Friday, January 31, 2014

Revisiting RE-ANIMATOR

Re-Animator (1985)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham, NC
Rating: 9.5/10

The last time I watched Re-Animator I was working as a high school teacher. Any critical opinion I had about it is all lost in a PTSD haze, emotions and memories stripped away to leave nothing but a "4/5" rating in the old list I kept as a film journal at the time. I'm guessing horror comedy is what I needed most then. For that, it fit the bill perfectly, a gore-soaked 90 minute vacation from reality and the relentless emotional demands of the job. Rewatching it last week at the Lovecraft-inspired Retrofantasma double feature, I found myself in a very different situation: 4/5 years through graduate school, largely disenchanted with the whole process and with much of my idealism lost in the face of the looming task of forcing the square peg of my education into one of the sparsely scattered round holes of the current job market. Maybe this is a better place in life to approach Gordon's film though, because I realized something about halfway through that I hadn't before: Herbert West is the type of graduate student that every graduate student wants to be.

When scientists of the film world work on screen it's in the form of montages where months of drudgery is compressed into just a few minutes. We see the catastrophic failures and the elation of success but never something like the boring slog of debugging code for weeks on end. You're not shown the time spent digging through papers to find the appropriate citations, or resoldering a circuit from scratch because it didn't work the first three times. Also, undergraduates don't exist except as sordid love interests - you never see a movie scientist grading piles of tests or TA-ing a lab. Okay, in real life it isn't all drudgery. There's a lot of fun in the process, but 90% of the time you are alone on a computer or in front of an apparatus whose inner workings you've come to know all too intimately.

But even after completing an undergraduate degree in their chosen field, people seem to carry the movie-scientist image with them. Prospective grad students send out application packets with visions of singular discoveries and world-changing ideas unfolding before them. In other words, they like to believe that they're going to approach things as Herbert West: with no time for the outdated information to which the establishment clings. West is a true pioneer, conducting experiments that push the boundaries of life and death. His work is so important that accidentally killing his advisor is just a minor speed bump. Before him lies a new establishment promising more freedom and an abundance of lab supplies to be co-opted for some extracurricular work. What better image than the basement lab to encapsulate the mindset of the mad scientist? Free from supervisors and review panels, this is pure research unbound by the limitations of academia or morals. It's the ultimate stage on which ideas that are too groundbreaking for the ivory tower can play themselves out. Re-animator rekindles that feeling of possibility - the enthusiasm that causes people to sign away five or six years of their life in pursuit of a goal that initially is pretty ill-defined.

Brighter glow = better science.
Wish fulfillment aside, Re-Animator is still a really good horror comedy, delivering a ton of violence that's as shocking as it is funny. The pacing is near perfect, and escalates the absurdity of the gore to the point where David Gale's decaptiated head molesting the dean's daughter seems almost inevitable - until you realize how awful it is. That's the mark of a good horror comedy in my mind: horror visceral enough to override the humor when it appears, surprising you so much that you're not sure whether to keep laughing or not. There are so many unexpectedly brutal moments in Re-Animator that occur amidst otherwise hilarious scenes. West and Cain chasing a reanimated cat around the basement with sporting implements is slapstick gold until Cain throws the animal against the wall (a scene that's echoed later when a reanimated corpse chucks Dr. Hill's head out of the morgue). There's just so much manic energy once the film takes off that you've no choice but to enjoy it.

All of this is made extra-special by Jeffrey Combs, who plays West with a seriousness that never really belies the insanity of his actions. Whether he's snapping pencils in class to distract the pompous Dr. Hill until he's willing to engage in a shouting match or shutting down questions with deadpan one-liners, there's something appealing in how myopic his genius is. Unchecked brilliance is dangerous, but also somehow appealing, even in the face of West's wry arrogance.

Poor Rufus, how could you have ever known the awful fate in store for you?
The work I do is theoretical, so unless circumstances become very dire very fast, it's unlikely that I'll decapitate my advisor with a shovel. I probably also don't have to worry about being snatched by prehensile intestines that have sprung from his reanimated corpse. The worst I can expect on a day to day basis is eye strain from looking at my computer monitor for too long or poor posture from slouching in my desk chair. I'm okay with that - it makes for a better chance at securing funding in the future. But still, maybe it wouldn't be a terrible idea to adopt a little more of the Herbert West mindset. Not for the recklessness, but for the zeal.

1 comment:

  1. Great review of Re-Animator. I wholeheartedly agree with you about what horror comedy is: horror visceral enough to override the comedy. Absurdity helps too. It's always good to revisit a classic movie like this one.