The team of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna have enjoyed considerable acclaim from fans for their adaptations of Lovecraft material and for their ability to take Lovecraft’s work and make it something new without losing the essence of what made the story work in the first place. They did this in a number of ways, but probably the wisest decision they made was to confine themselves to the periphery of Lovecraft’s bibliography, selecting lesser-known and all-but-forgotten stories rather than Lovecraft’s best-known and most beloved. The first of the author’s stories the duo chose to tackle was Herbert West, Re-Animator. It wasn’t one that Lovecraft fans rallied around, so it would be less likely to get dissected or draw ire for departing from the source material (there also wasn’t an internet then, so to complain, you had to write and mail a letter to Fangoria).
In terms of mind-bending weirdness, the story was relatively straightforward, meaning that the filmmakers would not have to grapple with the more abstract horrors with which Lovecraft often dealt. The resulting film, Re-Animator, is often heralded as a classic of American horror, combining the chills of Lovecraft with a black sense of humor, over-the-top gore, and something lurking beneath it all that means even amid all the mayhem and outrageousness, there’s something that just feels satisfyingly icky, maybe even sordid. Certainly unsettling. But also delirious and gleefully perverse. It was followed by Bride of Re-Animator — obviously taking its queue from the classic Universal horror film, Bride of Frankenstein. Despite original cast members Bruce Abbot, David Gale, and Jeffrey Combs returning, there’s something off about the sequel. Most of what’s off can be attributed to the screenwriters (Rick Fry and Woody Keith, neither of whom had any notable experience and neither of whom had been involved with the first film) and Brian Yuzna himself, who for this movie moved into the additional role of director (as well as working on the screenplay).
It was only Yuzna’s second film as a director (his first was a movie called Society, which also happened to be the only movie Fry and Keith had worked on before Bride of Re-Animator). Inexperience in and of itself is no damning situation. Stuart Gordon had practically no experience when he directed Re-Animator. Neither did screenwriter Dennis Paoli. In fact, before Re-Animator the only credit for either man was fulfilling their respective roles as director and screenwriter for a 1978 movie called Bleacher Bums. The difference between Gordon/Paoli and Yuzna/Fry/Keith is that Gordon and Paoli both turned out to be naturals. There’s so little evidence of Re-Animator being the first substantial work for either man that it comes as a shock to learn how green they were at the time. Yuzna was not the natural that Gordon was in the director’s chair. He had to learn the craft as he went, and as a result, his mistakes are more obvious. As for Fry and Keith, imagine being a couple of rookie screenwriters who get called in by their friend to write the sequel to what turned out to be one of the most wickedly successful cult horror films ever. That’s a lot of pressure. You’re trying to put your own stamp on things while also trying to follow what Paoli did with the first film. And the guy who hired you is not only producing the movie; he’s also directing and working with you on the screenplay.
As evidenced by many of his films, including Faust: Love of the Damned and Necronomicon, Yuzna needs an idea editor. He needs a controlling, even constricting hand. The man is a jumble of ideas. A lot of them are good. Some of them are brilliant. Some are terrible. And some are downright ludicrous. Without a level playing field of minds to reject certain ideas, too much of Yuzna’s taste for the ridiculous can seep into a production. That’s what happened with Bride of Re-Animator. Without Paloi or Gordon on hand to reel him in, Brian Yuzna ends up with Dr. Hill’s disembodied head flying around with tiny little bat wings attached to its neck. Re-Animator had a good sense of humor, sure, but Bride of Re-Animator strayed from the clever, dark comedy of the original and into territory best left to the Three Stooges (who themselves had even done the head-with-wings bit). That said, let me also reiterate that, as a director, Brian Yuzna has made some movies I think are bad, but he has never makes a movie that I didn’t think was entertaining. And that is far more important a metric for success.
Beyond Re-Animator was made in 2003, some thirteen years after Bride of Re-Animator. Once again, neither Gordon nor Paoli were attached to the project. It’s another Brian Yuzna solo project. Instead of Lovecraft, Beyond Re-Animator looks to Hammer horror films for inspiration. In particular, it’s mining the territory explored by Frankenstein Created Woman and, even more so, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, which finds Frankenstein in an insane asylum, where he continues to perform admittedly degraded versions of his original experiments. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell takes some guff for being a weak movie, but much of the criticism seems ultimately to boil down to pointing out that the monster make-up and design are terrible — which it is. But if you can get over that, it’s a solid entry, taking the series to its logical extreme and a fitting conclusion. Frankenstein is so far gone into his own private obsession that his work has lost all semblance of scientific sanity. In fact, he has regressed considerably. Having almost perfected his experiment on several occasions (and he himself being a living example of the near-perfect success of his method, though executed by one of his assistants), it’s a tragedy to see what he’s been reduced to. This version of Frankenstein was manifest later in George Romero’s Day of the Dead, in the person of Dr. Logan. Like Hammer’s Frankenstein, Logan’s experiments with zombies have become such an obsession that he has moved from actual meaning and potential to an increasingly impractical obsession.
