‘Re-Animator:’ Lovecraftian Horror in it’s Most Delicious, Digestible Form

I hate H.P. Lovecraft.

Sure, I love the meme-ry of his work in pop culture, all the references to Cthulu, Elder Gods, and Old Ones, all that fun stuff. I know the Shoggoths and the city of R’lyeh, and I’m pretty well-versed in all the horrors of Dunwich and the madness in the mountains.

But man, his writing is just… no fun. At all.

Lovecraft was an idea guy, no question. His works are dark and gothic, setting an eerie mood like no other, and feature such alien, otherworldly concepts and creatures that it would be foolish, borderline asinine, to deny his effect on horror and popular fiction.

But have you ever actually tried reading his works? I have, and let me tell you, you may as well read from a calculus textbook. Dull doesn’t begin to describe it. And I know what you’re thinking: Typical millennial, can’t tolerate reading anything longer than a Buzzfeed article. Smartphones and Twitter, old man yells at cloud.

Counterpoint: I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov and Ulysses back-to-back, like a masochist. I read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga in a week. I can handle lengthy prose, thank you very much.

What I can’t handle is forty pages of text describing how indescribable the horrors being seen by the characters are. Or dialogue that makes every single person in a story sound like the same 18th century professor, regardless of when and where the story takes place. Or really brazen racist overtones for no apparent reason other than Lovecraft’s own deplorable opinions.

Yeah, I really don’t like Lovecraft.

(It also doesn’t help that he looks like an Adam Sandler character.)

His work is so inventive and unique, it’s really a shame that his prose is so dry and lifeless. He can’t write characters to save his life, and he apparently had never heard a human being speak in casual conversation before. And even his more interesting ideas are presented in the most frustratingly vague and oblique way imaginable. “Oh yes, there is this terrible, amazing thing that’s so terrible and so amazing that to describe it would be impossible.”

Cool, Howard. Thanks, really descriptive.

But can it be saved? Are the ideas present in his short stories and longform works of fiction strong enough to survive the transition to a more entertaining, more engaging medium? Can the works of H.P. Lovecraft be made into anything other than the slog that they are in their natural state.

The answer is: Rarely.

As you can probably imagine, there have been a number of film adaptations pulling from Lovecraft’s work over the years, yet a surprisingly smaller amount than you’d probably expect. Certainly nothing big-budget or overly mainstream, and, from what I can tell, nothing that has been exceptionally well-received. They either go all-in on Lovecraft’s style of mind-melting, unfathomable horrors that can’t accurately be depicted onscreen, or they use just the vaguest notions of his work and abandon everything else. It’s a ridiculously, notoriously difficult balance to strike, which probably explains why so many studios and filmmakers have either been unwilling to try, or have tried and failed.

There have been two exceptions to this, for the most part: a 2019 adaptation of The Color Out of Space, starring Nicholas Cage, and a 1985 adaptation of Herbert West – Reanimator. And while the Nic Cage film is predictably, entertainingly bonkers, it skirts a bit too closely to the Lovecraft version to really iron out all of the issues that I have with Lovecraft’s storytelling abilities.

Re-Animator, however, is a different story altogether. Re-Animator is fantastic.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Lovecraft story, Herbert West: Re-Animator is functionally just a riff on Frankenstein: A young med student tells the story of a friend and roommate of his, a gifted genius fascinated with the concept of death, who develops a formula that can revive the dead. In typical fashion, this all goes horribly wrong, and a lot of people end up dead by the end, including, ostensibly, Herbert himself.

It’s not a particularly engaging story, feeling too similar to Shelly’s version to really stand-out in any meaningful way, and by all accounts, Lovecraft himself wasn’t overly fond of it either. It was essentially just a work-for-hire scenario, where he only wrote it because he needed the money. His disdain comes through pretty clearly in the story itself, with it verging on self-parody by the end. In short, not exactly a premise ripe for a big-screen adaptation.

And yet, director Stuart Gordon manages to take this seemingly lifeless premise and, appropriately, inject it with some much needed vitality.

Re-Animator, through the strength of its writing, its direction, and its production design, manages to somehow faithfully retell the Lovecraft tale almost with near one-to-one accuracy, while improving on the entertainment value and emotional engagement in every way.

The plot, like I said, follows the literary version near identically, save for a few minor details. Our main character is Dan Cain, a med student at the fictional Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. He encounters another student, a new addition to the college named – you guessed it – Herbert West. West moves in with Dan, begins experimenting with his reagent formula, and starts bringing back all sorts of gruesome cadavers from the icy grip of death itself. As with the Lovecraftian telling of the story, things go off the rails, and Dan and Herbert have work together to survive and stop the rising onslaught of the undead that they’ve unleashed.

