I'm not sure it's possible to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft story to film without making a cult classic. I mean that in the sense of both words: The movie is likely to become a classic, but only for a certain cult of horror fans. As good as Lovecraft's stories are, there's a single-mindedness to them, an innocence, and an of-their-time element that may not translate well to a blockbuster film. As much as I love stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” it's hard to imagine a bunch of big-name actors making a straight movie version of them. To make a good film out of these tales, the filmmaker needs to be able to smile sheepishly at the audience and say, “We all know these stories take themselves too seriously, but we love them anyway, so let's just have a good time.” The 2005 movie “The Call of Cthulhu,” for example was made as a silent film, which somehow takes the over-earnest elements of the story and makes them work quite well.
1985's “Re-Animator” works by reveling in its 1980s campiness. We meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), Miskatonic Medical School's “most promising medical student.” We never see Dan doing regular med student stuff like studying, sitting in lectures, or seeing patients with a big team of other students and medical residents. Instead, he has loads of time to wheel bodies down to the morgue and bang his girlfriend, Megan, who happens to be the Dean's daughter. Megan (Barbara Crampton) is '80s-hot, by which I mean she's adorable, but she wears high-waisted pants.
Dan gets a new roommate in the form of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a medical student transferred in from Switzerland after his mentor died during a bizarre experiment. Herbert's secretive behavior vexes Dan and Megan until they discover, to their horror, that he is conducting experiments in re-animation. He has a green, glowing chemical that, when injected into the brainstem, can bring the dead back to life. The problem is that the re-animated being, whether a cat or a human, tends to be murderously insane. The answer, according to Herbert, is to find ever-fresher subjects. In Lovecraft's tale, this led the scientist to commit murder in order to have the freshest corpse possible, but the movie “Re-Animator” doesn't take it's protagonists down that road. They simply sneak into the morgue to experiment. Nonetheless, they run afoul of both Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Professor Carl Hill (David Gale), who is jealous of Herbert's science and lusts after Dan's girlfriend.
“Re-Animator” looks like it was filmed on the same camera they used for the old “Incredible Hulk” series starring Bill Bixby, which means it looks dated even for 1985. Enough time has passed, however, that that cheesy, soft-focus look actually makes the film seem somewhat timeless. The movie doesn't have any of that knowing, 1990's snarkiness (think “Scream”). The actors play it straight, letting the plot and the decidedly non-CGI special effects provide the humor. With many cult-classic movies, it's hard to know what the filmmaker was thinking. Did they mean to make it campy, or is it a happy accident? With “Re-Animator,” it seems pretty clear the director, Stuart Gordon, followed the standard B-movie formula: throw in some titties, some gore, and some humor, and keep the overhead low. He just classed it up a bit by getting some decent actors.
My only complaint about “Re-Animator” is that it isn't really scary. It's gory, yes, but it neither startles nor instills dread. I seem to recall that “The Evil Dead” and “The Evil Dead 2”, similarly campy, low-budget gore-fests, managed to at least be startling. “Re-Animator” broadcasts every death well in advance, and there is never any doubt as to how the protagonists will react to a death. They're gonna get out that green stuff and start re-animating!
3 stars out of 5