Lovecraft and Re-Animator

I remember watching American Beauty, and Kevin Spacey asks his creepy, drug-dealing neighbor if he can stop by and get that movie they were talking about. “Re-Animator,” he says. At the time, I just enjoyed watching American Beauty. I didn’t think about the hyphenated words “Re-Animator” until several years later, when Matt Dobie—my B-horror-movie-loving little bro—said, “I’m coming over. We’re watching Re-Animator.”

The first time I watched Re-Animator, I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. The movie takes place in a hospital. There’s a normal med student (Dan), who’s dating the med school dean’s daughter (Megan). Then there’s the not-so-normal med student, Herbert West (played by the always creepy Jeffrey Combs). Herbert West is obsessed with the idea of re-animating dead tissue. It starts innocently enough: small animals. It moves on to humans (of course it does; it’s a horror movie). Everything kind of goes to gory hell from there …

On one hand, Re-Animator is a horror movie. But on the other hand—the preferred hand—it’s a comedy, in the same way that Evil Dead and Army of Darkness are comedies. They’re campy, gross, and totally inappropriate. One of the best lines in Re-Animator takes place when Dan comes home to find his cat dead in West’s freezer. West explains he was going to tell Dan about the cat when he got home. He didn’t want to leave a note … “What would a note say, Dan? Cat dead; details later?”

As I’ve mentioned, I recently revisited some of the so-called literary horror greats—Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and H.P. Lovecraft. I vaguely remember during the opening credits of Re-Animator, something about “H.P. Lovecraft.” I didn’t know Lovecraft had written a short story entitled “Herbert West—Re-Animator” until I picked up a collection of his work, and poof! There it was: Re-Animator, in literary form!

Lovecraft is not for everyone. He uses huge, antiquated words (you can’t judge him on this, since he wrote “Re-Animator” in the early 1900s). Sentences in Lovecraft stories can span anywhere from four to sixteen lines. I’m not kidding. Sometimes, I had to go back and read a line over, because by the end of it, I would forget how it had started. However, the man is good with the creep factor. It’s in the lengthy descriptions and the way he makes his narrators feel something bad behind them—all the time. “Herbert West—Re-Animator” is no exception.

Okay, it’s true: there is no decapitated, reanimated head running around (with the help of his body, of course), molesting young women, as in the film version. That said, there is a living head, running around, giving orders in the short story, so how is that really different? (I’m joking.) My advice to you: read the H.P. Lovecraft short story first; then, check out the cult classic B-horror movie, Re-Animator. You will then understand that random bit of dialogue in American Beauty, and personally, I believe you will be better for it.

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