Horror and humour go hand-in-hand; or, possibly, hand-in-claw. Some of the most disturbing images you’ll ever see are only a hairsbreadth away from being ridiculous, and with both humour and horror being so subjective, it’s something of a blurred line between the two.
This is why it’s possible to make a superb horror film that is both scary and outrageously hilarious. Like An American Werewolf in London, for instance, or Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.
Re-Animator is based on HP Lovecraft’s novella Herbert West- Re-Animator, though the good Lord knows what Lovecraft would have made of the frenetic black humour of Gordon’s adaptation. At the Miskatonic Hospital, Arkham, Dan Cain (Abbot) has a lot going for him; he’s one of the brightest students in his year and he’s engaged to Megan (Crampton), daughter of Dean Allen Halsey (Sampson). Just one small thing: when it comes to death, he doesn’t know when to quit. When Herbert West (Combs) enrols as a student, he becomes Cain’s housemate and starts using their basement for his experiments in re-animation. Of course, things go horribly wrong very quickly, getting West and Cain expelled from school. Their attempts to re-animate a corpse from the hospital morgue goes equally pear-shaped, leaving Dean Halsey dead, but then re-animated.
After that things go from bad to worse when Dr Hill (Gale), the creepy brain surgeon with an unhealthy interest in mind control and Megan, tries to blackmail West into handing over his discovery and ends up having his severed head and decapitated corpse subjected to the re-animator’s scientific curiosity. Before you know it, there’s an army of re-animated on the rampage, tying a naked Megan to a lab table to be subjected to the attentions of Dr Hill’s disembodied head (in a scene that was heavily cut for the original video release). This leads to an oddly poignant ending.
One of the things that really distinguishes Re-Animator is the quality of its performances. As Cain, Abbott is spot-on, playing a character likeable enough to be the audience’s anchor amidst all the mayhem, but with enough of an obsessive streak – albeit in a worthy cause – to make his complicity with West credible. Sampson also deserves credit, the dignified, patrician Allen Halsey in the first half of the film barely recognisable as the alternately pitiable and murderous re-animatee of the second. The gorgeous Barbara Crampton is wonderful, too. Her performance as Megan is well above the bog-standard scream queen characterisation a lesser actress would have made of it.
But the film, of course, really belongs to Combs as Herbert West – fey, even borderline camp, but cold-blooded, manipulative and insatiably, morbidly curious. That said, he has stiff competition in the form of David Gale’s Dr Hill – initially creepy and reptilian, Hill’s death liberates him from any sort of social constraint and allows him to become the megalomaniacal pervert he’s always wanted to be. Combs’ and Gale’s exchanges are among the film’s blackly comic highlights (Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow.) Of course, the other star of the whole demented show is John Naulin’s gruesome special effects.
Films don’t always age well – The Exorcist is often found underwhelming by modern audiences – but the years have been kind to Re-Animator. If you first saw it back in the 80s, then rest assured it’s every bit as much fun as you remember it, if not more so. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve got a great evening’s entertainment ahead of you. But be sure you’ve eaten first.
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