Where the film version of the short story differs most wildly from the source material is the way its characters are written. Here, they actually feel like people, rather than stuffy, intellectually-insufferable caricatures. Dan is a likable, sensitive guy who desperately wants to help people. We see him get visibly upset after failing to revive a patient with CPR early on in the film, which motivates him to go along with Herbert’s bizarre experiments. This is in stark contrast with the short story’s unnamed narrator, who joins West solely out of sincere curiosity.

Joining Dan is his girlfriend, Megan, the daughter of school dean Alan Halsey. The dean himself is a character from the Lovecraft version of the narrative, serving an almost-identical role,  but his daughter is a new addition, one that adds some much needed emotional depth and motivation for Dan, as well as a balancing force of reason and skepticism to balance out the med-school duo’s more gung-ho approach to mad science. Her distrust and fear of West drives a lot of the more compelling aspects of the film’s emotional core.

Speaking of West, he’s played here by cult-favorite actor Jeffrey Combs, in the role that would launch him to the beloved status which he seems to somewhat sarcastically enjoy today. Combs plays West as an obsessive, arrogant scientist who lords himself over those he feels are lesser and beneath him. Which, on the surface sounds absolutely, insufferably narcissistic and obnoxious, yet Combs’ portrayal has a certain smarmy charm and charisma to him that keeps him from being to alienating. He’s difficult, he’s abrasive, and he doesn’t quite seem to understand social norms, but he isn’t completely inhuman. He seems to genuinely value Dan’s friendship and assistance, and he does actively work to help put a stop to the monsters that he creates, even if only to save his reputation.

What makes Herbert entertaining above all else is his dry, deadpan sense of humor, which serves as a stark contrast to the increasingly over-the-top and ridiculous ways that the film depicts the fruits of West’s experiments. And that’s the real strength of the film altogether: It’s comedy.

Re-Animator is a darkly hilarious movie, one that knows full well where the line of decency is and actively chooses to ignore it. One minute, Dan and Herbert will be reanimating the comically Muppet-like corpse of a cat, who proceeds to attack them like a corny 50s B-movie, and the next, a zombified head will be commanding an army of the undead solely for the purposes of making a terrible cunnilingus joke at the expense of the film’s sole female character. The tone turns on a dime from gory horror to gross-out comedy over and over again, with the two styles complimenting each other wonderfully, rather than clashing against one another. It’s intentionally exaggerated and offensive, and it works to magnificent effect in lightening up Lovecraft’s more dour and self-important story beats.

The effects also serve to accent the film’s irreverent and “nothing is sacred” mantra, with some of the goriest, gnarliest depictions of zombie violent to ever grace the silver screen. You’ll seen decapitations, mutilations, vivisections, and everything in between. The budget for fake organs and body parts in this movie probably outweighed the production costs for anything else needed to make it, as the movie wastes no screentime whatsoever leaving the violence to the imagination. Knowing full-well that the MPAA was going to have a field day with the excessive violence and gratuitous gore in the film, Gordon and the production team decided to make an extremely rare decision to simply not have it rated, only caving to an R-rating for the home release, as many video rental stores refused to carry an unrated film.

The result of all of these factors is a slapstick, messy, in-your-face festival of blood, guts, and breasts that transforms H.P. Lovecraft’s melodramatic and monotonous Frankenstein knock-off into a wholly unique trip through the macabre and the disgusting. Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West is one of horror’s greatest anti-heroes, and would return in several sequels, which are fairly terrific in their own right. The practical effects in the film are second to none, and the comedy is a knock-out. The film was actually my introduction to Lovecraft’s mythology when I was younger, and I was sorely disappointed when I realized that his work didn’t at all reflect the fun of the film.

Which is a shame, of course, but maybe for the best. Lovecraft was kind of a garbage human being (seriously, look up what he named his cat), and I’m oddly okay with the thought of an adaptation of his literary works being far more interesting and entertaining than anything he himself could ever write. I mean, the guy repeatedly expressed an admiration of Hitler, so his legacy is frankly the least of my concerns.

I’m not sure why more attempts haven’t been made to adapt Lovecraft to the film format (save Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness, which has been talked about for so long now I doubt it’s ever happening), but if more come along, I sincerely hope they learn from Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and don’t lean to heavily into the prolific writer’s own style. Give us a Cthulu rom-com, you cowards!

Think I’m being to unfair to the Lovecraft? Let me know in the comments! And go watch Re-Animator! It’s awesome!

Happy Halloween!

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