31 Days of Fright: V/H/S

The bookend of V/H/S doesn't care if you are kind and rewind.

The bookend of V/H/S doesn’t care if you are kind and rewind.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! I just finished watching V/H/S, an anthology horror film directed by six separate horror directors and requested by my very own brother, Andrew Munday. Andrew is a high school teacher, but he is also the viewer of an astounding number of horror movies. When tasked with recommending just one, he was overwhelmed with choice, reluctantly settling on V/H/S – though I admit this might be a total misremembering on my part. The movie was rented from Queen Video.

What happens:

V/H/S, which hit movie theatres in 2012, was intended as a showcase of found-footage horror film – sort of a Whitman’s sampler of some of the best modern American horror directors. The directors involved all had at least one impressive horror film to their name: Adam Wingard had directed You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die, David Bruckner had directed The Signal, Ti West had directed The House of the Devil, Glenn McQuaid had made I Sell the Dead, and Joe Swanberg had directed many films, including Silver Bullets. (Collective Radio Silence had no feature credits to their group name yet.) The result is an interesting if not entirely effective creation in which – like most anthology films – some of the parts are much better than others (or the whole).

Like most anthology films, V/H/S begins with a bookending piece, directed by Adam Wingard. (Not that most of them are directed by Adam Wingard. That comma is important!) Complete with tracking problems and VHS static, the video shows a series of clips of white male scofflaws as they sexually assault an unsuspecting woman, lifting her shirt for their video camera, then smash an abandoned property to pieces with baseball bats. In the midst of the wanton destruction and disregard for women, the video cuts back and forth from a secret sex tape one of the low-level criminals made with his girlfriend – one that she was unaware he was filming. (These guys are very charming.) Finally, the series of filmed misdemeanours settles on a narrative. The gathered criminals talk about raising money – they get $50 from a reality porn site every time they film some poor, unsuspecting woman’s breasts, but they’ll have to move into upskirt videos if they want to make some real dough. But then Gary (Calvin Reeder), who seems to be their ringleader, announces a new scheme.

Someone he knows is offering him a lot of money just to break into a house and steal one particular VHS tape. They arrive at the house but see an old man sleeping inside. Obviously, they’ll have to remain quiet when stealing the tape. Once inside, they realize the old man is not sleeping, but is dead, seated in front of a wall of television sets all playing static, like a guest on MTV’s Remote Control. The moustachioed Gary finds a stash of unmarked VHS tapes and one of their gang tests one out to see if it’s the tape they’re looking for. Instead, we see our first anthology installment – “Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner.


Getting ready to bro out in V/H/S.

Shane, Patrick, and Clint are three frat bros who rent a motel room, no doubt for sexually nefarious purposes. They gift Clint (Drew Sayer) with some Rivers Cuomo glasses and inform him they are actually video glasses with which they hope to record a pornographic film tonight. They hit the clubs and eventually, Shane (Mile Donlan), their resident alpha male, starts making time with a redheaded woman named Lisa (Jas Sams), and the three men and Lisa’s friends share shots of Irish whiskey. One of Lisa’s group, an intense young woman with dark hair and large eyes named Lily (Hannah Fierman), corners Clint and keeps telling him, “I like you.” Though Clint runs to the washroom at one point with qualms about what they’re planning to do, I still couldn’t wait for these guys to die.

The night gets messy and security ejects the group from the bar. In the back of Patrick’s car, Shane, Lisa, and Lily snort coke. They arrive back at the motel where Shane and Lisa start making out on one of the beds while Patrick (Joe Sykes) laughs like a hyena. Lily hisses like a cat at him in return. Lisa passes out, which enrages Shane, and he tries his best shake her awake. When that fails, he starts putting the moves on Lily, pushing Clint out of the way. He does, however, want Clint to film him as he starts to kiss Lily and remove her clothes. While taking off her underwear, he doesn’t seem to notice her bizarre, claw-like feet, but Clint certainly does. Clint also notices her black tongue.

Shane and Lily begin to have sex, and it seems she wants Clint to join in. At first, he does, but then Patrick starts to disrobe, so Clint – feeling strange about it – retreats to the bathroom. Before long, the normally laughing Patrick rushes into the washroom with a bloody palm. Lily bit him, he claims. When they look out into the motel room again, Lily has turned into a vampire-type thing and starts attacking Shane. Patrick, totally nude, and Clint hide in the washroom again. They peek their heads out only to see Lily feeding Shane his own severed penis. Unsure of what to do and panicking, Patrick removes the shower rod and wields it like a weapon. While Patrick takes on Lily, Clint attempts to wake and escape with Lisa.

Patrick swings at Lily with the rod, but he’s no match for her. Patrick is handily murdered and Clint, covered in blood, hides behind the bed. When he pokes his head around the bed corner, he spies Lily draining the blood from Patrick before either tearing off his genitals or out his heart. She pukes up a little blood on Patrick’s body and Clint takes the opportunity to flee the motel room. He runs so fast, he trips down the stairs and suffers a compound fracture in his wrist. Lily soon arrives in the stairwell and licks some of the blood from him. Her face now appearing more demonic, Lily again leans over Clint and whispers, “I like you.” She tries to perform oral sex on Clint, but he snivels and has a hard time getting aroused, understandably. Rejected, she cowers in the corner and Clint rushes for help from the hotel office. Before any bystanders can figure out what’s going on, Clint is lifted into the air above the city. Lily has turned into some sort of flying demon and has carried him into the sky as if she were a hawk and he were a small rat. His glasses drop from his face and hit the ground, ending the video.

