H.P. Lovecraft isn’t exactly known for his sense of humor. The late author, who has the very serious epitaph “I AM PROVIDENCE” carved into his tombstone, spent his odd, secluded life penning tales of terror for pulp magazines. Lovecraft created the Cthulu mythos, and wrote story after story of mankind coming up against cosmic deities older than time itself. Page after page was devoted to human beings having their very sanity obliterated at the sight of unspeakable forces that were only a thin layer away from our own reality. These were tales of hopelessness, where all were doomed to some perilous demise.
With Lovecraft’s body of bleak work in mind, it’s curious that perhaps the most successful adaptation of one of his stories is also pretty damn funny as well. Stuart Gordon first set out to bring Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator to the stage with his Organic Theater Company in the 1980s, until producer Brian Yuzna convinced Gordon to make a fairly low-budget horror film instead. Gordon, along with co-writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paol, took the driving forces from Lovecraft’s tale and created Re-Animator, a weird, gory, comic-horror masterpiece that still lives on to this day, like a re-animated corpse that refuses to get back in the grave.
Lovecraft’s story was written between 1921 and 1922, appearing in a serialized format. Narrated by the unnamed assistant to the maniacal Dr. Herbert West, the tale spans a whopping 17 years, as West and his assistant travel the land, raising the dead and creating mayhem in their wake. West isn’t trying to create life from scratch a la Dr. Frankenstein, but rather to bring those who’ve passed away back from the cold, dark grip of death. If there is any humor to be taken from the story, it comes from the fact that West and his assistant keep getting the same disastrous results — the poor corpse they revive comes back as a murderous ghoul — and keep doing it year after year anyway. Eventually West’s disregard for the rules of life and death catch up with him, when one of his re-animated subjects — the headless Major Clapham-Lee, who walks around with a wax head in place of his severed one — leads an army of the undead to tear West limb from limb. Lovecraft tells the tale with his usual antiquarian writing style, and there’s a repetitive nature to the whole thing that drags it down. Lovecraft himself later admitted he considered it one of his lesser works. Yet outside of the Cthulu mythos, it’s arguably one of his most recognizable, and that’s thanks to Stuart Gordon’s film.
Gordon’s 1982 Re-Animator opens with a bang, where at the University of Zurich, authorities barge into a locked lab and discover the prominent professor Dr. Gruber screaming like a lunatic as his eyes pop out of his head, complete with a thick, red goo to make it all extra disgusting. Gruber’s assistant, Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), angrily insists he needs to record Gruber’s vital signs, seemingly annoyed at being interrupted during this experiment. As Gruber violently dies, West is accused of killing the man. “No,” West insists, “I gave him life!” From here Gordon smashes to the opening credits, as Richard Band’s theme music, very liberally borrowed from Bernard Herrmann’s theme for Psycho, blasts out over neon-colored anatomy illustrations. It’s evident from these opening moments that Gordon has crafted something unique and inherently watchable, and the film holds the viewer rapt until its conclusion.
Re-Animator is consistently hilarious, but it’s a humor that combines both the absurd and a macabre gallows humor that would be right at home in any morgue or medical school. In interviews, Gordon would say that much of the humor for Re-Animator grew out of his research for the film while visiting morgues and talking with pathologists. “The thing I realized was that if you were going to work in a morgue you better have a sense of humor,” Gordon said. “Just the way they dealt with the dead; something about it was funny…”
The secret ingredient to make it all work is Jeffrey Combs as the smug Herbert West. Combs, with his slight frame, unkempt black hair and pale complexion, is somehow both inherently cool and inherently weasley as West. He is a character so sure of his convictions that he doesn’t care what kind of mayhem his experiments bring about, as long as he gets results. West moves in with hapless medschool student Dan (Bruce Abbott), who is wooing the Dean’s daughter Meg (Barbara Crampton). When West first shows up to rent the room at Dan’s place, he momentarily gives Meg a fright when he appears unannounced at the front door. “I scared you,” West says a moment later. “Yes, you did,” Meg says, half-laughing, expecting an apology to follow. Instead West just offers her a thin, superior smile and then brushes on by.
Dan gets sucked into West’s experiments, and soon the two are off to the morgue, where they resurrect a hulking brute who proceeds to beat them senseless and then kills Meg’s father, Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson). West does the only natural thing — he injects Dean Halsey with his re-animation serum and brings the man back. This draws the attention of the menacing Dr. Hill (David Gale, in a memorable performance that almost matches Combs’), who has a creepy crush on Meg. Dr. Hill tries to blackmail West, so West does the only natural thing: he cuts Dr. Hill’s head off with a shovel, and then decides to inject both Dr. Hill’s body and severed head with his green glowing serum. It culminates in a finale that involves Dr. Hill trying to use his own severed head to perform oral sex on Meg, before West and Dan show up and have to do battle with an entire morgue of re-animated corpses.
At face value, Re-Animator’s story is silly, and this silliness alone could’ve contributed to the comedic elements. Yet what makes the film work is that for all its goofy hysterics, everyone is playing it entirely straight; there’s no winking moment in the film that lets you know the characters are in on the joke. Re-Animator skirts the line with being tongue in cheek while keeping its feet firmly planted on the floor. One scene in particular elicits laughs when Dan walks down into the basement and discovers West flailing about with a re-animated cat named Rufus clinging to his back. It’s undeniably humorous to see, particularly because the cat is clearly a stuffed animal-style puppet. But so committed is Combs to his performance as he smashes and crashes around the room trying to shake the zombie cat off that we end up buying into it all. As a result, the scene transcends itself, becoming both laughable and believable in the same moment. Later, as Dr. Hill’s decapitated corpse lumbers around carrying its own head in a bowling bag, comedy is apparent before eventually giving way to a sickly disturbance as Hill tries to sexually force his own severed head on the helpless Meg. When Hill’s army of corpses burst to life in the morgue at the end, they’re presented in horrific detail thanks to John Naulin’s grisly make-up. The scene is punctuated with a comedic beat as an unfortunate security guard glances into the room, takes one look at the risen dead, and then runs off without saying a word. Through the whole film, Gordon is balancing his horror with humor and vice versa.
Re-Animator’s blending of horror and comedy works so remarkably well that at times it almost seems like an accident. This theory could possibly be bolstered by the fact that while there are two Re-Animator sequels — Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator — neither sequel comes close to capturing the twisted magic of this film. Then again, those sequels were not directed by Stuart Gordon, but rather by Brian Yuzna. Is the moral here that no one should really try to adapt H.P. Lovecraft, unless they happen to be Stuart Gordon?
There haven’t been many successful film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, for the simple fact that his stories aren’t very cinematic. They’re short little bursts, where not much really happens as a narrator poetically tries to describe the indescribable. Many have tried to bring Lovecraft’s tales to the screen, and few have managed to impress audiences, as if the filmmakers couldn’t figure out how to make Lovecraft work on the big screen. Only Stuart Gordon seemed able to crack the Lovecraft code with Re-Animator, and his solution was simple enough: whenever the audience isn’t covering their eyes in horror, make ‘em laugh.