I didn’t think I was ever going to write anything on Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. I just didn’t really see the need. It is a film that has just the right amount of uncanny terror, visceral effects, titillation, and camp to make it a lively viewing experience. And between the twistedly morbid curiosity of Herbert West as played by Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott’s overwhelmed scientific straight man Dan Cain, and the gorgeous and rightfully terrified Barbara Crampton as Megan Halsey you had the entire acting dynamic made.
It’s true. Re-Animator — co-written by Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and William J. Norris — has a few changes from its source material, namely, the serial short horror story H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Dr. Halsey, the erstwhile mentor of West and Cain doesn’t have a daughter in the story, as Lovecraft seemed reluctant to have many female characters, never mind romantic interests, or anything romantic for that matter. The character of Dr. Allen Halsey doesn’t die as a result of West and Cain’s meddling, but rather of typhoid fever while attempting to save countless patients from an epidemic. That, in of itself, makes him different from Dr. Alan Halsey the Dean of Miskatonic University in Stuart Gordon’s film: for while he is also an old-fashioned doctor that doesn’t like West’s experiments, he cares more about appearances, grant money, and class than the Halsey of the serials. In the serials, in “The Plague-Daemon,” Dr. Halsey is reanimated by West and his assistant, beats the hell out of them, and runs off into the night as opposed to being captured and lobotomized by Hill. Cain isn’t named in the story at all, and is just an unnamed narrator — a function which happens a lot in Lovecraft — who is the assistant of West who is a blond-haired, blue-eyed young man in contrast to Combs’ iteration of the mad scientist. Lovecraft himself didn’t like this story, being derivative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a pulpish manner.
So of course it’s one of those stories that’s easy to adapt to cinema, and honestly the fleshing out of West’s assistant as a man with good intentions instead of a pedestal narrator, and the presence of Barbara Crampton to show the emotional impact and consequences of all their experiments, works for me. But you have, undoubtedly, already heard and read about all of this if you are horror fans.
Let’s focus on Dr. Carl Hill.
If you’ve seen the film, you know what kind of man Hill is. Hill is arrogant, he plagiarizes the work of better doctors and scientists, he has a creepy infatuation with the much younger and completely uninterested Megan, and he becomes the monster he was always meant to be after Herbert West kills, and reanimates his severed head and body, building for himself a little army of army to obey his every whim in a quip-filled rivalry between him, and West. David Gale plays Hill as a completely over-the-top antagonist, ridiculously so, but it is a counter to West’s combination of cold detachment, and demented obessession with his work. Hill is ego-driven, lecherous, and just a terrible human being that has no qualms about performing lobotomies on even former colleagues to get what he wants — and this is before he’s killed, and gets transformed into one of West’s creations.
So where do I start with this? In some ways, Hill is more of a banal character than West. West is about The Work, about experimenting with life and death, whereas Hill wants fame and power and flesh. Hill doesn’t exist in the serials at all. However, that isn’t entirely true. In the “Herbert West – Reanimator” serial chapter “The Horror From the Shadows,” there is a man working with West and his assistant — now both full-fledged doctors as opposed to medical students in the fields of World War I — named Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee: a British-Canadian military doctor and pilot:. This is a funny link, given how David Gale is a British actor, though he depicts an American doctor who prides himself on class. He shares a lot of fascination with West’s experiments, and even participated in some in situ. Aside from his interest in reviving the dead, however, and perhaps some of West’s more esoteric explorations, Clapham-Lee doesn’t get much more character development after he’s decapitated in a plane crash … and West decides to attempt to reanimate his body parts separately.
This is where Dr. Hill is derived from, poor Sir Eric, and it is pretty much the last in a long like off poor life — and undeath — decisions that seals our friend Dr. West’s fate in the last of the serials “The Tomb Legions.” What happens here is nothing short of a cold, methodical hunting and takedown of West, who is hiding out with his assistant, as a mysterious man who seems to wear a waxen face — and is carrying something, always, in a bag — finds all of West’s creations, and purposefully take him apart in an ancient series of catacombs under an old house before vanishing behind a wall completely, leaving the narrator traumatized and afraid for his very existence.
You can see where a lot of the inspiration behind the ends of Re-Animator, and Bride of Re-Animator came from to this extent. But something perplexing always bothered me about Re-Animator itself, and I was never able to put it into words before this point.
You see, there is one scene in the film where Hill stares intently at West, after attempting to blackmail the latter based on the knowledge of his crimes, into giving him his notes on the serum: or re-agent. He orders West to give him his work, and for more than a few moments West is speechless. He’s transfixed. Now, bear in mind that throughout this whole film Herbert West has been caustic and sarcastic as all get-out with everyone from Dan, to Megan, to Dr. Halsey, ranting at the police in Switzerland at the University of Zurich, and especially making barbs at Dr. Hill’s expense. But now, with the potential for revealing his illegal work on corpses, and what he did to Dr. Halsey, West is suddenly quiet? He just shuts up?
