H.P. Lovecraft Week: JW Ward on the Lovecraft film you need to see

You want to know why it’s so hard to adapt H.P. Lovecraft stories to film?

It’s simple: the concepts of Lovecraft’s stories are too big for most people to see and believe.

If you read a story like “The Call of Cthulu” and create in your own mind a vision of R’lyeh (where dead Cthulu waits dreaming), that vision is likely to be far more terrifying than anything that Hollywood could give form to.  Buildings and hallways with impossible angles in a slime-covered city risen from the bottom of the ocean tend to be hard to bring to life on a budget, even with CGI.

There is one film, however, that did Lovecraft right.  If not literally, then certainly in keeping with the spirit of the material.

It’s a film that deserves your attention, and a space in your collection.

Behold, the Re-Animator.

Based on Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator,” the film stars Jeffrey Combs as the titular scientist.  Brilliant, arrogant and caring only for the pursuit of his work, West has developed a serum called the Re-agent – a chemical that can literally restore life to dead tissue.  Following an incident at a hospital in Switzerland, West relocates to New England and enrolls at Miskatonic University to continue his work.  He finds a roommate and reluctant assistant in Dan Cain (Bruce Abbot) and a rival in Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), an instructor at the university’s hospital with different opinions on the matter of death.

After resurrecting Dan’s dead cat, West eagerly begins testing his serum on human corpses.  With each resurrection however, there is a problem: the subject is almost always violent and uncontrollable.  As West tries to work out the right dose of the serum relative to the “freshness” of the corpse, he and Dan fun afoul of Miskatonic’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson), and have to use the Re-agent on him.  West and Cain’s problems get even worse when Dr. Hill gets wind of West’s invention and tries to blackmail him for it.

To say that Re-Animator is a faithful adaptation to Lovecraft’s original story is like saying KFC is faithful to fried chicken.  Director Stuart Gordon knew he didn’t have the budget to stage  the film in the story’s original turn-of-the-twentieth-century setting, so he simply placed the story in a modern context and re-packaged many of the best-described moments.  Lovecraft’s tale, which first appeared in serial publication in 1922, was meant to poke fun at Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein and was widely regarded as the author’s worst work.  Gordon’s version, while not originally intended to be funny, turns darkly comic as West and Cain have to fight their newly-resurrected creations; from an angry kitty to a headless headmaster and all points in between.

Then again, when is fighting zombies not fun?

There’s also some great low-budget deaths, innovative decapitations and perhaps the most twisted element of all, headless sex.  What’s not to like?

The main reason Re-Animator works is Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Herbert West.  Combs is likable in his inherent unlikability and single-minded pursuit of science.  By the film’s halfway point, you end up rooting for the socially-awkward antihero as he butts heads with Dr. Hill, a character of seemingly greater evil for how he wants to use West’s work.  Combs’ creepiness and condescension-tinged barbs create a quasi-villain you can’t help but cheer for.

If you’re in the mood for something off the beaten path, find yourself a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, then track down the sequels Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator.

If you regret it, you’re probably not much fun anyway.

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