The work of H.P. Lovecraft is a tricky beast to get just right onscreen. At his best, he wrote psychological stories. He pulled from all the different genres to create a singular vision of otherworldly-ness. His prose was packed with details but rarely padded or purple in nature. He relied on dream logic and internal connections that didn't typically pay off until the very end of a story. Re-Animator from writer/director Stuart Gordon and screenwriters Dennis Paoli and William Norris comes closer to feeling like Lovecraft onscreen than any other film. Their adaptation of "Herbert West, Re-Animator" is dark, twisted, brooding, odd, funny, and disturbing in equal measure. The whole thing doesn't quite add up to a logical conclusion, but neither does the source story.
Medical student Dan Cain quickly finds himself in an un-winnable position. He's dating the daughter of the dean who does not want his daughter dating at all. He also takes on Herbert West, a transfer student obsessed with reanimation after science claims a patient will never reclaim brain function, as a housemate. Dan's girlfriend hates West and the dean hates Dan. In short order, West succeeds in his experiments and forces Cain to join him in the final stages of testing the glowing green re-animation serum on humans.
Stuart Gordon pushed his cast to play the entire story of Re-Animator unhinged. There is nothing natural about Jeffrey Combs' performance as Herbert West. That's why it's so compelling. He's a menacing, unfeeling, otherworldly presence only in town to wreak havoc on another medical university.
It's hard to say that any character is multi-faceted or capable of showing sincere emotion until the final moments of the story when all hell breaks lose. The medical students and hospital/university staff are good at faking sincere interactions, but none of them understand how the mind works beyond the base technical level. They can point out the exact point of entry to remove a brain for study, but they can't comprehend more than one emotion at a time.
This is an excellent strategy that puts the focus entirely on the world of Lovecraft. If he wasn't defining the Cthulhu Mythos and the the identities of the Great Old Ones, he was focusing on the relationship between life, death, dreams, and reality. His characters were ciphers for a fantastic and terrifying world. The young hero rarely played an active role in the bizarre world; they just went along for a strange ride.
Stuart Gordon and his team of writers understood this. By creating shallow characters that constantly clash over everything, the pure essence of Lovecraft's twisted vision can come to light. It's updated here with far more sexual and violent content, but it's still true to Lovecraft.
Dan Cain is the hero who can never have an impact on his own destiny until his story ends without him. Herbert West is the strange outsider who draws everyone into an alternate reality. The dean, the girlfriend, and the jealous professor are the final pieces of the puzzle necessary to unleash uncontrollable madness upon the world.
Re-Animator is a deeply conceptual piece with a lot of shaky technical elements. Somehow, the continuity errors and gratuitous...everything else only work to enhance the Lovecraftian madness on display. The whole thing is so off-kilter that nothing could ever knock it off-balance and force it to collapse.
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