If you are looking to horror’s past for inspiration, it would seem a pretty obvious trajectory for Brian Yuzna to send Dr. Herbert West on as well. Beyond Re-Animator begins shortly after the conclusion of Bride of Re-Animator, with one of Dr. West’s (Jeffrey Combs, naturally) murderous reanimated corpses wandering through a suburban neighborhood. Before finally being gunned down by the cops, the corpse attacks and kills a young woman because she stands in the way of the delicious milk that the zombie wants to grab from the kitchen. Sure, why not? The murder of the girl and subsequent arrest of West (hey, if the man can survive being strangled by a giant re-animated colon, he can survive being buried in a crypt collapse) is witnessed by the woman’s little brother, Howard. Howard also finds a syringe of West’s reagent. The event causes the young boy to become obsessed with Herbert West and the brilliant-but-mad experiments that have defined the re-animator’s scientific career. Luckily, the kid doesn’t find Dr. Hill’s unaccounted-for head-with-bat-wings.
Howard grows up to become Dr. Howard Phillips (Jason Barry, and yes, everyone gets the reference). He has maneuvered his career so that he is doing his residency in the same prison where Herbert West was confined. But Phillips isn’t interested in revenge. No, he thinks that West’s research could have saved his sister just as surely as it killed her. He takes the prison assignment because he wants to get close to West so he can encourage and enable the mad doctor to resume his experiments. Not surprisingly, West needs very little encouragement. The enabling is made easy by the fact that West has been a well-behaved if creepy inmate, and by the fact that the warden (Simon Andreu) is corrupt, twisted, and weird.
Before long, Phillips has procured West as his assistant and the two have set up a secret lab where West can continue his experiments. Of course, nothing in the world of Re-Animator stays uncomplicated for long. A beautiful reporter, Laura (Elsa Pataky), is hanging around the joint and becomes romantically involved with Phillips while doing some vague sort of profile of the warden. A newly emboldened West can’t help but smugly antagonize some of the other inmates. And of course, the need for fresh corpses and the sudden revivification of dead men as vomiting gory creatures can only go unnoticed for so long, even by a warden who is more interested in making women crawl around and bark for him than he is in attending to his official duties. By the time Phillips has realized how cracked West may truly be, it’s too late. A prison riot breaks out, and amid the chaos West’s reanimated ghouls break out as well. And of course, as the bodies pile up… well, West has never been able to resist making a bad situation worse, regardless of how out of control the situation already is.
I wrote earlier that Yuzna the director was no natural the way Stuart Gordon seemed to be. He had to learn by making mistakes along the way—but he did learn. Bland, professional competence is the best way I can describe the directing on Beyond Re-Animator — and that is in no way meant as an insult. Too often, the director’s desire to “put their mark” on a movie ruins it, cramming it full of superfluous and distracting flourishes and indulgences that don’t serve any purpose and instead actively distract from the movie. Yuzna, like the old directors at Hammer, knows better than to let his job as director get in the way of telling the story. Yuzna knows what he’s doing and knows how to be unobtrusive without being boring.
Now let’s talk about Brian Yuzna the screenwriter. Deciphering exactly who is responsible for what in the screenplay is difficult. Official credit goes to Jose Manuel Gomez, but with assistance from a guy named Xavier Berraondo. Like Fry and Keith before them, neither of these guys had a lot of experience. Gomez’s only credit was for a single episode of a TV series, and while Berraondo had a little more to his name at the time of this movie, it was still as a writer and director for Spanish television. I’m guessing that, once again, a lot of the credit for the script goes to Yuzna himself, even if there’s no actual official credit for him as the screenwriter. It certainly has the trademarks, both good and bad, of Yuzna’s previous forays into screenwriting. There’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s also some stuff that strays from the darkly comical to the just plain wacky.
