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Reviews 31 Days of Horror VIII

Bride of Re-Animator

Bride of Re-Animator

Brian Yuzna

USA, 1990

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 11 October 2011

Source Live Entertainment VHS

Categories 31 Days of Horror VIII

There’s a moment in Stuart Gordon’s splatteriffic 1985 classic Re-Animator when Dan Cain, med-school roommate and reluctant accomplice to mad-scientist-on-the-brink Herbert West, sinks to the floor in shock. Cain and West have just had a seriously violent encounter with some re-animated corpses, and Cain is struggling to absorb the experience. He trembles and curls into the fetal position. It’s a remarkable and surprisingly affecting moment of emotional vulnerability in the midst of one of our most daring and outrageous horror films, and it’s made more remarkable by the fact that West, brusque and unfeeling in most of all of his interpersonal exchanges, stoops down to (briefly) comfort Cain. The dynamic between these two characters is fascinating because it reveals otherwise unseen facets of both of them: West brings out the dangerous side of the seemingly idealistic and humane Cain’s scientific curiosity, and Cain seems to be the only person who can get West to act even remotely human.

That dynamic carries into Bride of Re-Animator, which was written and directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna. Bride picks up Cain and West’s joint story eight months after the previous chapter ends (a scene smoothing over some of the continuity hiccups between the two films, including Herbert West’s unexplained survival of the first film, was shot and rather regrettably scrapped). It finds the pair working as volunteer medics tending the injured and dying in war-torn Peru. West’s intentions aren’t entirely noble, of course. For him, being surrounded by death means having a ready supply of test subjects for his experiments in re-animation. By contrast, Cain really does seem most interested in saving lives. But when West is attacked, it’s Cain who swiftly delivers a machete blow to his partner’s assailant – so much for “first do no harm” – and when Cain is badly injured in the same confrontation, West for once doesn’t see a potential specimen for his postmortem experiments. “Well, you’re going to be all right,” West tells the ailing Cain as he drags him to safety, “Come on. Let’s go home.” From there, we skip ahead to the pair’s return to their old stomping grounds in Arkham, Massachusetts (where they caused so much grisly trouble in the first film) and find that they are, predictably and amusingly, still colleagues and mismatched roommates.

Twisted as they are, West and Cain have the markings of a classic comic odd couple, funnier and more compelling together than they are apart, and Bride of Re-Animator is often at its best when it mines their unlikely bond for macabre humor. Herbert West remains a signature role for Jeffrey Combs, who plays his mad doctor to the hilt, getting the most out of every twitch and every sneer. He brings a wonderfully deadpan gravitas to West’s wildly antisocial proclamations (things like, “And what are people Dan, over and above a collection of moving parts?”). One of the funniest things about West is that he has no idea how funny he is, and one of the most chilling things about him is that he’s usually completely serious. He’s a devious and astonishingly manipulative character, and the underappreciated Bruce Abbott provides a perfect foil for him in Cain, a sensitive soul who has fallen in with the worst possible crowd and has been irrevocably altered as a result. (At best, Cain is noticeably broodier and more Byronic here. At worst, he’s pretty much lost it.)

The title creature in Bride of Re-Animator is the ill-starred fruit of Cain and West’s collaborations, a woman grimly constructed from dead body parts and possessed of one particularly significant organ—the heart of Cain’s beloved girlfriend Meg, who died at the conclusion of the previous film. Bride of Re-Animator draws on the same six H.P. Lovecraft stories that inspired its predecessor, but as its title indicates, this film also owes a strong narrative and spiritual debt to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Like that film, Bride of Re-Animator is more obviously humorous and campy than its predecessor: the pseudoscience of the original Re-Animator is a bit more pseudo this time around, the tone cartoonier. Stuart Gordon infused the original Re-Animator with touches of realism that can make it a difficult film to stomach at times: in addition to reading Lovecraft and watching a lot of horror movies, Gordon took inspiration for his film from conversations with pathologists and real slides of maimed corpses.

