Friday, October 7, 2016

Critic's Crypt: Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator & From Beyond

Jeffrey Combs in Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985).

Critics At Large is pleased to present CRITIC’S CRYPT, a new column in which our writers compare, contrast, and explore two horror films that are linked by a common element. For our first installment, Justin Cummings tackles two Lovecraftian horror adaptations by director Stuart Gordon.

I mourn daily the gross appropriation of the works of Howard Philip Lovecraft in popular culture. I blame those (like the bacon-loving patrons of theCHIVE and its ilk) who attach empty-headed significance to the icon of Cthulhu the same way Bill Watterson’s Calvin is grotesquely bandied about by idiots everywhere on pickup truck window decals. Cthulhu is inescapable in today’s culture, filling store shelves with squid-faced plush dolls and bumper stickers, bought by consumers who couldn’t name you a single Lovecraft story, let alone have ever taken the time to read one. Lovecraft himself was a weirdo and a racist: a brilliant asshole through and through. His writing is the product of a deeply troubled mind, which grasped at the greater truth he desperately hoped was hiding behind the drudgery of daily life – an artist with great talent plagued by financial trouble and an inescapable sense of despair. He was what you might charitably call the “sadder but wiser” sort of guy, whose stories were almost always linked by a general fascination about “that which man was never meant to know.” It’s horror, to be sure, but intellectual horror; stories inspired by and largely about ideas that are too frightening for the human mind to comprehend. These tales were never typified by gore, sexual content, or general gross excess, although you could be forgiven for thinking so based on adaptations like Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). It’s these kind of representations of his work which, I think, have led to an inaccurate perception of what the tales of Lovecraft are really about, and of why his work remains so influential long after his death (at least to those who read it).

On their own terms, Re-Animator and From Beyond are terrifically fun splatter pictures. They’re among the premier examples of genre convergence in horror cinema, combining science fiction, comedy, and body horror in ways that still feel fresh and charged with energy. In fact, they share more than just genre: they both star Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, and are both directed and co-written by Stuart Gordon. Viewed as a double bill (an experience I can enthusiastically recommend), they feel like sister pictures – two different expressions of the same creative spark. Re-Animator is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” which is both longer and far less entertaining than Gordon’s version, and From Beyond is a greatly expanded version of the original 7-page story of the same name. They were produced and released back-to-back in a storm of cheap shoots, fake blood, intense performances, and some genuinely excellent filmmaking craft, all inspired by Gordon’s experience in the world of theatre and his interest in the blood, the shock, and the passion of the Grand Guignol tradition.

Barbara Crampton and David Gale (right) in Re-Animator.
There’s plenty to laugh at about Re-Animator, which is the post-Frankensteinian tale of the fanatical, waxen-faced Herbert West (Combs), who believes he has conquered brain death by inventing a reagent that can re-animate dead tissue. The film’s sets are few and tawdry; the script is ridiculous in its excesses; the performances are broad and loud – you could be forgiven, really, for dismissing it by its description alone. But when you watch the opening scene, in which Swiss police burst into West’s laboratory classroom in Zurich to find that he has re-animated the corpse of his dead professor (named Hans Gruber, by the way, a tidbit that should tantalize all you Die Hard fans out there) with horrific, eye-popping consequences – and, when accused of killing the man, West insists, “I gave him life!” – you can hardly help but be utterly charmed. It strikes a miraculous balance of tone right from the jump, tense and shocking and horrifying and hilarious all at once (and then Richard Band’s score kicks in over the opening credits, which is just different enough from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score as to avoid litigation), and you understand exactly the sort of experience you’re in for. I think the most impressive part of Re-Animator as a film – and there’s lots that impresses, not the least of which are the intensely gory special effects by John Naulin – is that tonal control, which Gordon keeps finely and carefully tuned all the way through the film’s taut 80-minute runtime. The best word to describe it is arch – it’s played straight by the cast, who portray their characters as figures of fun but who don’t parody themselves, and never descends into camp. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but nobody ever turns and winks at the camera. That is the fine line that so many directors trip over when approaching horror comedy, and it’s one that Gordon walks like a roguish tightrope master.

And make no mistake, the horror factor is in full force here. Naulin’s special effects, which were required to portray everything from an exploding face to a dead cat (for which a real dead cat was used) to multiple re-animated corpses to, perhaps most memorably, the decapitated but still-living (and still lecherous) head of an evil scientist, are convincing, cringe-inducing, and completely hilarious all at once. I’ve never known a film that so handily produces howls of outrageous laughter from an audience (a group of beer-equipped friends being the ideal sample group), and it’s due in large part to the absolutely horrific and mesmerizing gore effects that, I think, helped define Re-Animator as a paragon of splatter art – and puts it in the company of films like The Thing (1982), which was a clear source of inspiration (and which was achieved with a much bigger budget).

