There is, and always has been, a fine line between horror and comedy. Make something too horrific and the laughs will seem forced and out of place. Manage to write something comical enough to elicit laughter and you run the risk of making your audience too comfortable, rendering the horror a blunt instrument. The 1980’s were a graveyard of films that failed in this regard but also a haven for enthusiasts of cult cinema, of films that unsteadily walked the tightrope between masterpiece and trash and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator walks that tightrope with great poise and unique style.
One of the greatest films, if not the greatest film, ever to be adapted from literary behemoth H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre, Re-Animator is a psycho-hallucinatory body horror trip into the world of the weird. The story concerns Professor Herbert West and his obsession with experimenting on the dead in order to bring them back to life, working from his makeshift laboratory on the campus of Miskatonic University. As he tries to prove himself within the scientific community, his subjects begin to exhibit extremely violent behavior, leaving it up to West’s housemate and fellow scientist, along with his gorgeous girlfriend, to bring an end to this terrifying tale of bodily functions. The Blu-ray set that Second Sight has released comes with a typically gorgeous steelbook case and two equally explicit versions. The leaner ‘Unrated’ version is the one most audiences will have seen before but the ‘Integral’ disc contains a bit more meat that was originally cut from the bone.
Make no mistake, Re-Animator is a brainchild of 80’s culture and, most likely, could not be made today with the same enthusiasm and humorous honesty that we see here. Director Gordon, nowadays a mainstay in low budget horror cinema, only had one other feature under his belt when he started production on Re-Animator but it really doesn’t show. One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the control and poise that exists throughout with the whole cast and crew, from the iconic scream queen Barbara Crampton in the lead female role through to the special effects crew producing some of the most astonishing physical effects seen in horror history (rivaling even the most infamous of effects seen in Carpenter’s The Thing).
Is the aesthetic dated? You could argue that. Certain scenes are lit by a suave neon glow and seem to be bathed in an eighties music video glare but this only serves to heighten the originality that exists from the films stomach-churning opening to its blood-soaked end. We don’t expect to see people’s eyes being squeezed out of their sockets so cartoonishly or watch a headless sexual deviant assault a naked co-ed but nevertheless Gordon’s deft touch and seamless editing makes it all so thoroughly entertaining that you cannot help but be impressed. Horror films in this period were coming thick and fast, producing some awful, amateur offerings but there was also a certain inventiveness being underscored by filmmakers who were using the genre to explore the more otherworldly, outrageous aspects that the dimensions of cinema could offer.
H.P. Lovecraft used the extraordinary limits of the imagination to instill fear into his audience, unable to describe the atrocious beings that appear in his stories, but Gordon and Re-Animator do not ape this technique and maybe they simply cannot, maybe this is where cinema differs so much from literature. Such a visual medium could never match the imagination of a human being but what it can do is present somebody else’s imagination to us and have us question ourselves or, in this case, our sanity. Re-Animator comes from a collective imagination of filmmakers who wanted to shock, who wanted to appall but who also had an urge to entertain. In this case, resurrecting something doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Re-Animator is out on Blu-Ray now and available from Second Sight Films.