At the top of the list of things that are just too ridiculous to be effective is the drug addict who thinks West’s reagent is some sort of groovy new narcotic. The original Re-Animator had a scene (absent from many prints) in which Bruce Abbott’s Dan Cain discovers West shooting up with the reagent. It’s a scene that’s played straight and generates a whole different kind of creepy horror than is generated by the film’s legions of disgusting living dead corpses. This time around, however, a living person using the reagent like a drug is treated as pure comedy, complete with the actor (apparently a big actor in Spain and a huge fan of horror) doing his very worst Tommy Chong imitation. Not far behind that is the transformation of Elsa Pataky’s Laura Olney from tough reporter to S&M kungfu superwoman. Yeah, I know, that sounds fine, right? But this just isn’t the proper venue. Can you imagine how the original Re-Animator would have undercut itself if Barbara Crampton’s character suddenly jumped off the table, did a backflip, and delivered a series of spinning back kicks to Dr. Hill and his head, while having previously demonstrated no acumen or interest at all in martial arts? It’s the sort of idea that deserves to be pitched in a forum discussion and then never go any further than that.
Most of the story is cribbed, as mentioned, from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. But at least part of it also comes from Hammer’s Frankenstein Created Woman, which dealt with Frankenstein attempting to right some of the errors in his research by capturing and transplanting not just body parts, but also something like the “soul.” West’s breakthrough in this film is that he can finally prevent his reanimated corpses from turning into vomiting, murderous monsters by transplanting this “soul” (though when it’s referred to as such, West has the appropriately smug and condescending reaction to such superstitious terminology). Unfortunately, this also causes a severe case of split personality. Something that can, say, turn a sadistic warden into a rat-like creature should you plant rat soul in his reanimated corpse, or a tough young reporter into an S&M kungfu superwoman if you mix her soul with some sadistic warden soul.
As with all of West’s experiments (and Frankenstein’s before him), his research is brilliant but ultimately disastrous largely because he has such limited resources and unfriendly working conditions, but also because he has no ability to (or even the ability to see the need to) stop himself from making do with what he has anyway. In a way, Dr. West’s experiments are like Brian Yuzna’s films: a lot of good ideas, some inferior working conditions, and ultimately, everything spins out of control and collapses on itself. If Yuzna the director has become a steady and reliable hand, Yuzna the screenwriter still needs someone who can look at his huge pile of ideas and sort out the daft ones before they get committed to screen.
Like, as another example, what the female cast members wear. There are only two of them, the aforementioned Laura and a nurse (Raquel Gribler). Both of them slink around the prison in sexy, revealing outfits. Nurse Vanessa is a particularly egregious example of a filmmaker’s desire to inject some gratuitous sexiness into his film in the face of every reasonable interpretation of reality. Vanessa comes to work in one of those sexy nurse mini-skirt deals I don’t think any nurse has worn in decades outside of skin flicks. She wears the blouse unbuttoned to show off almost the entirety of her breasts. Now I’m no prude, and I’m all for anyone and everyone expressing their sexuality, but I would think common sense would inform even the sauciest of people not to wear a sexy nurse Halloween costume to a job at the fucking prison with the openly psychotic warden.
Similarly, Laura parades around in a series of tight dresses and short skirts, culminating in a very ill-advised (practically, not aesthetically) bodice-and-miniskirt get-up. Now I know the warden is a pervert. Who isn’t? But he’s also a control freak. Even he must see the disadvantages of allowing the only two women in the prison to parade around in skimpy outfits with basically no supervision whatsoever. I know you may be saying to yourself, in a movie about a mad scientist reanimating the dead… in a movie where a rat has a throw-down with a reanimated disembodied penis… is dressing your prison nurse up in porno nurse attire really that big a sin? Well, to that I respond with the age-old adage: a writer can ask us to accept the impossible, but not the improbable. All of that said, Yuzna gets it more right here more often than not.
For the most part, the actors are blandly acceptable. Jason Barry’s Dr. Phillips is there to be the misguided straight man, the Hans to Herbert West’s Frankenstein, or the Dan to…well, Herbert West’s Frankenstein. He’s torn between fascination and revulsion, respect for and horror at what Dr. West is doing. But he’s not as effective in the role as Cain was in the first film. At the same time, he’s not the simpering over-emotional load Cain was in Bride of Re-Animator, so I guess it all evens out. Elsa Pataky is there to look sexy, be put in danger, and inevitably end up on the bad end of some reanimation. She fulfills that role well, but there’s precious little to her beyond that. Like Bruce Abbot in the first film, Barbara Crampton was able to take a thinly-sketched character and make you care about what happened to her. When she ends up at the tender mercies of Dr. Hill, the resulting infamous scene is both tastelessly comedic and truly horrifying because we actually like Megan Halsey. Not so with Pataky’s Laura, though.
