Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
Last week, I discussed In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s clever, thoughtful pastiche of renowned horror author H.P. Lovecraft. This week, I’m looking at B sci-fi horror movie Re-Animator (1985), which goes the trashy horror movie route. Re-Animator knows exactly what it wants to be, and does so, for good and bad. But, as per norm with my Eldritch Adaptations series of articles on Lovecraft, I’m going to look at how Stuart Gordon’s cult classic reflects the author’s work. If you’re clueless on Lovecraft but want to read on, or just need a refresher, then I highly recommend skimming the first article in this series, which is linked above as The Call of Cthulhu (the first entry).
Re-Animator tells the tale of a young medical student, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who is intrigued by a young colleague, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). West has odd ideas about the brain, and believes that he can bring the dead back to life with the right chemical compounds. Cain gets in way over his head when West moves in with him and they end up trying out some experiments together. You can probably see where this might go wrong.
This plot is adapted from a Lovecraft story: “Herbert West—Reanimator.” Now, while Lovecraft generally wrote eerie, dark, and dread-inducing tales, “HWR” stands out as being oddly over-the-top. Premier Lovecraft biographer S. T. Joshi claims it is “universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work,” but I think, at least here, he misrepresents the story. A lot of people do. While it might not be of the highest quality, “HWR” is not meant to be a serious story, but rather a parody of the horror genre in the vein of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and in that light stands above some of Lovecraft’s poorer works. Just so you don’t think that I’m alone in this thought, check out this excellent podcast about the original tale.
The reasons for this misconception are many. First off, Lovecraft had to publish this story in chapters, ending each one with a cliffhanger. Even if the story was intended to be serious, chances are that Lovecraft quickly recognized the contrived nature of this format and went all-out on the ridiculous plot. So, in that vein, Re-Animator makes a lot of sense as an adaptation. An eerie, philosophical, dark take on “HWR” wouldn’t make sense. Instead of missing the point of Lovecraft, which I think might be easy to accuse director Stuart Gordon of, Re-Animator taps into the heart of the story in a way that many have overlooked.
Still, the product doesn’t leave a whole lot to love on any level other than occasional references for Lovecraft buffs and gleefully violent and absurd tropes for 80s horror fans. There is a lot to be said for a movie that is balls-to-the-wall ridiculous and makes no attempt to hide that fact. Re-Animator is a ton of fun to sit around and watch with some friends. This isn’t high art, and it doesn’t want to be. That’s respectable.
But, I cannot overlook some of the more unfortunate tropes that are employed. There are SPOILERS here. And, in fact, it’s so damn unpleasant that I’m throwing a TRIGGER WARNING out there for survivors of sexual assault.
Okay, so one of West and Cain’s teachers—Dr. Hill (David Gale)—is queued up on brain biology, and he has kept a close eye on West’s experiments. He creepily hits on Dan Cain’s girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton), and later is decapitated by West, only to be re-animated once more. From then on, he becomes the villain, with his body carrying around his head. At some point, he has the re-animated body of Megan’s dad kidnap her, strip her, and tie her down to a table. The severed head then proceeds to rape her, in details I won’t go into.
Seriously, what? Why? The purpose is clearly shock value, and it’s unnecessary, vile, and wrong. One response might be, “Hey, it’s a B movie, and that happens in B movies.” That thought disturbs me even more, because it means that audiences consider it normal for a female character to suffer from something as traumatizing as rape merely to advance the plot and highlight the villainy of the antagonist. Lovecraft did not write many female characters, and the ones he did write were pretty bad; but Megan is an invented character for Re-Animator, and the objectification of her is despicable, indicative not of Lovecraft’s shortcomings but of the instilled misogyny of a genre. That is not to say that all B horror movies are misogynistic, but I think it’d be hard to argue that the genre as a whole doesn’t have some serious issues when it comes to portraying female characters.
End SPOILERS and TRIGGER WARNING.
Alright, I know that this is a Lovecraft article, and I do intend all of the above to be relevant. When you adapt someone’s work, you do not need to be loyal to the original. That being said, if you are going to play off of someone’s work, then I find it upsetting to add horrid qualities that were lacking in the original for no real purpose. That’s lazy. Not to mention, a movie—even one as purposefully absurd as Re-Animator—does not exist entirely disjointed from the world around it, and the complete ignorance of the director and writer in some of their choices is baffling.
Still, I will accredit Re-Animator with its successes, which involve an understanding, in general, of not only its source material but its own ambitions as a horror movie. Re-Animator may be flawed, but, much as “Herbert West—Reanimator” might be one of Lovecraft’s most misunderstood stories, maybe Re-Animator is one of the most misunderstood adaptations of the author’s works.