She likes you, yeah, yeah, yeah. And with a like like that, you know you should be glad.

She likes you, yeah, yeah, yeah. And with a ‘like’ like that, you know you should be glad.

Back in the old man’s house, Gary has found more unmarked VHS tapes. He instructs Zak (Lane Hughes) to find a bag so they can take them all and sort them later. Zack thinks he sees the dead old man moving around in the storage room, but Gary is certain his mind is playing tricks on him. Another of their group starts another VHS tape, leading into “Second Honeymoon,” a short directed by Ti West.

A young married couple, Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal), embark on a road trip across the American southwest with a camcorder running to record their precious memories. They see abandoned cars, pet donkeys, and discuss whether or not Sam could pull off cowboy attire. At a tourist trap amusement park named “Wild West Junction,” they find a fortune telling machine. The old animatronic prospector inside the booth, Pappy, offers some words of advice, then spits out a paper fortune. The printout tells Sam a number of things, including that a friend is trying to take advantage of his good nature, but Stephanie de-emphasizes that negative aspect of the reading.

Later that night, Sam tries to record Stephanie in a state of undress – a recurring theme in found footage movies – when they hear a knock at the door. He looks through the peephole and shrugs. “It’s a girl.” A college-aged woman dressed in black pants and a black hoodie comes to their door and asks if they could give her a ride tomorrow. Sam shuts her down before he can even find out where she’s going. They consider calling the police, but just deadbolt the door and agree to call the police if she’s still lingering around in the morning. For reasons not entirely clear, they fall asleep in separate twin beds.

The camera turns on again and viewers watch Sam, fast asleep in his bed. But then the camera turns to Stephanie, also sleeping in bed. Who is operating the camera? This unspoken question becomes more dire once the operator pulls the covers from Stephanie, then brandishes a switchblade near her bottom. Stephanie stirs and pulls the covers back on, and the intruder goes to Sam’s pants and removes the money from his wallet. And for good measure, the trespasser then dips his toothbrush in the toilet.

Sam and Stephanie, visiting all the cheapest motels in the American southwest.

Sam and Stephanie, visiting all the cheapest motels in the American southwest.

The next day, Sam accuses Stephanie of taking the $100 he had in his wallet. They visit the Grand Canyon and take photos by some vaguely precarious spots. Sam decides they should go to Vegas to round out the trip. That night, the intruder again enters, filming Sam while he sleeps. But this time, the intruder stabs Sam in the throat and slices him until his pillow is soaked in dark blood. The camera then cuts to the intruder removing her mask – revealing the girl who asked for a ride the other night – and washing off the knife in the bathroom sink. While the tap runs, the killer and Stephanie kiss in front of the mirror. The end of the video shows Stephanie asking her secret murderer/girlfriend if she erased the video. (I guess the answer to that question is “no.”)

The viewer of that VHS tape marvels at what he’s just witnessed, but there’s no time to think about it – we’re already onto the next segment: “Tuesday the 17th,” directed by Glenn McQuaid. The video begins with four friends, alpha male Joey (Drew Moerlein), nerdlinger Spider (Jason Yachanin), cheerleader Samantha (Jeannine Elizabeth Yoder), and the trip instigator, Wendy (Norma C. Quinones), as they drive to a camping spot. Upon Wendy’s suggestion, they’re travelling to a lake that Wendy visits annually. As with every one of the found footage films, the boys are 100% awful, surreptitiously filming Samantha’s cleavage and referring to her as a “blonde crackwhore” behind her back. Things get strange when Wendy asks Joey to film a crumbling wall in the woods, and a mutilated woman’s body cuts into the video tape for a second. This happens again, when Joey films the lake and a dead man’s body is briefly seen under the water. Beyond the camera tricks, the group does come across an ominous dead animal, its intestines spilling out.

At one point, Wendy turns to Joey and cryptically says, “You’re all going to die up here.” Joey lets it drop until a bit later. They all start smoking a “J” – even Spider, who is reluctant at first, as he doesn’t want to get “the fear.” Joey asks Wendy what she meant back there, and Wendy begins to tell a story of something that happened to her at the lake years ago. The whole group starts to get spooked, but Wendy says she was just joking. Joey strips down naked and swims in the lake while Spider and Samantha leave the group, retreating to the forest. Samantha goes to the washroom behind a tree, and once she returns she begins to rehearse a cheerleading routine for Spider. Suddenly a figure runs up from the forest – half visible, half obscured by video tracking errors, like a glitch in the Matrix – and throws a knife through the back of her head so that it protrudes through her eye socket. Spider runs for his life, but the glitchy figure knocks him to the ground and stabs him repeatedly in the forehead before dragging his body away.

Joey, towelled off, but unaware of the spirit over his shoulder.

Joey, towelled off, but unaware of the spirit over his shoulder.

Wendy finds the blood-stained camera and – strangely nonplussed – brings it to Joey. At first she tries to engage Joey in a little exhibitionist sexual activity. But he refuses because he’s starting to get scared: he remembers something about the murders up by this lake. Wendy then confesses that she brought Joey and her other friends to the campground as bait. She had been to this lake before and was the only survivor of a massacre. She knows the killer can be “in two places at once,” but no one believes her. This trip is an attempt to draw him out. While she explains, the figure, head seemingly wrapped in red, sneaks up behind Joey and slashes his throat.

