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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Sampson’

One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few months to keep myself occupied and stay sane is (brace yourself for delight) write a book. My chosen topic relates to the writer H.P. Lovecraft, a writer of early 20th century horror stories, and one of the things it occurred to me to include was a brief overview of the various movies based on or influenced by Lovecraft’s writing. To be honest, the latter category probably contains more distinguished films than the former: it includes, arguably, every version of The Thing, Annihilation, Hellboy (and many other del Toro movies), and so on. Actual Lovecraft adaptations tend to be cheaper and creaker, beginning with The Haunted Palace, and going on to include the likes of Die, Monster, Die!, The Unnamable, and plenty of obscurities with titles like Cthulhu Mansion, Castle Freak, and Dagon. In the end I gave up on trying to be comprehensive – it’s not even as if there’s a universally-respected reference work on the subject, as the most prominent candidate – entitled Lurker in the Lobby: The Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema – has been the recipient of mixed reviews, to say the least.

Despite having spent my time in the trenches when it comes to this kind of thing, there was still a very obvious omission: one of the most obvious cult movies based on Lovecraft’s work, Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator. (This garnered Gordon such a following that he has gone on to become possibly the most prolific adaptor of Lovecraft to the screen: some of the films mentioned up the page are his.) Happily, the movie – which for quite a long time never turned up on terrestrial TV, simply because of the levels of gore in it – popped up on one of the high number channels just the other day.

As the short story the film is based on is set in real Lovecraft country – which is to say, mist-haunted New England – I was slightly surprised when the opening scenes of the movie turned out to take place at a university in 1980s Switzerland. Something is terribly wrong with respected academic Dr Hans Gruber: he seems to be having some kind of seizure, followed by his eyeballs exploding (if nothing else this sequence does set the tone for the rest of the movie very accurately). Needless to say, Gruber expires shortly afterwards. Suspicion falls on visiting American student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who insists that rather than murdering Gruber through some dangerous experiment, he in fact brought him back to life!

And we’re off into an appropriately garish credit sequence, which is extra-confuzzling for the cine-literate (or even not so cine-literate) viewer, as the score of the film is very blatantly ripping off that of Psycho (so it’s not as if they’re just copying some obscure movie with bland and nondescript music). It’s perhaps a slightly more poppy, upbeat, burlesque version of the Psycho theme, but even so I’m astonished that writs didn’t fly in the direction of credited composer Richard Band.

Anyway, we find ourselves back in the States, at Miskatonic Medical School, where youthful Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is pursuing his medical studies and romancing the daughter (Barbara Crampton) of the Dean (Robert Sampson). Dan’s life gets a bit more complicated when he rents his spare room and basement out to Herbert West, who has miraculously managed to get out of Europe without being subject to major criminal charges. Now West is looking to continue his experiments into the prolongation of life, despite the scorn heaped upon him by his tutor, Dr Hill (David Gale), and recruits Dan to help him.

Dan and Megan (his girlfriend) are less than thrilled when West uses their pet cat as one of his experimental subjects, raising it from the dead but also transforming it into a hissing, savage, manic terror. When Dan attempts to tell the Dean about what West is up to, the Dean promptly dismisses the idea and kicks them both out. This only serves to strengthen their determination, and they sneak back into the school morgue late at night, intent on using West’s re-animation serum on a human subject…

The odd thing about Re-Animator is that its roots in Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West – Re-Animator are absolutely clear, yet the tone and style of the film couldn’t be more different from it. The movie is really a textbook example of a rather odd subgenre known as splatstick, essentially a splatter movie (the sine qua non of which is graphic, extravagantly gory special effects) played for laughs: a hyper-active descendant of the grand guignol. It captures the essence of Lovecraft’s outrageously overblown prose surprisingly well, for all that it is still clearly a gonzo 80s comedy-horror film, clearly owing a debt to The Evil Dead amongst others. After the exploding eyeballs before the opening credits, the film calms down, but the gradual escalation of the level of gore throughout the film is surprisingly shrewdly done. The film is pitched with impressive skill, with the horror and comedy elements apparently in lockstep.

It’s still a startlingly extreme film in some ways – quite apart from the moment where one character is obliged to wrestle with a reanimated intestine, there’s another where a naked female character is leched over by the decapitated head of the villain (his headless corpse thrusts the severed bonce into rather intimate areas of her personal space). Part of me suspects that Lovecraft would still have abhorred its crassness and crudeness, though. The source short story is a bit of an outlier as far as the Lovecraft canon goes – for all that it introduces Miskatonic University (one of the key locations in Lovecraft country), it’s not really a part of his wider cycle of cosmic horror stories, arguably being written as an exercise in self-parody. Nothing wrong with that – though it’s hard to tell the difference between a self-parodying Lovecraft and the author in full flow in earnest – but it is also one of the stories in which Lovecraft’s much-criticised racist attitudes are given their fullest articulation. Gordon, thankfully, incorporates none of this, resulting in a movie which may be highly objectionable to many viewers, but isn’t actually bigoted.

I have to say I rather enjoyed it and was very glad to finally see it: it’s played with energy and conviction by the cast (it’s easy to see why Jeffrey Combs has gone on to enjoy a good career as a cult actor), and written and directed with flair. It is still such a spectacularly icky film that I can imagine a lot of people just being repelled by it. And that’s fair enough. But if you can take the pace, and the subject matter, it’s a lot of fun.

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