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Plotopsy Podcast #9 – Re-Animator

Re-Animator

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Welcome back to the (Plot)opsy Podcast! It has been a while since the last episode due to some technical issues, but now the show has been appropriately brought back to life! On this episode, I go into some fun facts and trivia about Stuart Gordon’s cult classic debut feature, “Re-Animator.” It is pretty fascinating how the combination of an experienced stage director, an out of print story, and some creative frugality can make for such a memorable classic of horror! I recommend checking out my text review of the movie from last month if you find yourself wanting more.

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Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Re-Animator”

Re-Animator

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog’s two week spotlight on the works and career of Stuart Gordon! Today, I’m taking a look at the most acclaimed and beloved of Stuart Gordon’s movies, 1985’s cult classic “Re-Animator.”

“Re-Animator” marked the first film directing work for Stuart Gordon, and was additionally the first writing collaboration for Gordon and Dennis Paoli, which would prove to be a long-running partnership. A third writing partner was present in William Norris, who never worked on any other films.

Before “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon was working for the Organic Theater Company in Chicago. He noticed that many of his actors were doing movies, and decided he wanted to try his hand at one as well. He decided to go with the horror genre because of the low budget required, and the generally high profitability of genre movies.

The source material, “Herbert West: Re-Animator” by H. P. Lovecraft, was published in parts over multiple issues of “Weird Tales” magazine. It was long out of print when Stuart Gordon got the idea of doing a movie, meaning that in order to read it, he had to request access to an original copy in the Chicago Public Library. The movie essentially “re-animated” the story from obscurity, and renewed popular interest in Lovecraft’s works.

reanimator1The screenplay of the “Re-Animator” film differs greatly from the content of “Herbert West: Re-Animator.” Ultimately, the original story only provided the characters and some details for the screenplay, which significantly altered the plot to make it more cinematic.

Brian Yuzna and Bob Greenberg both acted as producers on the picture, and would go on to collaborate extensively with Stuart Gordon on future projects. Yuzna even helmed two sequels to “Re-Animator”: “Bride of Re-Animator” in 1989, and “Beyond Re-Animator” in 2003.

The cinematography on “Re-Animator” was provided by Mac Ahlberg, who would go on to frequently collaborate with Stuart Gordon on films like “Dolls,” “Robot Jox,” and “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” A handful of shots were completed by Robert Ebinger, who was dismissed after only a week of shooting on the behest of Charles Band, whose Empire Pictures was backing the movie.

The music on “Re-Animator,” which drew significant influence from the score of “Psycho,” was composed by Richard Band, brother of Charles Band and ultimately a frequent member of Stuart Gordon’s movie team.

The effects on “Re-Animator” were all done as simply as possible to keep the budget low, meaning that no optical special effects were used. There are a number of shots that appear to be done with special effects, but were actually executed with the creative use of lighting, camera angles, and practical effects. It has been estimated that the production used 30 gallons of take blood in total, which was used creatively in tandem with raw meat to do most of the gore in the film. Stuart Gordon has a fantastic quote about the use of cheap effects, taken from the “Re-Animator” DVD commentary:

“The audience will accept very simple special effects if they like the story and are involved.”

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The cast of “Re-Animator” features a handful of actors who would return to work with Stuart Gordon again in the future. Of course, Jeffrey Combs leads the way as Herbert West, who would become one of the most consistent figures in Stuart Gordon’s later films. Barbara Crampton later popped up in “From Beyond” and “Castle Freak,” and Robert Sampson appeared in 1989’s “Robot Jox.” Bruce Abbott returned for the first sequel to the film, but never reunited with Stuart Gordon on any of his later movies. David Gale would unfortunately die only a few years after “Re-Animator,” though he also appeared in Yuzna’s sequel, “Bride of Re-Animator.”

A number of notable actors appear in the background of “Re-Animator,” such as Stuart Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, as an ER doctor. The first reanimated corpse is played by Peter Kent, who is best known as a frequent stunt double and stand in for Arnold Schwarzenegger in films like “The Terminator,” “Total Recall,” “The Running Man,” “Predator,” “Last Action Hero,” and “Jingle All The Way.” Also in the background is Ian Patrick Williams, a member of the Organic Theater in Chicago with Gordon at the time, who would later appear in the Stuart Gordon films “Dolls” and “Robot Jox.”