Wendy, however, has rigged the area with booby traps, and the killer is nearly snared in two of them. But he still cannot be fully seen, even while filmed in close-up: “Why can’t I film you!?” she yells. Wendy is cut by the glitchy killer after the second booby trap and she runs away. She comes across Joey again, staggering around, bleeding, until he drops dead. The killer walks up to Wendy and her final trap, which I can only describe as a sort of spring-loaded iron maiden, activates, impaling the killer. “I beat you,” Wendy cheers. But when she turns from the trap, the killer has disappeared. Next she sees him, he is up in a nearby tree. The tracking-error killer leaps from the tree, beats her with her own camera, then eviscerates her, uncoiling her intestines onto the forest floor. Wendy starts to convulse and the video ends.

The next VHS tape our criminals discover is “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” directed by Joe Swanberg. The video is comprised of a series of Skype chats between Emily (Helen Rogers) and her med-school boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman). The Skype chats starts with Emily joking about how she can’t wait until James becomes a doctor, as she aims to become a “kept woman.” She also mentions a mysterious bruise on her arm. Then she strips for him, I guess to make the long-distance relationship a little less lonely. Emily follows this by giving James a virtual tour of her apartment. She stops at a spot in the living room, which is where claims to have heard mysterious footprints. Emily, you see, believes her apartment is haunted.

Emily next Skypes James mid-haunting. She believes there’s something at the door, so she brings her laptop with her. An ominous sound rings through the hallway, but no ghosts are to be seen. Emily notes that it feels familiar to when she and James were much younger and Emily had injured herself. She had a feeling of being haunted that last time she and James were apart for an extended period of time. Mid-conversation, we see a ghost child run into her room then slam the door shut as it runs out. The next day, James isn’t sure he saw a ghost – ”I think I saw something, but it could have been a breeze” – so Emily begins to doubt herself. But the lump on her arm seems to be getting more swollen. As a future doctor, James advises her to leave her arm alone. Emily wants to investigate the apartment: maybe a child died in her place, and maybe her landlord would know about it.

The most supernatural part of this segment is how bare James's computer desktop is.

The most unsettling part of this segment is how bare James’s computer desktop is.

Emily Skypes with James again during a new haunting. She has no flashlight, so she uses a Polaroid camera to light her way into the living room. The flashes reveal the ghost kid and Emily runs in fear when she sees him. James, as ever, forgets to record their session, so she’s left with no proof of the ghost. When Emily next video chats with him during the daytime, she says she met with her landlord, who claims he’s only ever rented to students. No small children. Emily has also quite overtly not left he lump on her arm alone. As she shows James, she has cut into the lump with an X-acto knife and has been digging around inside her arm. (Yikes.) James tells Emily she shouldn’t be doing that. He has her clean the wound and tells her not to poke at it until he arrives in a week or so.

Again during a night haunting, Emily video chats with James. She’s sure the ghost child is outside her room, and she wants James to help her talk with him. She’s going to open the door and close her eyes so she’s not scared, but James will need to guide her in what to say. The ghost is nowhere to be found, however, until Emily turns to face the webcam and the ghost girl appears behind her. Then other ghost children appear, as well! Emily turns around and a bright light flashes, knocking her unconscious. James, meanwhile, in his lower-right-hand-corner video box, disappears from view. He reappears in the larger video screen moments later, tending to the unconscious Emily. James cuts into Emily’s abdomen and pulls out a half-alien fetus from inside her. James complains to the ghost children – now more accurately alien children – that they can’t do this forever. “How many times do we have to do this? She thinks I’m in Michigan!” He notes that they’ll have to make her abdominal injuries look like an accident, so he’ll have to break some of her bones.

Next video chat we see, Emily has a black eye and broken arm. She tells James that she’s seen Dr. Aberdeen, a psychiatrist that James himself recommended, and she’s been diagnosed as “schizoaffective” – showing signs of a mild form of schizophrenia – which explains so much about her life. Tearfully, Emily offers to break up with James: “You deserve to be with someone normal.” James reassures her, like Hootie and the Blowfish, that he only wants to be with her. Emily signs off by saying she loves him, which he doesn’t really respond to. James then opens a new video chat window with another woman, also under the impression that James is her long-distance boyfriend. She, too, removes her top and complains about a mysterious bump on her arm. Fade to black.

The bookend video draws to a close when Gary gathers all the video tapes and looks for his friend Zak. In fact, all the other members of his crew haven’t been seen in some time. Searching through the house, he finds Zak’s headless body in a stairwell. Then he finds the head. He turns and the supposedly dead old man from the other room is up and walking again. He stalks down the stairs after him. Gary runs and injures himself in a topple down the stairs. The old man approaches. When his face looms close to the camera, it is clear he has become some sort of zombie. Gary screams and the final video, “10/3/98,” directed by Radio Silence, begins to play on its own.

On Halloween in 1998, friends Chad (Chad Villella , dressed as the Unabomber), Matt (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin , dressed as a pirate), Paul (Paul Natonek, dressed as a soldier), and Tyler (Tyler Gillett, dressed as a teddy bear, complete with a nanny cam that is filming the night’s events) head out for a Halloween rager. They drive out to an unfamiliar part of town, blasting late-90s ska the whole ride. They arrive at what they think is someone named Justin’s place, but the large house is seemingly empty, despite having all the lights on. They let themselves in and begin to experience weirdness – a ghostly crone bangs against a window, arms seem to reach out from the walls at them. They figure Justin must have set the house up as one of those haunted houses you might see in Niagara Falls, and they play along.

