Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Movies: Secret re-agent man.

Before we get into the review of The Re-animator, indulge me in some chatter about H. P. Lovecraft, whose "Herbert West – Reainmator" serves as the basis for the film.

I think I stated this before, but I think it’s worth repeating: the work of H. P. Lovecraft is deceptively attractive for cinematic adapters, though it is, if you think about, remarkably resistant to visual representation. There are several reasons for this.

First and foremost, Lovecraft's baroque style puts some bizarre demands on the visual form. Whatever the plot of a Lovecraft story, it is his style that is his most distinctive marker. In fact, fans and detractors alike tend to overstate just how precious and purple his prose gets. This is because it is the flights of fancy - those weird spills of archaic and awkward description – that stick in the mind. We can argue why Lovecraft was so quick to lapse in this rich and pulpy prose, and whether this tendency was good or bad for his writing, but these debates would just underscore how central his unique style was to everything he wrote. I've yet to see a Lovecraft adaptation that is as visually lavish and weird as Lovecraft's writing is linguistically overwrought and strange.

Second is Lovecraft's disdain for characterization in a traditional sense. Lovecraft's characters are either 1) intentional ciphers (see Herbert West), 2) humans that exist solely to get wiped out by forces beyond their control (see the farm family from "Color Out of Space"), or 3) shattered minds contemplating their own dissolution (see "The Tomb"), that last being a writing trick that gives them an illusory depth not unlike the vertigo-inducing suggestion of depth you get when you looking at your reflection as it is bounced back and forth between two mirrors. At his best, Lovecraft doesn't waste time with love interests, the bonds of friendship, emotional developments, and so on. His characters don't have the time or resources to handle any of that common human stuff. When you're being crushed by your maddening knowledge of the unfathomable and infinite evil that forms the very fabric of this fragile and indifferent universe, who's got time to call their girlfriend?

There is a single relationship that shows up again and again in Lovecraft's work. We'll call this relationship the "um friends." In several stories, Lovecraft pairs two gents together. One of them is the protagonist and the other is the narrator. It is not totally unlike the Holmes/Watson thing, only, instead of solving crimes, our duo shut themselves into castle-like mansions and perform "unspeakable rites to eldritch gods." Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. These pairs are always old friends, the only close friends either of them seem to have. One is always the dominant friend, usually the one who lures our narrator into an "appreciation of the occult." And the narrator is always vague about just how they spent their time, supposedly because their sanity is shattered or they've seen things to monstrous to describe.

Here's Randolph Carter, from "The Statement of Randolph Carter":

As I Have said before, the weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me . . . As to the nature of our studies – must I say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? . . . Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him . . .

The narrator of "The Hound" discussing his friend:

Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world, where the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St. John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui . . . I cannot reveal the shocking expeditions . . .

Again, from "Thing on the Doorstep":

I have known Edward Pickman Derby all his life . . . I found in this younger child a rare kindred spirit . . . what lay behind our joint love of shadows . . ."

I should point out that, despite the general grotesque cast of Lovecraft's world, the narrator's male friends are, when Lovecraft bothers to give them a physical description, usually quite lovely, and almost always in a frail and boyish sort of way. Derby, from the example above, is described as handsome in a soft and boyish way. Herbert West is described in terms Oscar Wilde might have used for a nerdy version of Dorian Gray: "a small, slender, spectacled youth with delicate features, yellow hair, pale blue eyes, and a soft voice."

I'm not going to go so far as to come and say that Lovecraft's "um friends" are gay lovers. Actually, I'm don't think the idea would have occurred to Lovecraft. Instead, let's just say that hyper-intense secretive same-sex social bonds are frequently at the center of Lovecraft's stories and that these relationships occasionally suggest more than friendship.

I bring all this up, because it is yet another aspect of Lovecraft's work that might make filmmakers gun-shy about trying to adapt his stories.

Stuart Gordon's 1985 film, H. P. Lovecraft's The Re-animator is an interesting study on how one filmmaker tackles the issues presented above.

Gordon handles the problem of Lovecraft's unique and bizarre tone by simply shifting the mood of the entire story. What was surreal in Lovecraft's original becomes farce in Gordon's film.

The shift doesn't damage the plot all that much. After failing to bring back his mentor in an Austria medical school, Herbert West (played with wonderfully creepy intensity by Jeffrey Combs) transfers to good Miskatonic U. in Arkham, Mass. There he rooms with Dan, a fellow med student who just happens to be bumpin' uglies with Megan, the dean's daughter and another med student at Ol' Misk. West comes into immediate conflict with Dr. Hill, a famous professor who has a secret creepy crush on the dean's daughter. West eventually drags Dan into his experiments, the dubious and illegal nature of which is revealed to the dean and which leads to the expulsion of West and the withdrawal of Dan's financial support.