By contrast, Yuzna stocks Cain and West’s laboratory with dry ice and colorful tubes, straying from the startling verisimilitude of the previous film in favor of some more familiar and fanciful selections from the B-movie lexicon. Some of West’s experiments – including a spider-like critter stitched together from human fingers – are pure Addams Family, and a sequence where West and Cain smuggle a dead girl from the morgue in a wheelchair is more broadly comic than anything in the slyly humorous first film. Even the reprise of Richard Band’s Re-Animator title theme – itself a brazen variation on Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho – is jauntier this time out.

Yet like Bride of Frankenstein, which features an unforgettable and extraordinarily bleak ending, Bride of Re-Animator tempers its silliness with an undercurrent of sadness. Cain’s motivation for working on West’s latest project is obvious: he wants Meg’s heart beating again, regardless of the cost, and regardless of common sense. We know that the project is doomed, that Cain doesn’t really want a girl pieced together from dead tissue, but he’s too damaged to see the truth. Cain’s inability to let go of the dead plays out more or less comically: in one scene he forgets when his living love interest, Fabiana, is coming over for dinner and runs up from the lab to answer the door in blood-spattered sneakers. But his grief has its own kind of cracked B-movie poignancy. The eponymous bride has the head of one of Cain’s former patients, and indeed, since she’s made up exclusively of parts taken from the hospital where Cain works, the bride in a way becomes the ghost of every woman that the doctor never saved, Meg most of all. Splashy, grotesque monster movies like this one refuse to be taken seriously, but it’s for that very reason that they sometimes get away with dramatizing the things we don’t want to talk about, the things the A-pictures avoid or get wrong or attempt to pretty up. The dead Bride and the living Fabiana’s tug of war over Cain, and indeed, the premise of the Re-Animator films in general, serve to remind us not only of our collective inability to accept death, but also our ultimate lack of a suitable solution to the same.

None of the above is meant to suggest that Bride of Re-Animator is a film to be approached with incredible seriousness, of course. (It features a severed head with batwings grafted on it, for crying out loud!) It’s a film of extraordinary cheek and no small amount of goofiness. There are holes in the plot, including some dubious zombie mind control and some very questionable methods of storing human remains (In baggies?? In the open air??). It’s also fair to say that the many subplots that Yuzna introduces (An old rival bent on revenge! An overly dogged police detective! Sentient failed experiments threatening to escape the cemetery!) are more than the film really needs, slowing the pace and distracting from the central plot of the film.

Nevertheless, Bride of Re-Animator offers a neat twist on the now-archetypal Bride of Frankenstein story, with Kathleen Kinmont putting her own stamp on the role of the awkward, unearthly Bride. She has Elsa Lanchester’s jerky movements but not her trademark hiss: this Bride’s confusion and sorrow is more akin to Karloff’s despairing, blot-necked monster. (Her tortured howl of, “WHAT DO YOU WAAAAANT?” is one of the film’s many instantly quotable moments.) She’s the gore-slicked product of some deeply unethical science experiments, the patched-together nightmare answer to the Build-a-Girl fantasy of John Hughes’ Weird Science. Herbert West’s recipe for the perfect woman is unsurprisingly ludicrous (If you’re curious: she has the feet of a ballet dancer, the legs of a prostitute, the womb of a virgin, the arms of a waitress, and unmatched hands – one from a lawyer, the other from a murderess.), and so is Cain’s quest to recapture lost love by reanimating bits of corpses. The film is a fantasia of squirmy, disembodied limbs, in which hearts are, literally and figuratively, torn out, and it offers an enjoyably loopy, gooey take on some of horror’s oldest themes.

Yuzna seems to know that his greatest assets are his leads, both of whom are now playing doctors who’ve gone a little mad. Bride of Re-Animator is something of a cinematic underdog – a low budget sequel basically designed for late night VHS consumption – but it’s admirably ambitious, and the actors make it tick. With West around to speechify about how “the only blasphemy is to wallow in IN-SIG-NI-FICANCE” and Cain there to greet his roommate’s “morbid doodling with human body parts” with a deliciously wry proclamation of, “I’m moving out,” horror fans with a sense of humor should find plenty here worth embracing.

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