Muffled sounds emanate from the floors above, so they ascend the house to its very top. As they reach closer to the top, the muffled sounds more clearly become chants – some sort of call and response. When they enter the attic, they see a number of people performing an exorcism on a young woman who has been tied to the ceiling with thick rope. The boys assume it’s a joke and chant along with them, but the lead exorcist turns to them to shout, “Who are you? What are you doing here!?” (Clearly, they are at the wrong Halloween party.) The preacher guy slaps the bound woman, and the boys, being gentlemen, attempt to intervene. That’s when some of the other gathered exorcism attendees are thrown around the attic by unseen forces.

Not the kind of Halloween party our heroes were anticipating.

Not the kind of Halloween party our heroes were anticipating.

Freaked out, the guys run downstairs, and it’s only at the front door – when Tyler hears the woman screaming – that he decides they can’t leave. They return to the attic and tackle the preacher guy while some of them work to free the woman. They carry her down the stairs as the house begins to run wild with supernatural phenomena – doorways collapsing, arms reaching out from walls, birds flying through doorways, and pots and pans floating mid-air. They dodge a well-choreographed series of paranormal attacks and escape through the basement, carrying the woman to the backseat of their car. Driving away frantically, Matt and Tyler try to reassure the woman in the backseat while Chad and Paul attempt to find a hospital. But soon the car stops responding. It grinds to a halt on a railroad track and the young woman disappears from Matt’s arms, reappearing like a ghost in front of the vehicle. A train begins to barrel down on the car, and the four guys realize the doors won’t unlock. The tracking starts to fail as the train smashes into their car.

One of our young criminals, in the midst of a breaking-and-VHS-viewing.

One of our young criminals, in the midst of a breaking-and-VHS-viewing.

Takeaway points:

  • The problem with found footage films is that the protagonists – with some exception – are typically terrible people who we in the audience don’t really identify with. Filmmakers have to devise a reason as to why people would be filming a certain situation and in many cases – the shorts in V/H/S being prime examples – they resort to these people partaking in illegal voyeurism or being complete narcissists. Either way, not people you’re particularly fond of. Who are we to feel for as the audience? The criminals who sexually assault random women in a parking garage? The frat dudes who are trying secretly film their sexual encounters? Maybe the creepy teenage campers who denigrate their female friends? Or the friend who lured them to the camp to put them in mortal danger? Viewers can’t wait for these people to be gruesomely murdered. The Halloween partygoers in the final video seem nice enough (ska music notwithstanding), but developing empathy for characters is one reason “That Sick Thing …” works so well. We kind of like Emily, and so, we become scared as her haunting becomes more real and more sinister.
  • Another thing about found footage films is that if the film features a man and a woman, the man is definitely going to attempt to persuade the woman to strip or have sex on camera at some point. I’m not sure why nearly every filmmaker feels the need to include this scene – its inclusion has become tedious at this point. It happened in Paranormal Activity. It happens in “Second Honeymoon,” it happens in “Amateur Night,” it happens in “That Sick Thing” … it even happens in the bookending video! I just fear it’s not as novel idea as some people think.
  • The film inspired two sequels, V/H/S/2 and V/H/S: Viral. Of the two, I’d be most curious to see V/H/S/2, as it features segments by Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), Gareth Evans (The Raid), and even Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (The Blair Witch Project)!

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: V/H/S is, like all anthology films, a real mixed bag. I thought three of the videos – four, if you count the bookend – were fairly weak. The only ones I thought were truly scary were “Tuesday the 17th” and “That Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” And though “Tuesday” scared me with its glitchy killer, the performances were pretty awful and hard to take seriously. (But I couldn’t deny how creepy that half-there murderer looked; it was a bad short with a visually arresting killer.) “That Sick Thing” is the only one of the anthology segments that I believe approaches greatness. It’s also one of the more unsettling ones. That’s not a great ratio of scary to “meh,” so I have to settle on “terrible.”

Even two brightly coloured tank tops can't protect Emily from the sinister forces at work.

Even two brightly coloured tank tops can’t protect Emily from the sinister forces at work.

Best outfit: Emily definitely has the best style of our victims in V/H/S. Who else would think to wear two tank tops, yet also combine puce with bright yellow?

Best line: “Dude, you’re trippin’. I don’t blame you. That’s what trippers do.” – Gary, criminal, philosopher

Best kill: An excellent question, as there is no shortage of kills in V/H/S. Seeing Sam have his throat slowly and gruesomely cut in “Second Honeymoon” was a shade too real for me to enjoy. I think the glitchy killer stabbing Spider repeatedly in the forehead – who does that? – was much better. Though the murder is vying for first place with the kill immediately previous, when the murderer tosses a knife though Samantha’s eye from the rear.

Unexpected cameo: Several of the film directors appear in the videos. Adam Wingard, director of the bookend, and Simon Barrett, writer of both the bookend and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” play two of the criminals in the bookend video. And the four gentlemen from Radio Silence play themselves in the final video. Joe Swanberg, who directed the “The Sick Thing …,” plays Sam in “Second Honeymoon.” Glenn McQuaid plays the dead guy floating in the river in his segment, “Tuesday the 17th.”