Great effects would be wasted on a film without structure, though, and that’s another area in which Re-Animator shines. The film’s story is a perfectly executed series of shocking twists, which continuously one-up each other all the way to the jaw-clenching finale, helped along by fantastic editing. (I’ll give you my favourite example: a scene of Megan (Crampton) playfully fighting off her boyfriend Dan (Bruce Abbott), whispering, “No, no, no,” cuts to her moaning, “Yes, yes, yes!” while they’re intertwined in bed.) The film’s most memorable aspect, though, has to be the performances of its cast. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Combs, and when I mentioned how much I love Re-Animator his face lit right up (even though it’s doubtless the thing he’s most asked about at conventions). It was clear to me that the role was an absolute blast for him to play, and it’s clear simply through the film itself, too. Combs makes West both creepy and despicable, yet somehow sympathetic. He’s a psychotic in the Norman Bates vein, with boyish good looks that are tainted by hard, sociopathic features; he’s filled with the wild-eyed scientific conviction of Victor Frankenstein but not without his own twisted sense of humour. (Dan tells him that West’s rival, Dr. Hill, has a secret creepy file on Megan, with whom Hill’s apparently obsessed, and West’s response is simply to laugh.) It’s an iconic horror performance – one which rightfully made Combs a star. David Gale, as the evil Dr. Hill, brings a Karloff-esque physical presence to Re-Animator’s other mad scientist – he is one of the strangest-looking actors I’ve ever seen, with long, gaunt features and canine, terrifying teeth. His “role” as the decapitated head of Hill, surviving on blood packets lying in a surgical tray, is truly scary (the shots of blood pouring from his mouth as he hisses commands at his reanimated thralls will indelibly sear themselves on your eyeballs). Plus, the addition of the “dueling mad scientist” angle to the film’s story is a rare and welcome one that adds significant flavour and excitement. Who’s crazier? Who will outwit who? Who do you root for?

I don’t know about you, but I always root for Megan (Crampton). I will praise Re-Animator to the moon and back for introducing the world to Barbara Crampton, whose intelligence, realism, and rockin’ bod make her an absolutely terrific scream queen – even if the role of Megan sadly underserves her. Unfortunately, this is the sort of role that deserves the accusations of sexism levelled against it; while Megan is unassailably in the right throughout the story (she pegs West as a dangerous creep from the get-go and rejects Hill’s utterly chilling advances), her actions are too often in response to those of the men around her (and often too late). It’s deeply problematic that the film’s most memorable scene, no matter how creative, is an attempted rape – something for which the “possessed tree” sequences in Evil Dead are also denounced. Crampton is magnetic, sympathetic, and believable, and deserves better than Re-Animator could give her.

Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton in From Beyond (1986).

Perhaps she convinced Gordon of this after production wrapped, because her role as Dr. Katherine McMichaels in From Beyond less than a year later is everything that Megan isn’t: professional, assertive, capable, and fighting tooth and nail to survive. Talk about a Final Girl – Katherine’s sobs of furious terror that transform into hysterical laughter as she lies in the wreckage of the mansion at 666 Benevolence St is one of the most shocking and unnerving endings in horror film history, and Katherine is the character you’d most want to see make it through.

Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” is terse and bizarre, featuring a nameless narrator who recounts his experience meeting his crazed friend, Crawford Tillinghast, who has built a strange electrical machine in his attic. Tillinghast rants and raves about having broken through the barrier to another world using this machine. His house servants were the first to learn the cost of this transgression, when they were attacked by the hideous creatures that swim constantly around us, as unaware of our presence as we are of theirs. By piercing the veil, Tillinghast invited them to turn their horrific attention on humankind – and pays the price when he goes completely insane. Gordon’s From Beyond is largely the same story, but focuses and expands upon an element of Lovecraft’s mentioned in passing: the enlargement of the pineal gland, a section of the brain thought to be vestigial and useless. This, according to an added character played by Ted Sorel called Dr. Pretorious (who invents the “resonator” machine in his mansion’s attic), is the secret to unlocking human potential; he craves an expansion of the senses through enlargement of what Descartes once called the “third eye.” In this version, Tillinghast (Combs) is Pretorious’ understudy, who comes to know all too well what that third eye can see, when Pretorious is swallowed up by something Tillinghast can only call an “it,” and transcends our world to become a monstrosity of distorted flesh. Tillinghast is institutionalized as a madman for the alleged murder of his mentor, and is given over to the care of Dr. McMichaels, who – experiencing a profound curiosity – releases him so he can repeat the experiment.

