other 80s films that I missed back then and finally got around to in the HMAD days (Night of the Demons certainly comes to mind). In short, it’s not nostalgia - this movie is actually quite good.
The West/Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) dynamic is what really makes the film shine, even more than the effects/gore (which all hold up). Conventional writing would put the more interesting West in the forefront, but Gordon and Dennis Paoli wisely use him sparingly for the first half of the film, which allows you to solely identify with Dan. I guarantee any remake would cast some stiff in the Dan role and put West front and center, and that would be a mistake - he might be more interesting, sure - but his darkly humorous approach to everything (love the pencil scene) would probably grow wearisome after awhile if he was in every scene. Plus, I always like it when minor characters are explaining things to the hero, rather than the other way around; again, it’s an identity thing - if I’m putting myself in Dan’s shoes, it makes more sense to be learning about what’s going on at the same time he is.
And the gore, while largely backloaded (if you were to graph the insanity levels in this movie minute by minute, it would likely be a very straight, ever climbing upward line, not a rollercoaster up and down deal), is still pretty fantastic looking. The mid 80s were of course the heyday of great makeup effects work in horror movies, and Re-Animator’s effects rank up there with The Thing and The Fly. And kudos to the game cast for doing several of these scenes in the nude (male and female) - it’s not every day you see a bunch of naked corpses with gore appliances all over their bodies running around a morgue (and doing stuntwork to boot!).
It’s also the rare film of the era that doesn’t feel like it’s missing an act. So many 80s movies are simple “there’s a problem and then it’s solved” type affairs (The Lost Boys is a good example - Michael joins the vampires, immediately leaves, and then they fight. The end!), it’s almost nice to see one with actual subplots and a few twists, not to mention a more traditional three act structure. Of course, learning beforehand that it was the result of six Lovecraft stories being turned into one film sort of explains that, and that also makes the film impressive for another way - it never feels like an adaptation. The main characters are well-rounded, the supporting characters don’t feel like they are there just to appease fans of the book, the plot never feels rushed, etc. I haven’t read the stories, so I don’t know how closely the film follows them anyway, but it certainly seems like the filmmakers weren’t burdened by the source material at any rate.
With the film now seen, I was able to start going through the wealth of extras on the 2 disc DVD set that I had picked up a few years ago (it’s the green double case set from Elite, not the most recent release with the making of doc). There is nearly three hours’ worth of material on the 2nd disc, plus two audio commentaries. I listened to the track with Brian Yuzna and the primary cast (save the late David Gale), which was quite a lot of fun. They don’t bother with much actual information, just a few anecdotes, arguing over where things were shot (and in what order), and (mostly Combs here) taking a few jabs at the film (Megan (on-screen) “You never mentioned why you left Switzerland”; Combs: “Or why your hair has grown an inch since the last shot”). Gordon also provides a solo track, but I haven’t had time to listen to it yet.
However, if it’s anything like his interview with Yuzna on disc 2, I won’t want to bother. It’s of no fault to either man, but it’s 50 minutes long and only about half of that contains genuinely interesting information. But Elite didn’t bother to edit the interview down at all, so we also get a lot of them trying to remember people’s names, Yuzna rambling about another film he was going to make, etc. (and it’s out of sync to boot). Maybe if this is your all-time favorite movie this would be interesting (I probably wouldn’t mind Carpenter doing the same on a Halloween disc), but I would have liked to have seen them offer an edited version of the interview with just the highlights, and offer the longer one as a bonus to the bonus (sort of like the His Name Was Jason doc did). An interview with Paoli IS edited, and thus more appealing. He talks a bit about how they went about adapting it, as well as some of the stuff that didn’t make it. Then Richard Band talks for about 4856796 hours, and at one point more or less takes credit for the film having a comedic tone. Finally, Tony Timpone recites what he learned about the film by glancing at its IMDb page along with a story about how he was a +1 to see the movie back when he first started ruining Fangoria.
Band then re-surfaces in a far more interesting piece, since it includes his actual score. Sort of like a commentary, he talks about a few scenes and then they play with his score isolated. Since his main theme is such a direct copy of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score, it’s nice to see his other music (which is quite good) get its due (the entire score is available isolated over the movie on disc 1, for the record). Then we have about 25 minutes worth of deleted/extended scenes, including a nightmare scene that I’m not quite sure where it would fit in the narrative, but does give us another look at Barbara Crampton’s flawless body (I’m not being a pig - Pauline Kael said the same thing about her in her review!), so there’s something. Then there’s the usual collection of storyboards, stills, trailers/TVspots (best tagline ever: “Herbert West brought a lot of dead people back to life... and not one of them showed any appreciation.”), and cast bios.
It’s always good to see a revered film from 20+ years ago and find that it still works, especially on the big screen. It wasn’t until I saw Shocker there that I truly realized how slow the first half is, something that’s probably immediately obvious to everyone without nostalgia clouding their judgment. Likewise, a friend lambasted me for not loving Motel Hell (which I saw for the first time at home, in 2007), only for him to agree it had lots of problems after it screened at the Bev earlier this year. Re-Animator, on the other hand, played as well to me now as it apparently had to all of my friends who have been telling me for decades to watch it. Hurrah!
What say you?