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Amusement park fortune tellers 100% speak the truth.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Schizoaffective

Next up: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976).

31 Days of Fright: Re-Animator

Like ‘Scrubs,’ but with more zombies.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night’s feature film was Re-Animator, directed by Stuart Gordon (From Beyond, Robot Jox), and requested by donor Martha Hunter. Though I’ve only met Hunter a few times in person, we are good Twitter friends, and she has the most excellent taste in movies. She was, frankly, pretty astonished I had never seen Re-Animator. And she has good reason: it’s widely regarded as something of a horror-comedy cult classic. I picked up Re-Animator, which came in a two-disc DVD set, at Queen Video.

What happens:

Based on an H. P. Lovecraft novella, but bearing little resemblance to the source material, Re-Animator is a darkly funny tale – along the lines of, say, an Evil Dead II – of reanimated corpses at a New England medical school. Re-Animator begins at the University of Zurich, as a doctor beckons for a university official and two guards to come assist Dr. Hans Gruber (no relation to the villain from Die Hard). They knock at his locked office door and hear cries of pain. The guards smash open the door and find a man – one we will later know as Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) – standing over the convulsing Dr. Gruber. The old doctor looks greyer than usual and leaking blood from his mouth. “You idiots!”" West cries. “I need to record his vitals!” Gruber’s eyes bug and soon begin to spurt blood. The old man collapses and the female doctor accuses West of killing Gruber. “No I didn’t. I gave him life!” he yells.

What's German for "Everything's cool"?

What’s German for “Everything’s cool”?

Following a Bernard-Hermann-esque opening title song, the film re-opens across the Atlantic, at the very fictional Miskatonic Medical School in Arkham, Massachusetts. Young medical student Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) desperately tries to resuscitate a flatlining woman to no avail. The supervising physician, Dr. Harrod (Carolyn Purdy-Gorond), tells him to give up. “A good doctor knows when to stop,” she advises. The now extremely sweaty Cain wheels the dead woman down to the morgue, where the security guard, Mace (Gerry Black) trades witticisms with him. Inside the morgue, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) is busy testing out his new neurosurgery invention, a laser drill, on a corpse’s head. He dips a Q-tip into the circular wound to plumb the head’s depths. Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) arrives in the morgue – it’s like Grand Central Station down there – to introduce new Miskatonic student, the bespectacled and tightly wound Herbert West.

Dean Halsey introduces Cain to West as one of the school’s brightest med students, and Hill as one of the world’s top brain researchers. Dr. Hill cocks his eyebrow when he learns that West had studied with Gruber. West makes a great first impression by dismissing Hill’s papers, which he says are derivative of Dr. Gruber’s. He also disbelieves Hill’s assertion that there’s a six-to-twelve-minute gap between death and total brain death. Neuroscientist fights are the cattiest, you guys.

Next we see Cain, he’s lovingly knocking boots with his fiancee, Megan (Barbara Crampton), in his apartment. His troublesome cat, Rufus, leaps on them in the middle of the act. Megan dresses to leave immediately after sex, noting, “Daddy knows I’m here.” Her daddy is, in fact, Dean Halsey, and he disapproves of premarital sex. “He’s the last living Puritan,” Megan laments. But Cain is fast becoming tired of sneaking around. He starts joking around with Megan, donning a bedsheet and pretending to be a corpse risen from the dead. He chases Megan out the front door, where the playful couple runs straight into the intense Herbert West. West has come to inquire about the apartment for rent in Cain’s house.

Cain gives West a tour of what would be his living quarters, but West is only interested in the size of the house’s basement. Once he sees how expansive it is, he asks to move in immediately. Megan, unwilling to accept the unsettling Herbert West as her fiancé’s new roommate, tries to convince Cain to take time to consider it, but Cain is swayed by West’s cash-in-hand-offer. The next day in class, Dr. Hill demonstrates some basic brain surgery on a cadaver. “Like peeling a large orange,” he jokes as he pulls the corpse’s scalp from the skull. West and Hill’s battle of the wills continues into the lab, with West snapping a pencil every time Dr. Hill makes a statement he disagrees with. They argue in front of the class about – what else? – the maximum time the dead human body can last before total brain death.

So many study dates are ruined by the revivification of the dead.

So many study dates are ruined by the revivification of the dead.

Dean Halsey invites Dr. Carl Hill over for dinner at his house – Hill, after all, is responsible for securing the medical school its largest grants. The sexagenarian Hill skeevily toasts Halsey’s daughter, Meg: “the obsession of all who fall under her spell.” Dan Cain arrives to whisk Meg away for a “study date” and they retire to his apartment. He tries to put the moves on his ladyfriend, but she’s not in the mood, mainly because Herbert West is in the very next room. Megan is uncomfortable around West, and she notes that even the cat, Rufus, is scared by Dan’s roommate. In fact, Rufus hasn’t been seen in quite a while. Dan and Meg go searching for the black cat, a search that brings Meg slinking into Herbert West’s room. She finds Rufus in the slightly ajar fridge – that’s not how refrigeration works, West – dead.

West barges in and complains that Meg has no respect for his privacy. Cain, arriving late to the party, initially agrees with West until he sees his cat in his roommate’s fridge. West assures him that the cat was dead when he found it. Rufus suffocated by getting his head stuck in a jar, and West was merely making sure the cat wouldn’t rot or smell before he had the chance to tell Dan. Dan is also alarmed by a vial of neon green liquid in West’s fridge. West notes that the green fluid is none of Dan’s business, “just like it’s none of my business you’re sleeping with the dean’s daughter.” Feeling thoroughly blackmailed, Dan lets the issue drop. Until that evening.

