There is so much horror content out there these days, that most of us have lists a mile long of movies to watch, books to read, and events to attend. But we all have that one list of secret shame. The cult classics unwatched, the Stephen King blockbuster unread, the supposedly genre-defining film that we have somehow never gotten to.
I am sad to say that Re-Animator (directed by Stuart Gordon) was on my list. Having watched (and re-watched) it recently, I see what I’ve been missing out on all this time.
I know it’s an older film, but in the spirit of my confession above, you may not have seen it, so SPOILERS AHEAD
Re-Animator tells the tale of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a genuinely mad scientist. There is no secret to what Herbert has been up to. The opening scene makes it refreshingly clear that he is tampering with the dead from the first few minutes. He is shady and creepy the moment he appears on screen. There is no hidden charm here, only an over-confident bluntness that only Jeffrey Combs could pull off. When we next see him, he is working at another hospital, casually hired on after the gruesome scene that occurred only frames before. It is obvious that Herbert West is a man who does not have a fear of consequences, which makes him almost instantly creepier. Seriously, I would cross the street to avoid this guy.
At first glance, this film may seem like a fairly typical tale of mad science gone wrong, but the key here is that there is no descent into madness. That genie is already out of the bottle, and what follows is the tale of the innocent (and not so innocent) bystanders.
Herbert is determined to keep the formula for himself (I assume because a man who can control life and death has all the power in the world). That is what it seems to be about for Herbert; it’s not about money, or fame, but instead it’s more about who gets to wield that power and who doesn’t. He is determined to be the smartest guy in the room, humiliating some of the other doctors for sport. He gets to play God; he decides who he grants power to, and who grovels for it.
After an experiment on a cat gone awry, Herbert’s roommate Dan (Bruce Abbott), a medical student, is let in on the secret. Herbert takes a shine to Dan, but in a way that is clearly not a mentor taking a student under his wing. Instead, a poor, blindsided, and morbidly curious Dan is easily manipulated. He is overwhelmed by the potential power to be used for good, as a student who is learning to come to terms with letting patients go, but also doesn’t know how to tell anyone about this without coming across as a complete lunatic. His polar opposite is the greedy and prestige hungry researcher, Carl Hill (David Gale). You know from the first look exchanged between the two that there is going to be trouble.
While the entire cast really goes for it and dives into their characters, Barbara Crampton is the standout as Megan, Dan’s girlfriend. What I found fascinating about Megan’s character is that she is left in the dark as the men around her destroy themselves and each other. She is on the outside of these scientists, who have their own club. However, she is not blind and she is certainly not stupid. West creeps her out from the very beginning, and her concerns are easily shrugged off by Dan. When she first confronts Dan about her concern over her dead cat, she is basically given a “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it” response as Dan tries to convince her of the opposite. She finds the cat in the guy’s freezer, for f$#!’s sake! But instead of acknowledging her very valid concern, Dan again tries to talk her down, supporting West’s flimsy story about finding the cat with his head in a jar. And that he for some reason decided to pop the creature into his mini-fridge in his room rather than leave a note or call animal control. Or tell him in person since they work in the same freaking hospital. Nope, freezer seems like a legit response.
The threats to West are eliminated one by one, ending with the power-hungry Dr. Hill. As often happens in resurrection stories, the unnatural act of raising someone from the dead results in an abomination. In this case, the result is an exaggeration of some of your worst traits. The humanity is gone from these zombies, and they know nothing but the hive-mind orders that the zombie version of Hill is giving them. Dr. Hill, fascinated by science and desirous of fame and control even in death, quickly attempts to raise his own makeshift army of the undead.
While the men in this story are absorbed in the implications of the science, Megan seems to be the only one living in reality, focusing on how this is going to impact those around her on a human level. Megan’s character is interesting because she is a strong woman who is not set up to be a final girl. Dan is meant to be the hero in this story, the right to West’s wrong. But Megan is the voice of reason, and she is ignored at every turn, to her increasing frustration. Dan is also disbelieved, but it is by those in authority, above his paygrade. The fact that Megan is not believed is very telling, because she is made to feel crazy by the people she is supposed to be able to trust. In both Dan and Megan’s case, the non-believer is the same person: Megan’s father. He doesn’t believe Dan because Dan is a man of science, so must be mad. His explanation for what Megan saw? That Dan dragged her into it, unwillingly, and has some kind of hold on her.
She knows that something is happening, but hasn’t pieced together what. When Dan comes clean and tells her that her father is in fact nothing but a re-animated piece of flesh, she initially rails against him. She cries and screams, and then slumps to the floor. She doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to pick this scientifically improbable scenario apart. It is ridiculous, and can’t be true, but she trusts herself, and trusts what she has seen.
The theme of believing, and the unwillingness to do so, is strong here, especially with women. In the scene in which Megan narrowly escapes a sexual assault involving a severed head, a realization sinks in that made it all the more horrifying: no one will believe her. Barbara Crampton portrays this masterfully as emotions cycle over her face. There is fear and absolute terror, but also disbelief that this is happening to her, and the knowledge that no one will ever believe her adds to the psychological horror that this scene inflicts. This could have easily been cheapened, a scene placed with the sole purpose of having the male hero swoop in and save the day. Barbara Crampton made it so much more than that just through her expression. At the outset I watched this scene with the awe of the horror fan who has seen something that they have not, and will likely never see again (I won’t spoil it here because I think it is truly unique), but adding that layer to it really created a chilling new take.
Re-Animator is a film that can be written off as a campy horror comedy, but it strikes me as a tale ahead of it’s time if we can find so much to discuss and analyze today. The women in mad scientist tales tend to be seen as weak or hysterical, or victimized and driven mad, cannon fodder for the ambitious to manipulate. Megan wasn’t having any of that bullshit, and I loved her for it. Thanks, Barbara Crampton, for giving us a horror heroine for the ages!