“Re-Animator” follows the story of a medical student who becomes embroiled in experimentation on the re-animation of corpses after a mysterious new student transfers into the school and leases a room in his home. This relationship winds up causing significant problems for the pair as they are forced to butt heads with the school administration and simultaneously have to deal with the violent, erratic behavior of their creations.

reanimator4Notably, the creative team behind “Re-Animator” decided to release the movie unrated after getting an NC-17 from Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating board. Amazingly, the movie still managed to get advertised widely and booked in theaters, a major accomplishment for a film without a stamp of approval from the MPAA, and something that is unlikely to happen nowadays.

The infamously radiant reanimation fluid used in the film was made up of a chemical mixture used for certain kinds of road flairs, and was apparently highly toxic. Given the short life span of its luminosity, it had to be frequently replaced in order to maintain a consistent glow from shot to shot.

reanimator2All of the dead bodies were meticulously made up based on professional input from forensic pathologists in the Chicago area. Specifically, the coloration of the makeup was done using direct comparisons to actual autopsy photos of corpses. The vivid coloration on the bodies is meant to imitate the actual coloration effects that occur after death.

The humor in “Re-Animator” was something that wasn’t initially planned, but has wound up being a defining aspect of the film. Stuart Gordon has said that it was added in party due to his experiences working with forensic pathologists while doing research for the film, noting that they had some of the darkest senses of humor of any people he had ever met. In many ways, this integration of humor into horror influenced what would eventually define Stuart Gordon’s style. Here is another relevant quote from the director about what he learned about humor and horror from making “Re-Animator”:

“Laughter is the antidote for fear…you can build tension and then relieve it with laughter…but if you do both at the same time they cancel each other out.”

“Re-Animator” interestingly used many of the same locations and crew as “The Terminator.” The movie was eventually screened for Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, on the recommendation of his body double, who plays the first revived corpse in “Re-Animator.” Arnold apparently loved it, enough so that he later recommended Stuart Gordon for the directing job on “Fortress.”

The inclusion of the “laser drill” in the movie was a bit of science fiction when “Re-Animator” was made, but today laser surgery is standard practice in medicine in general, and specifically in autopsies (as is depicted in the film).

The most infamous scene in the movie is undoubtedly the decapitated head attempted rape sequence, and is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing Stuart Gordon has ever filmed. The original actress cast for Barbara Crampton’s role apparently dropped out due to the inclusion of the scene, and it caused David Gale’s wife to walk out of an early screening of the movie in shock.

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“Re-Animator” was highly regarded by critics at the time, and still holds an impressive 94% Rotten Tomatoes critical aggregate rating. Audiences have been a little less receptive to the film, giving is a 7.3 on IMDb and a 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is regarded as both a horror classic and a cult classic regardless.

Personally, I think that one of the most fantastic aspects of “Re-Animator” is the ending, in which Bruce Abbot’s character revives Barbara Crampton over a black screen, with only the reanimating agent in a syringe visible. It then closes on an iconic scream from Crampton. I have mentioned this ending before, way back when I covered Uwe Boll’s “House of the Dead,” which manages to botch a very similar concept for the ending.

“Re-Animator” is now regarded as a classic of the horror genre, and has influenced many other films since its release. On top of the eventual sequels, “Re-Animator” also inspired a musical adaptation, which was apparently pretty highly acclaimed.

Overall, “The Re-Animator” is more than deserving of the reputation that it has garnered. The effects are fantastic, the performances are great, and it has set the tone for the careers of both Stuart Gordon and star Jeffrey Combs. It is a must watch for horror movie fans, b-movie aficionados, and arguably film buffs in general. For fans of the genre, this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.

However, I think it is hit-or-miss for people not already ingratiated into the genre: particularly, the infamous “head” sequence is likely to turn a subset of people off who might otherwise enjoy the movie. As effective as the scene is at disturbing the audience and drawing a reaction, that has to be weighed against the potential for the effect to turn people away: you want an audience to cringe and turn their head, but you don’t want to go so far as to push them out the door.