Late at night, Dan is awakened by an unholy screeching. He grabs a baseball bat from the closet and goes to investigate. He knocks on Herbert’s door, but he doesn’t answer. Hearing sounds in the basement, Dan rushes through the basement entrance, nearly falling down the steps. What he finds is his roommate Herbert, face scratched, being attacked by an angry black cat. West squirms and flails and finally tosses the cat off his back. He arms himself with a croquet mallet and tries to hunt it down. Dan joins him with his bat. The black cat leaps at Dan’s face, and with his quick reflexes, Dan tosses the cat into the wall, where it crumples to the floor in a bloody mess. Dan recognizes it as his own (supposedly dead) cat, Rufus. West begins to laugh hysterically.

Once things have calmed down, West reveals to Cain that he’s uncovered the secret to reanimation. He’s developed a new “re-agent” (the glowing green liquid) and broken the six-to-twelve-minute brain death barrier. But, he notes, when he’s reanimated larger animals, they have become violent. Having confided in Cain, West requests his help. Cain is a bright student with access to the morgue and the tacit endorsement of the dean. He could be very valuable to West. Together they can defeat death. Cain doesn’t believe West reanimated Rufus, so West runs another experiment. He injects more re-agent into the brain of the now-mangled cat. “Don’t expect it to tango; it has a broken back,” he warns. But Rufus does begin to howl and twitch again. Meg walks in and heads to the basement, where she sees the twisted Rufus and is understandably horrified. (I mean, she never liked West to begin with.)

Cain and West solve the dilemma of Schrodinger's cat by removing the box from the equation.

Cain and West solve the dilemma of Schrodinger’s cat by removing the box from the equation.

The next day, Cain goes to Dean Halsey to tell him what West has done. Rather than be intrigued by a medical marvel or appreciative that this student has been honest with him, Halsey becomes outraged that Cain has befriended West and participated with him on his unsanctioned experiments. (Which he hasn’t, really.) Rather impulsively, the Dean rescinds Cain’s student loan and expels Herbert West. (I guess school administrators had a lot more power in those days.) Undeterred, or perhaps emboldened, by the Dean’s actions, Cain sneaks West into the morgue, having his roommate pose as a dead body. Security guard Mace sneaks out to grab a coffee, and while he does, Cain and West act like selective shoppers, looking over the various dead bodies to find the best one for their experiment. They settle on a young John Doe who died of heart failure.

West injects the re-agent into the John Doe’s brain but nothing happens. Meanwhile, upstairs in the part of the hospital where (still) living people recuperate, Dean Halsey and Megan arrive. Halsey demands to know from Dr. Harrod if Cain is in the building. Harrod says that he’s downstairs in the morgue. West injects another dose of re-agent into the corpse and waits for it to take effect. The P.A. system calls for Daniel Cain, and Dean Halsey rushes downstairs. Cain and West, realizing the authorities (or the Dean, at least) are on their way to the morgue, cover up the John Doe, ready to write the experiment off as a failure. That’s when the dead man leaps up from his shiny metal gurney.

The big, naked, dead dude begins to run around the room, tossing Cain and West every which way but loose. Halsey arrives at the morgue door just as the dead man smashes it down, crushing the Dean beneath it. He lifts up the door and hoists the Dean into the air, then chews off a few of Halsey’s fingers. West acts quickly and breaks out the bone saw from the cabinet, using the tool to drill through the reanimated corpse’s back all the way out through his chest. The John Doe collapses, dead again, but West and Cain were too late: Dean Halsey has expired. But more importantly, his death was recent. “Let’s revive him!” West gleefully suggests.

Given a fresh corpse, West’s re-agent works wonders. Dean Halsey revives in a mere 17 seconds, though he does now have a problem with mumbling and constant bleeding from the mouth. Meg calls from the other side of the morgue door and West curses her arrival. The zombie Halsey starts choking West and Cain just as Meg enters the room. She freaks out and the guard, Mace, having been on the longest coffee break in history, returns, horrified by the scene. West hastily explains that Dean Halsey showed up in the morgue and seemed to go insane, desecrating a corpse, then choking them. (And given the Dean’s current state of mind, the guard is inclined to believe him.) Dean Halsey is promptly committed to a padded room in – for reasons never explained – Dr. Hill’s office (?).

In time, Dr. Hill tries to convince Meg to sign a release that would allow him to operate on her father: he wants to do exploratory brain surgery to see if he can figure out what’s gone wrong. Meg eventually grants permission and, not content to just cut open her father’s head, Hill creeps on Meg, telling her to call him if ever she’s lonely. Cain goes to apologize to Meg, and she demands to know what he did to her father. She slaps him a couple times, and when Cain declares that her father is dead, Meg cries and pounds on his chest. She doesn’t believe him. (The wedding may be off, folks.) Back in the makeshift basement lab, Herbert West is busy microscoping when Dr. Hill enters unseen and surprises him. Hill wants to know from West why Dean Halsey’s body responds as if it’s alive, when both of them know he’s very much dead. West tells him about his reanimation process and Hill demands to take credit for West’s discovery.

