Monday, July 07, 2008

Movies: Jailhouse rot.

Beyond the Re-Animator, the third film in series, trailing Bride of the Re-Animator by more than a decade, seems to split fans of the series into two camps. Migliore and Strysik, in their comprehensive Lurker in the Lobby: a Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, are dismissive of the flick. They call it "a shadow of the gonzo wit of the original" and suggesting that the flick is little more than an exercise in sfx bloodletting that uses the existing series as its excuse. However, if the averaged ratings on IMDB reveal anything, the third film in the series is the fan favorite of the two sequels. Both viewpoints are reasonable. For fans familiar with the original literary source of the series, Beyond Re-Animator is the least Lovecraftian of the series. However, in its over-the-top approach to characterization, plotting, and gore, Beyond is clearly a product of the aforementioned gonzo aesthetic (always the least Lovecraftian element of the previous installments). Put schematically: Beyond is the first film to put extending the franchise before returning to the literary source. The result is the first Re-Animator film that owes more to the Gordon/Yuzna flicks that preceded it than to the Lovecraft story that inspired the franchise.

Yuzna's second film featuring mad scientist Herbert West picks up shortly after the end of Bride. During the carnage at chez West/Cain, one of West's re-animated corpses invades the home of the young Howard Phillips. The corpse overpowers Howie and dispatches his sister before being put down by the Arkham PD. Traumatized, Howard follows the police outside just in time to catch an irate Herbert West being stuffed into a police car. Nearby, Howie finds a glowing syringe full of reagent, apparently left behind by the absurdly sloppy APD.

Flash forward fourteen years.

Young Howie is now Dr. Phillips. Phillips takes his residency at the Arkham prison that now houses West. Obsessed with West's role in the death of his sister, Phillips thinks he can help West complete his research while, in the face of West's amoral indifference, turn West's discoveries towards good. Unfortunately, West's own casually sadistic attitude towards the living isn't the only problem facing Phillips. The prison's warden is tyrannical bully and West has run afoul of one of the prisons gang leaders. Of course, it wouldn't be a Re-Animator film without the doomed love interest: Laura, the attractive young local reporter who is in the prison fishing for the story.

After establishing our primaries, the film spends a short time on the familiar franchise plot. West and Phillips attempt various re-animations while trying to hide their experiments from the prison staff and Laura. But things disintegrate quickly and, before you can say "time off for god behavior," re-animated corpses and rioting inmates are running amuck in the prison. Surrealistic carnage ensues.

Filmed partially on Barcelona film sets and partially on location in the cavernous Prision Modelo in Valencia, the film has a grim and claustrophobic feel, a sort of dark reflection of the well-lit but no less institutional hospital setting of the first film.

The actors turn in functional performances, though it sometimes feels as if not everybody is acting in the same film: some going for the over-the-top vibe of the earlier franchise pieces while others try to hit something more like a conventional drama or horror. This feeling of disconnectedness is compounded by the use of dubbing throughout. Like many Euro films, the dialog in BtR is added post-production. Even when an actor is speaking English, you can tell that his or her dialog has been dubbed. Jeffery Coombs, the franchise's cornerstone, dials down his performance to give us a more controlled, quieter West. Instead of the pompous West of the first flick or the West of the Bride, who seems almost addicted to his power to create life, this West seems to have accepted that his work will always be done in secret and will never, in fact, produce results. He's no longer driven by the need to dominate his colleagues or to feel the rush of defeating death. Instead, he does what he does because that is all he is. He's sly, inventive, and tougher. He less pompous and instead has the wounded hauteur of deposed royalty – he's the elite who refuses to sink to the level of the scum he's now forced to deal with. It might be my favorite version of West. The only thing not to like about this take on West is that he feels underused as Yuzna spends plenty of time on the new characters, a few of which get much more screen time than they really need.

The effects, by deranged surrealistic effects man Screaming Mad George, are noteworthy. Gore hounds will certainly find plenty to keep them amused, but what makes the effects in BtR pop is how far out Screaming Mad George is willing to go on almost any gimmick. In on scene, a still-living junkie shoots several syringes full of reagents. Apparently, it produces a crazy high. It also causes the outer layers of the junkie's body to explode off. But, since the junkie is full of reagent, he doesn't die. Instead, the bloodied corpse, strips of flesh still hanging off him, asks for more hits of reagent, or at least some prescription grade pain-killers to take the edge off. The gory but goofy details of flick put it in the splatter-slapstick tradition of the earlier films, though SMG has a meaner streak in him and there's a bit of an edge here. One imagines that SMG feels his gory set pieces present people as they are, and it is people who don't look as monstrous as they should that are, somehow, the special effect. The gore satirist's misanthropic bent gives this film its less wacky tone, even when it is most trying to be humorous.

How does the parole board find? I'm going to have to side with those who feel Beyond is a worthy addition to franchise. It is interesting that the same director is behind both the "loyalist" Bride and the more revisionist Beyond. Both films pick up threads of the franchise, while managing to focus on two fairly different aspects of the original. The film is a bit darker and meaner, but the core concept is still solid. In fact, in a way, Beyond was the necessary next step. It proves that the franchise can adapt, expand, and carry more than a single creative vision. Plus, you know, there's some T & A, so that's nice.


OCKerouac said...

I was hesitant to give Beyond a try for some inexplicable reason. I was concerned it would be more 'remake' than 'continuation' but hearing that it takes the same general idea into a different direction it sounds like it's worth the time to watch. Besides, a skinless junky? How can you go wrong!

spacejack said...

This is another film I saw at the old Rue Morgue movie nights they used to host in a bar here.

Accompanied by a couple of genre fans, a few pints and a high-spirited crowd, this was a lot of fun to watch.


I can honestly say that it had the best rat vs. penis fight I've ever seen in a film.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

I second your nomination for the best rat vs. penis nod. If only they gave an Oscar in that category.