Yuzna seems to be cribbing her transformation partly from Bride of Re-Animator, but perhaps even more so, from his own Return of the Living Dead III. One of the high points of that movie was that Melinda Clarke managed to drag some pathos out of the situation and make the predicament of being partially living dead more emotional. Pataky just doesn’t pull it off. When she’s being stalked by prisoners, it’s not that big a deal. When she struggles with the split personality West’s reanimation process has given her, we don’t really care. She’s never been much of a character up until that point, and so the desperate chase to save her has no real sense of emotion or urgency. Crampton knew how to make you terrified for her, and when things went bad, it was depressing even as it was absurd. That sense of urgency and claustrophobic desperation that comes in the finale of the original is what’s missing from Beyond Re-Animator.
But really, we all went into this knowing that there would ultimately be only two characters we’d want to pay attention to. First, there’s Simon Andreu’s Warden Brando. As a sadistic prison warden, he’s no Vic Diaz. As a mad foil to Herbert West, he’s no Dr. Hill. He’s never over the top enough to be entertaining, nor is he subtle enough to be scary. He’s just a generic comic book villain. There was an interesting opportunity to make him a counterpart to West — experimenting in pain, torture, and subjugation in the same insane way West experiments with life and death. But that concept is never explored, and the warden’s sadistic nature is basically used as nothing deeper than window dressing, a way to make him loathsome enough so that we relish his twisted comeuppance when it inevitably is visited upon him by a vengeful Herbert West. Speaking of which…
You see a Re-Animator film because of Jeffrey Combs. His portrayal of Dr. Herbert West in the first film made him an instant fan favorite, and his involvement in any project, Re-Animator related or otherwise, is enough to make many fans give it a watch. Hell, I even made it through some of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise because Jeffrey Combs appeared every now and then. One of the many complaints filed against Beyond Re-Animator is that there’s not enough Herbert West. I disagree. I think there’s just the right amount of Herbert West. He’s a character whose appeal is made all the more powerful by the reserved use of his appearances. That’s how it was in the first film. That’s how it is here. Unfortunately, the supporting cast isn’t as engaging this time around, which makes the non-West scenes a bit of a slog. However, it also makes it that much more of a treat when he does show up.
If this movie revolved entirely around West, it would be too much. West has become the de facto hero of the movies, despite his insanity. If you over-expose him, you end up with a wisecrackin’ Freddie Krueger. Used smartly and with reserve, though, West never overstays his welcome. Jeffrey Combs knows exactly what to do with the character. Like Vincent Price, he knows how much ham to add to the recipe without going overboard. Even though it had been thirteen years between wielding the fluorescent green reagent, Combs steps into the role with the same confidence and quirky condescension that made him such an icon to begin with.
The final ingredient in any Re-Animator movie is the gore. Although Re-Animator movies have always had the gore, they’ve never been solely about the gore. Compared to the first film, this one is pretty tame. Yuzna explained that the gore has to be “cleaner” than in the 1980s (this being an era before extreme gore had become surprisingly commonplace on TV, even more so than in movies). There was something truly disgusting about the effects in the first film. Not just because they were splattery. There was an undercurrent of something more… disturbing. Something that could get under the skin even of seasoned gore hounds. It wasn’t just gory; it was grimy. What Beyond Re-Animator has is some similar splatter, and the effects aren’t bad, but they don’t possess any of that lurking sickness. Once again, it’s because most of the gore is played for comedy. The decaying state of the drug dude, the reanimated inmate missing his lower torso and having to run around like Johnny Eck or swing from overhead pipes — sure these things are gross to people who have never watched gross movies, but to someone who is coming in with previous experience, it’s too silly. That said, there are still some good effects. The half-man may be played largely for laughs, but it’s a good effect, as is the zombie in the beginning of the film.
Beyond Re-Animator is a mixed bag, which is about what I expected. More good than bad. The end result, like so many of Yuzna’s projects, loses control of itself and falls apart, but just barely. I like Yuzna, and it’s been nice watching him learn the trade over the decades. And like Yuzna’s other movies, even when he’s making mistakes here, he’s not making boring mistakes. There’s a carnivalesque atmosphere. Re-Animator movies may be something that Yuzna knows he can crank out if he needs a fast buck, but I think he also genuinely loves them as much as the fans do. That keeps this from being just some run-of-the-mill horror movie. It has energy and charm, and I think it’s a fun movie even though it’s full of flaws. A dash of Re-Animator, a dash of Penitentiary, and a jigger of Hammer horror. More of a delirious funhouse atmosphere than the original. Would it have been a better movie if Yuzna had been able to involve Stuart Gordon or Denis Paoli? Yeah, probably. But that didn’t happen, and what we got was still pretty enjoyable.