Hill, holding most of the cards, blackmails West for his discovery – he’ll have West arrested for murder unless he gives him his notes and re-agent. West reluctantly passes Dr. Hill his composition book, which Hill reads with grudging respect: “Your extension of that old fool Gruber’s work is quite … brilliant.” West demonstrates the re-agent on a microscope slide for Hill, using dead cat tissue as an example. While Hill eyes the microscope, West quietly backs up and retrieves a shovel. He then smashes Hill across the head with it, and drives the shovel through the doctor’s neck, again and again, until he decapitates him. West then lifts up the gory severed head and places it in a metal tray. Scientifically curious, he injects the brain with the re-agent, as well as the heart of the headless body. The revived two-part Dr. Hill is the most successful experiment yet. The head is capable of basic speech – “You … bastard …” he moans – and the body is capable of shoving West’s head into the table, knocking him out cold.

Told you one day Dr. Hill would be *head* of the department.

Told you one day Dr. Hill would be *head* of the department.

Back at Dr. Hill’s office, Dan and Meg are riffling through Hill’s files for information on her father’s treatment. Dan then makes a chilling discovery: a file folder full of used napkins and locks of Meg’s hair. Meg, oblivious to the depths of Hill’s obsessions, has meanwhile snuck into the padded cell where her father is being kept. She takes a closer look and sees that he’s been lobotomized! When West comes to with a monster headache in his basement lab, he can’t find Hill’s head, his body, or any of his notes! Cain arrives to find West in the midst of a panic, and he suggests that Hill must have lobotomized the Dean so he wouldn’t reveal that West was the one who reanimated him. (Not that Dean Halsey is doing much talking these days.) Hill’s body, meanwhile, has brought the tray containing his head back to his office, where the body injects the head with some re-agent, and fills the metal tray with a fresh blood supply. The head looks at the Dean and says, “Alan, it’s time for you to come out now …”

Dan runs to check on Meg, obviously concerned that a reanimated corpse who lusts for his fiancee is on the loose. (Not that he ever tells her about this crucial info.) Megan, obviously wrecked by the past several hours, suggests that Dan go away, transfer to another school. But she can’t bring herself to hate Dan, no matter how horribly he violated her father. She leans in to kiss Dan when her zombified father busts in the front door and smacks Dan’s head against the wall. He grabs his daughter and drags her screaming from the house. Dr. Hill, meanwhile, has made a very convincing “normal human” suit by placing an anatomical model of the human head on top of his headless body, then dressing it all in scrubs and a face mask. (Dr. Hill’s head rests in the medical bag that the body carries, ‘natch.) It’s convincing enough for Mace, the worst security guard in the world. Unobstructed, Dr. Hill’s body sets his real head back into a tray and gets to work lobotomizing a random corpse with the laser drill.

How come my ER doctor never looks like George Clooney or Eriq La Salle?

How come my ER doctor never looks like George Clooney or Eriq La Salle?

Before long, zombie Dean Halsey arrives, carrying an unconscious Megan in his arms. He sets his daughter down on a metal table, strips her naked, and straps her down. (Umm…) The leering head of Dr. Hill becomes quite visibly excited by this turn of events. Across town, Dan awakens to the grim visage of Herbert West and announces that they have to find Meg. Speaking of Meg, Hill’s body has begun to manhandle the poor woman, fondling her breasts. She wakes mid-assault and screams. Kicking wildly, she knocks off the body’s false head. The body then lifts Dr. Hill’s head to hang, dripping blood over Megan’s vulnerable body. Hill then begins to lick her all over (yes, all over) as she protests. HIll is interrupted by the a-bit-too-late arrival of Dan Cain and Herbert West.

West makes some disparaging remarks about Dr. Hill wasting his time on some “bubble-headed coed” (which is awful for so many reasons), effectively distracting the zombie neurosurgeon. Dan frees his once-fiancee while West and Hill verbally spar, and gives her his shirt. Dr. Hill threatens West, but West isn’t worried. “I have a plan,” he says. “So do I!” Dr. Hill retorts, and all the other corpses in the morgue spring to life and begin to attack. Pandemonium erupts. Hill, he reveals, has mastered a new form of lobotomy with the laser drill, which allows him total control of the human will. (I don’t think that’s how lobotomies work.) He doesn’t seem to be bluffing: the zombies go wild, attacking our heroes. West tries to inject an overdose of re-agent into Hill’s body, but the body wrests the syringe out of his hand. Things start to look grim for the living characters in the film.

Meg begins to plead with her zombie father, and she seems to make a breakthrough. Halsey stops attacking her, and instead strikes out at the other corpses. He rescues West from Hill’s body and grabs Hill’s head. Halsey then begins to squeeze, gouging out his favourite grant-winner’s eyes. West recovers and stabs Halsey with two syringes, then the former dean totally crushes Hill’s noggin and throws it into the hallway, to the mild confusion of the ever-oblivious security guard. Also confusing: Hill’s headless body opens up like rusty gates and his intestines shoot out at Herbert West, throttling him like a boa contractor. Cain reaches out for West’s hand, but he can’t get a solid grip. West is slowly being pulled into Hill’s body (it would seem). Dean Halsey, still protective of his daughter, tries to fend off some of the zombies and is quickly torn into pieces. Dan cuts his losses and takes Meg by the arm. They run into the hallway, taking a medical bag of West’s notes and re-agent refills with them.