So, in an early draft of the script, it’s revealed that Dr. Hill is — of all things — a hypnotist. That’s right. This man of questionable science, whose work is apparently by West’s standards woefully outdated — specifically his knowledge of the brain and the surgery thereof — incorporates techniques that attempt to influence a suggestible mind. According to Joe Bob Briggs, it was the film’s music composer Richard Band, who suggested to Stuart Gordon that this element be excised as it would be implausible for two impossible things to happen at once with already a certain kind of belief suspension in place. Joe Bob was against this happening, referencing what seems to be Aristotle’s Poetics in that one should have two impossible things occurring in a work. I’ve attempted to look it up, but from what I can see Aristotle mentions something about how “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”
In other words, perhaps Joe Bob was trying to intimate that in a world with reanimation already occurring, hypnosis in conjunction with that feat isn’t that farfetched, and that by attempting to just stick with revival of the dead, something is lost: the rest of it just becomes “the improbable possible.”
But according to what I’ve found, Aristotle essentially says that if you need a secondary impossible thing to make a primary impossible element work, you should use it.
And that is where Joe Bob and I differed, at least at first. I personally thought that this wasn’t needed: that adding hypnosis into a story about creating the undead in the way it is portrayed confuses the issue. What story is trying to be told here? And then, there is the Cthulhu Mythos fan in me that is also annoyed. By the time of “Re-Animator’s” segment “The Horror From the Shadows,” Herbert West seems to have come to the existentially terrifying conclusion that a previously living human organism’s parts have independent qualities: they are only interdependent — connected by nerves and viscera — because of evolution. There is no intrinsic force compelling them together. There is no life force. No soul. He is already experimenting with “lizard tissue” to make little animated creations from parts at this point in time — something we see him do in Bride of Re-Animator.
In other words, there is no intelligent design behind humanity.
What I thought was brilliant about Lovecraft’s serials is how the other undead are mindless except for Sir Eric — our Canadian Major — who has not only retained his consciousness, but a sense of vengeance against West for turning him into an abomination. Moreover, Sir Eric is a decapitated head that understands the science of reanimation, and all of West’s dirty little secrets. He is a brain that controls his own animated body.
So why can’t Sir Eric control other reanimated bodies if they are potentially interdependent limbs, or extensions of a powerful will?
See, this is what worked for me with Dr. Hill. He lobotomizes Dr. Halsey’s undead form, not merely to keep him from potentially talking to the authorities if he ever got his faculties back, but to make him more suggestible. You see him, after his own death, doing this to other corpses in advance before reanimating them. It’s brilliant, and horrible. And I just thought that hypnosis is just a cheap way to explain something far more Lovecraftian and terrifying in that there is no intrinsic meaning even in human life and sentience: all just processes formed together by chemical forces and influences until someone learns how to manipulate them to do twisted and banal things, leading to a terrible and perpetual insomnia of eternal hatred.
Of course, the undead in the film are clumsy and directionless whereas the ones in the serials move fast, and with focus. This changes a bit when Dr. Hill controls them, but he barely has fine-motor control over his own body at times, never mind the bodies of others. And there is still the fact that West is awkwardly paralyzed just looking at him in that one scene.
So, in my early articles I’ve mentioned that I wouldn’t change a thing about Re-Animator, even if it is not up to Lovecraft’s standards: the serial, or the film derived from it. But now? Years later, after seeing some attempts at a Cthulhu Mythos shared cinematic universe in Color Out of Space, and the remake of Castle Freak, as well as seeing the cultists as displayed in The Deep Ones, there is a solution.
You see, I’ve changed my mind. What if Dr. Hill, as seen by Herbert West, is into defunct and “quack-science,” but it goes further than his “stealing” of Dr. Hans Gruber’s work. What if he is also into the theories of Madame Blavatsky, and Theosophy, some very racist and eugenics shite. It’s true that unlike the serials that take place at the turn of the twentieth century and WWI that Hill exists in the 1980s, but I can see him subscribing to these ideas. And what if he is a cultist of Cthulhu or Dagon himself, but instead of making it blatant with what he says, you can just see it in his study — that typical arrogant office with shelves of idols stolen from other cultures, but nothing really specific … Until you see the Elder Sign medallion that he flashes out to hypnotise or mesmerize people. It should have been short, and to the point, and a good nod at the literary heritage from which this film was grown.
In this sense, it works for me because we establish Dr. Hill: as not only a terrible human being and an arrogant narcissist, but also believing in some abhorrent practices, and his mysticism would make him doubly hated by West even as he rubs it in the younger man’s face. He still continues to lobotomize patients so his rituals make them “more suggestible” and it says a lot more about the Western colonialism in how he treats women, perhaps other minorities, and the vulnerable. It also doesn’t take away from the insanity of the whole film. It just adds another layer. One, or two lines, even West being disparaging of Mesmerism and hypnotism, and Hill hamming it up with “there are forces that work in mysterious ways,” which also leads to West attempting to animate Hill’s parts after he kills him with the shovel … it just sits well with me.
Obviously, this injection into the body of Re-Animator wouldn’t be possible now as it isn’t fresh anymore, and David Gale and Stuart Gordon aren’t with us anymore. And the film is great as is, and discussion of these film adaptations always seems to come down to an issue about either the inherent meaningless of existence, horrifying mysticism, or just plain entertainment. But like West, I guess I still like to play with other people’s toys: a fact that will probably never change here, at this Horror Doctor’s laboratory.