Perhaps it is apt that this Stuart Gordon-directed piece has a cold open. His protagonists are working with cold bodies, as they portray a sickeningly disturbed production of Frankenstein’s monster. As if that vision were not disgusting enough. Dedication is one thing, but the lengths Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is willing to stretch to as he experiments with re-animation is stark and worrying. This somewhat modern retelling of the H.P. Lovecraft tale takes advantage of the era it finds itself in and tears itself away from the consequences and conscience of Doctor Frankenstein. Left in its place is good, gory fun. A necessary trade that steers Gordon and his cast to truly, animated glory.
By far the grandest thing to come from Re-Animator is its utilisation of practical effects. Take us back to the glory days of real props, clever camera trickery and heads mounted to tables. It is effective because it is played up with that twinge of dark, twisted comedy. These lighter elements allow an audience to not be as disgusted by these gory horrors as they should be. It’s as if Flubber had taken on a more engrossing, gore-focused narrative. That is the way it should be, and with Combs and Bruce Abbott steering the ship of an unlikely friendship, the mishaps seem natural. They are not competitive with one another, but there is an animosity present as one is driven to the verge of scientific breakthrough, and the other watches on in horror, with us, as this man takes the boundaries of nature too far.
But is there such thing as too far? Gordon rides the shlock and gore train toward a blissful reimagining of what such a genre can offer. Horror does not, inherently, need to be scary. This was at a time when Freddy Krueger was spiralling away into a caricature of what he once was. When Jason Vorhees was merely a name brand for up-and-coming starlets. Not Re-Animator though. It plants the seeds of something new, and while it had to harvest them itself later with The Bride of Re-Animator, it set the stage for many of the body horrors to follow. Exploitation is a fine thing indeed, but not when it defiles the craft of Lovecraft. Apparently, that’s a step too far. Not far enough, in my opinion.
While the track record for big-screen Lovecraft adaptations is spotty and best avoided, there is much fun to be had with Re-Animator. Cthulu is a lost cause as it is hard to define the sporadic legacy of such a beast with no morality, but there is room to grow when utilising body horror and likeable, simple characters. It sparks that seem needle of charm as Evil Dead, where too little gore would prove remarkably frightening, yet too much of it holds the same value, with the added comedic tones that Gordon was desperate to grasp. He does so with style, and it is no surprise that Re-Animator manages to ooze a bit of life back into the body horror genre. What is the point of these cinema strands but to breathe new life into the old and tested formula? Gordon re-animates the horrors of The Thing and Evil Dead with as much love for the guts and gore as his predecessors.