They are attacked in the hallway – first by a man with a serious facial wound, and then, in the elevator, by a burn victim. The burn victim chokes Meg, but Dan runs to retrieve a fire axe, a weapon he uses to lop off the burn victim’s arm. However, it looks like he may be too late: Meg isn’t breathing! When the elevator ascends to the floor of the emergency room, he rushes her onto a bed. Paralleling one of the opening scenes, Dan desperately tries to resuscitate Meg, again and again. Dr. Harrod, ever the grim messenger of death, shakes her head “no.” Meg has not survived the climax of the film. Daniel Cain begins to sob as the assembled doctors and nurses leave to give the med student his space. Dan kisses his dead fiancee’s mouth, then … he has an idea. Dan opens the medical bag left on the floor and retrieves a syringe filled with re-agent. “I love you,” he says, and begins to inject her neck with the bright green fluid.

Herbert West and Dan Cain will return in Re-Animator 2: The Secret of the Ooze.

Herbert West and Dan Cain will return in Re-Animator 2: The Secret of the Ooze.

Takeaway points:

  • The film is very loosely based on a novella by H. P. Lovecraft, that xenophobic master of unnamed dread. Though Lovecraft is perhaps better known for his stories about forbidden knowledge and squid-like ancient entities known as Cthulhu, the novella “Herbert West – Reanimator” is atypical and was allegedly written as a sort of parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which makes sense – given the reviving of dead tissue and all). Though the original novella was set in the Victorian era, it does feature a Dean Halsey and a Miskatonic University, though many of the other aspects of the stories differ. Funnily enough, Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi calls the novella Lovecraft’s poorest work, yet it provides the basis for his best-known film adaptation.
  • Re-Animator works as a horror-comedy not because there are a lot of jokes. There aren’t. (Though Herbert West gets a few good lines.) It works as a horror comedy because of its commitment to excess, its willingness to go further than you believe it will go. Everyone plays it straight: they dedicate themselves to this depraved exercise in horror. Re-Animator doesn’t care how tasteless it is to show someone’s eyeballs explode or a father strip his daughter or a cat turned inside out: they’re going to do it. One is reminded of the Grand Guignol tradition of French theatre, so over-the-top (and impressive) is the gore. Re-Animator commits to taking the scene to its logical death, then – fittingly – takes it even further. It is the Will Ferrell of horror movies.
  • The viewer content advisory for Re-Animator notes, under “Frightening/Intense Scenes,” “a scene involving a woman being sexually assaulted by a severed head, which will no doubt upset several viewers.” At least five. While Re-Animator is mostly good, not-clean fun, the creep-tastic sexual assault by Dr. Hill’s headless body and severed head has to be dissected, as it exists mostly for shock value and (sadly) laughs. The entire uncomfortable scene is literally just a visual gag about “giving head.” This seems to be a common problem of over-the-top horror-comedies (think of the infamous tree rape scene in Evil Dead and Evil Dead II). As much as I enjoyed Re-Animator, the film has a problem with women. Herbert West, though creepy, is ultimately shown to be some kind of misunderstood hero. So how are we to take our hero who routinely calls Megan a “bitch,” or, when interrupting her sexual assault, chides the assaulter. Not for his horrible, criminal act, but for his low-mindedness: “You steal the secret of life, and here you are, trysting with a bubble-headed coed.” Herbert: (a) that is not a “tryst,” and (b) Megan is no bubble-head. Some ickiness mars an otherwise pretty excellent film.
  • This may be a stretch, but it’s easy to read Herbert West’s intense personality, unperturbed by social graces, as an early representation of Asperger’s in pop culture. He is unapologetic about his fights with his professors, shows little knowledge of social cues in his interactions with his roommate and his fiancee, and a devout single-mindedness to his one cause: defeating death. That said, I don’t wish to diagnose a fictional character with Asperger’s, especially in such reductive terms. And especially one who is a mad scientist.
  • Admit it, that synopsis made you think of Dean Cain.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Given that Re-Animator is more a horror-comedy along the lines of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, it’s not terrifying. Certainly some of the gory images are indelible, but it’s not a movie that had me checking the locks before I went to bed. That said, it’s an impressively bonkers story that somehow maintains its own bizarre logic through its duration and remains a really effective film.

Daniel Cain, getting back to fashion basics, accessorizing with a fire axe that matches the bloodstain.

Daniel Cain, getting back to fashion basics, accessorizing with a fire axe that matches the bloodstain.

Best outfit: When Dan Cain sheds his shirt to help out the very naked Meg Halsey, he suddenly transforms into Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and it’s pretty excellent.

Best line: “I was busy pushing bodies around – as you well know – and what would a note say, Dan? ‘Cat dead; details later’?” – Herbert West, outlining the little irritations that can arise between roommates

Best kill: Re-Animator is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to inventive, memorable, and gory kills. I have a particular fondness for Herbert West drilling through the muscular zombie John Doe with an electric bone saw.

Unexpected cameo: He’s kind of the star of the movie, but Jeffrey Combs deserves special mention because he also portrays the best character in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, the singular FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers. Also, the first corpse that West and Cain reanimate – the John Doe – is played by Peter Kent. You probably don’t know his name, but you know his body: he was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunt double from 1984 to 1996.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: This should have been obvious to me, but a lifetime of watching people apply defibrillator paddles on network television did not prepare me for the notion that female cardiac arrest patients must be defibrillated topless.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Brain Death

Next up: Lemora (1973).