So, as far as a recommendation goes, it is an emphatic ‘yes’ for horror fans, and an indecisive ‘maybe’ for general audiences, with a clear caveat of the content that pops up in the film. If you think you can handle it, give the film a shot.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “The Black Cat”

The Black Cat

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week spotlight of Stuart Gordon is his 2007 installment in the “Masters of Horror” television program: “The Black Cat.”

“The Black Cat” takes story beats and details from a short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, and blends them with details of the author/poet’s personal life, playing with the idea that he had difficulty differentiating reality from his dark imagination. This peculiar adaptation was co-written by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon, the writing pair behind “Re-Animator,” “Dagon,” “From Beyond,” “Castle Freak,” and a previous Poe adaptation of the short story “The Pit and The Pendulum.”

The characterization of Edgar Allan Poe in “The Black Cat,” while incorporating a handful of true details (his wife’s consumption, for instance), is certainly highly fictionalized to suit the needs of the story. There are also a few elements that clearly send up to Paoli and Gordon’s previous work, most notably the eponymous black cat itself. “Re-Animator,” their most famous collaboration, features a notable segment with a zombie cat puppet who attacks Jeffrey Combs (who plays Poe here), which seems to be lampooned throughout this adaptation of “The Black Cat,” something that I definitely appreciated.

blackcat7“Masters of Horror,” the television program which produced and aired “The Black Cat,” assembled various horror directorial and writing icons to create hour-long original works to comprise the show. It ran for two seasons on the Showtime premium channel from 2005-2007, during which time Stuart Gordon contributed two episodes: “The Black Cat” and “Dreams In The Witch House.”

The cast is led by long-time Stuart Gordon contributor Jeffrey Combs, who plays the famed author and poet Edgar Allan Poe. He would later take up playing Poe on stage as well, in the one-man play “Nevermore…An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe” which saw wide acclaim, running in 2009 and 2010.

blackcat6The rest of the cast includes Elyse Levesque of “Stargate Universe,” Aron Tager of “You Kill Me” and “Billable Hours,” character actor Patrick Gallagher, Christopher Heyerdahl of “Hell on Wheels” and the “Twilight” movie series, and Eric Keenleyside, perhaps best known for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dreamcatcher.”

The story of “The Black Cat” follows Edgar Allan Poe as he deals with his alcoholism, writer’s block, and the slow disintegration of his wife’s health. As everything around him begins to fall apart, he begins to believe that his wife’s black cat has cursed them, and is the source of their troubles. He then takes a series of increasingly drastic actions.

Personally, I thought Jeffrey Combs was pretty fantastic playing E. A. Poe. However, the writing on this is far from ideal: it tries to meld aspects of both Poe’s personal life and the original short story of “The Black Cat,” and the result is just a tad strange for those familiar with the sources.

blackcat2The whole film of “The Black Cat” has a greyed, desaturated look to it that I am sure was meant to give it a dark, aged appearance. It did help to make the blood stand out, but I thought it was a little bit overdone, and that it should have been toned down a little bit. It ultimately served to mute all of the details, which didn’t do the movie any favors.

blackcat4I really like a lot of the shots, but the whole thing doesn’t come together quite as well as I had hoped. In comparison to “Dreams In The Witch House,” Stuart Gordon’s other contribution to “Masters of Horror,” this doesn’t feel like as complete of a work. Even though Jeffrey Combs is fantastic in the lead role, he isn’t able to cover for the weaknesses of the story. I actually think that this is a rare case where the original source material would have been better off with less alterations. This would have meant that Poe himself wouldn’t be included, but I think that the faux-biopic aspect of the film is part of what muddies it so much, and causes it to lose focus. Having Poe as a book-ending mechanism might have worked out, but I think taking Occam’s razor to the script would have been the best method to correct the issues with the story.

I still like “The Black Cat” as a film. It has some really enjoyable moments, mostly powered by Combs, and it is certainly better than what you would typically find in television horror. It also well represents Stuart Gordon’s style, more so than most of his more recent work, which is really fun to see. As far as recommendations go, despite my criticisms, this gets pretty solid approval from me for entertainment value. It certainly could have been executed better, but the ultimate result is certainly entertaining, and that isn’t a result to be argued with.