Just as Gordon studied real medical procedure and morgue documentation on Re-Animator, he carried that dedication to proper depictions of clinical practice over to From Beyond. McMichaels’ colleagues are quick to dismiss Tillinghast’s terrified ravings as “classic schizophrenic symptoms,” but care is taken to show that not all mental health professionals are as close-minded, or as quick to jump to conclusions. McMichaels shows a real scientific verve in her pursuit of the truth, whether it’s to determine whether or not Tillinghast really is schizophrenic, or later when she is driven to understand the phenomena produced by the resonator. (That shit ends real quick, though, when Pretorious rears his head again whenever the resonator is on, professing a powerful need to consume human minds.) I’m not saying From Beyond works as a result of its scientific accuracy – that’s laughable – but rather that thought and care went into the depiction of the characters and how professionals of this sort might respond to such an outlandish scenario. It’s just one of many small details that make Gordon’s work a cut above. From Beyond’s excellent performances, doubtless due to the theatrical nature of Gordon’s direction (which let him view these films as simply two different “plays” that his troupe of actors could perform in quick succession), seal the deal.

Barbara Crampton in From Beyond.
From Beyond is, in my opinion, a much closer adaptation of Lovecraft’s original story than Re-Animator is. It deals in that central conceit of man’s hubris getting him in very hot water, but adds much to the source material, including some intriguing thematic elements in its acknowledgment of the brain’s total control over everything we are: personality, physicality, emotion, and especially sexual desire. Pretorious is shown to be a sexual deviant before the resonator is ever turned on, and once his pineal gland (and those of poor Tillinghast and McMichaels) is enlarged by the machine, those urges are kicked into overdrive. It’s sexual without being as shamelessly exploitative as Re-Animator (Barbara Crampton in bondage gear is a sight that, in addition to burning itself into my brain, actually represents a surprising amount of agency for her character), and it plays with philosophical concepts that are genuinely fascinating. Plus, you know, there’s all the crazy gore.

There’s not as much opportunity for From Beyond to showcase mutilation, dismemberment, and guts as there is in Re-Animator, but the film makes up for it in pure body horror and creativity. The various forms of the transcended Pretorious are each more horrifying than the last, looking like a human body melted as though it were made of wax (and capable of contortions, expansions, and growths that put it in Akira territory). Tillinghast’s “evolving” form is a grotesque creation, whose squiggly little third eye is spine-tingling in the best way – and is responsible for perhaps the gnarliest cinematic kill I have ever seen, when it detects the delicious brain hiding inside a doctor’s skull, prompting him to suck it out through her eye socket while she struggles. I will admit to being slightly disappointed that the film version doesn’t explore the “crossing over” aspect very much; I delighted in Lovecraft’s descriptions of the overlap between our world and the world beyond, but I imagine his florid prose was tough to match on a 1980s low-rent horror film budget. I think it’s worth mentioning that despite that, though, the film’s influence on pop culture is insidious and profound. There are strong notes of this transcendent Lovecraftian shock material in stuff like Bloodborne (with much of the lore of that game revolving around scholars who wished to commune with ancient cosmic deities by growing eyes inside their craniums, which granted them the insight to see the horrifying monsters that inhabit the world around us), which means that From Beyond’s influence didn’t stop on our shores. That a Japanese video game developer in 2015 would be inspired by this decades-old film is a remarkable feather in its cap, indeed.

I think Re-Animator and From Beyond are some of the best horror movies to come out of the 1980s – but they’re certainly not the kind of horror that Lovecraft would have endorsed. But that’s perhaps why I like them so much. They’re generally pretty lacking as Lovecraft adaptations go, but they’re still among the best ever put to film, and for that they should be celebrated. Others have taken cracks at it – the mind reels at what Guillermo del Toro might have done with his canned “At The Mountains Of Madness” film – but Gordon’s takes are unique ones, and he has that special talent as a filmmaker to allow source material to inspire him to create his own vision rather than committing to slavishly recreating Lovecraft’s prose with fanatical exactness. I love that about these movies: they are purely and unabashedly unique. It’s clear Gordon read “Herbert West, Re-Animator” and thought, 'Hey, this is pretty dreary and weird, but there’s some good stuff here – it might make for a rip-roaring gorefest!'

And, privately, every October, I thank Cthulhu that he was right.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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