Of course, these punishments don't stop West and Dan. Mad science types so rarely just shrug their shoulders, bemoan the lack of funding, and then start up new projects in more secure and better-funded fields. Instead they bust into the school hospital and attempt to revive one of the bodies in the morgue. Things go all pear-shaped on them when the dean comes in and their recently revived subject offs him. Oops. They off subject one and decide to use the re-agent to safe the dean. Things just get worse from there.

Besides updating the story for the 20th century, Gordon condenses what is decades of action into what is maybe a week of plot. He also ups the gore, replacing Lovecraft's precious gothic dread for outright splatter. Finally, the whole thing is given an almost slapstick, over-the-top feel. Not that this is a bad thing. Gordon gets the mix of shudders and scares down pretty well and the result will appeal to those who enjoy horror-comedy flicks like the later Evil Dead 2.

As for the second problem, Gordon does here what he'll do with nearly every Lovecraft adaptation he helms: he'll add a love interest. What better way to give the characters a little development and avoid that pesky insinuation of homosexuality than to add a chick to the flick? In The Re-animator Megan is on-hand with some screaming and some full frontal nudity to ensure the characters are properly motivated and secure Dan's hetero bonifieds. In fact, the movie most diverges from the original story in the last quarter, when Hill develops into the flicks clearest villain and he and Dan struggle over Megan (who, distressingly, also ends up on the business end of the most out of place and disturbing sexual since the tree assault of the Evil Dead series).

The Re-animator, despite the claims of the full title, is not a great Lovecraft adaptation, but is a stand-out in the subgenre of gross-out horror/comedy. Gordon's done better adaptations, but few of those have the sort of anarchic energy and splatter thrills of this flick. Using my top secret Impact Crater on the Anti-Saturn Hemisphere of Saturn's Moon Enceladus Movie Rating System, I'm giving this flick a solid Shakashik. Sure, the thing would probably give Lovecraft a heart attack, but he's already dead so don't worry about it.


Anonymous said...

Little did I know there was such a string of flicks on the re-animator.

Guy's can have buds that they get into trouble with ? Didn't we go over this in the LoTR series, sam and frodo ? I mean, I had a small number of guys who we'd go get into trouble with. Sure, not connected now-a-days, but back then were inseparable (well, until we dated girls in late HS -- discovering girls is one thing that we did do together, actually dating one was another matter, done solo). Good times, good times.

CRwM said...

When asked to describe your guy-pals, did you regularly say that they were "delicate and handsome, with deep blue eyes and an angelic voice"? Did you regularly lock yourselves into a castle-like estate, chase off visitors and the help, and devote yourself to "deviant and degenerate acts" the details of which you can't discuss or have conveniently forgotten?

Look, I'm not saying his characters are, in fact, gay. Even if they were, it wouldn't make Lovecraft a poster-boy for gay rights. He's pretty clear that whatever his characters are, they are unpleasantly screwed-up and not to be emulated or admired. If Lovecraft intended for us to think that they were homosexual, then he probably also meant for us to understand that is it meant to be part of their general decadence. He was a fairly intolerant guy, even for his times, and I can't believe that he would be any more open-minded about sexual orientation than he was about race (something he's decidedly bigoted about).

What I am saying is that mainstream filmmakers avoid the very hint-o-mint (if you will) by making sure to stick a love interest into the story.

(That said, there is an almost touching - no pun intended - moment when West cradles Dan after Dan's gone into shock. Hmmmm.)

spacejack said...

I think Re-Animator and Body Parts were my introduction to over-the-top/gory/funny horror films. I think there's a slightly warmer spot in my heart for Body Parts, if only because I remember it better and because of the scene with the car chase and the handcuffs. I'm hoping to catch Re-Animator again sometime on late-night TV.

I caught Beyond Re-Animator a few years ago at the Rue Morgue film fests I used to go to with friends. It was great fun.

Anonymous said...

Howdy folks. I found your comments on Lovecraft to be very interesting. To be honest I have never read any of his writings. My only exposures have been various movies that were "based" on his writings. As I readily admit at Miss Heather's, I do consider myself a sick puppy, lol. I generally enjoy all of the movies that are Lovecraft adaptations. The first movie I can clearly recall telling myself to pay more attention for movies based on Lovecraft was the Re-Animator. I also have it and several others in my dvd collection.

A good example of "sick puppy" in this one is the good "doc" (aka I Ain't Got NoBody) and his actions about to occur later in that scene. It got a high score on my gore meter, and I did enjoy the type of humor it offered as well.

One point I would offer on the long-time friends theme in this one too. West and Dan had never met until West showed up in response to a bulletin board ad posted at med school that Dan had a room to rent. Maybe he simply wanted to distance himself a bit from that Lovecraft theme too while adding the gorgeous Miss Crampton as Dan's honey.

(Ok, I just realized I slipped up a bit here, lol. I really can talk like I have some intelligence, but the southern redneck is just much more fun and easier - cause I is.)