(Empire) Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott, David Gale, Robert Sampson, Gerry Black, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Peter Kent. Directed by Stuart Gordon
My wife’s favorite horror film of all time is The Hitcher which just goes to show that some people can have diametrically opposed tastes in horror movies and still co-exist. The Hitcher is one of two movies that I’ve walked out on in the middle of the movie in my entire life (for completists, D-Wars is the other). I thought it was creepy enough, but I simply couldn’t get behind the actions of the hero in the movie and finally gave up on it after the infamous truck stretching scene.
But what is my favorite horror movie of all time? Well, I have several that are contenders – The Exorcist, Bride of Frankenstein, Poltergeist, Alien, Them and probably a few others that rotate in and out of my top ten depending on my mood but generally speaking the movie I usually name as my all-time fave is this one.
After a scandal forces young Herbert West (Combs) to leave a prestigious university in Switzerland (under the tutelage of the brilliant Dr. Gruber) to slum over to second-rate Miskatonic University, he rents a room from Dan Cain (Abbott), a medical student studying neurosurgery under the arrogant Dr. Carl Hill (Gale). Cain is also dating the lovely Megan Halsey (Crampton), daughter of the straight-laced Dean of the Medical School (Sampson). Sweeeeeeeeeeeeeet set-up, dude!
West, himself an arrogant little jerk, has been spending an awful lot of time in the basement of the house of Cain and Dan and Megan soon find out why. It turns out that West had been working on forbidden experiments with Dr. Gruber in Switzerland that involved re-animating dead tissue and the two had been successful using a bright green glowing liquid West refers to as Re-Agent.
The problem is that the re-animated dead become violent and unpredictable, basically mindless animals who lash out to inflict the pain that they themselves are feeling. There’s a whole lot of screaming involved with the process.
At first Dan is appalled but quickly sees the legitimate medical value of the stuff and begins to help West out with his experiments. In the meantime, Dr. Hill has also found out about the Re-Agent and wants the formula for himself so that he can take credit for the discovery. He has also developed an unhealthy obsession with the nubile young Megan.
As West tries to keep control of his discovery, he slips into a kind of obsessive madness that is equal parts mad scientist, nerd and obsessive-compulsive. He longs to have more bodies to test out his serum on and after not too long he’s up to his elbows in them.
This was one of the most influential horror movies of its time on a lot of different levels. Made for horror producer Charles Band’s first studio Empire (which would later be replaced by the notorious Full Moon Studios which was essentially direct-to-video), it was one of the more critically acclaimed horror movies for its time (and remember the 80s were one of the most fertile periods for the genre, with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises going strong) and remains a cult favorite for many.
Part of the reason it works so well is that it is perfectly cast. Combs established a persona that he has spent a career spinning off of as the twitchy unlikable lead. Gale makes the perfect counterpoint, being loathsome, arrogant, smooth and lecherous all at once. Crampton, a veteran of soap operas, became a horror scream queen based on her work here – she was cute, sure but she had more personality than most of the other cute scream queens of her time. Of course, her notorious scene with Dr. Hill was unsettling, funny and sexy all at once…I know it had a number of people squirming in their seats at the time.
The effects don’t always hold up 25 years later but for their time they were pretty innovative and quite a few of them still pack a wallop even today. The script by Dennis Paoli is imaginatively written and even if it didn’t have a whole lot to do with the source material, a short story by horror icon H.P. Lovecraft, it still was an outstanding piece of work.
Dead is dead but not in the horror movies, and director Stuart Gordon knows when to go over-the-top and when to be subtle. This is one of those serendipitous movies in which everything came together perfectly and all the planets aligned correctly to make a movie that surprised a whole lot of people with how good it was. It established the careers of Gordon, Crampton, Combs and producer Brian Yuzna and raised the bar on horror movies, a bar that remains even today. If you love horror movies and haven’t seen it, you need to stop what you’re doing and go rent this. It’s fairly widely available and the Anchor Bay DVD edition is loaded with special features. It’s got something for everybody and even those who aren’t fond of horror movies will appreciate the quality of this one.
WHY RENT THIS: One of the best horror movies ever made; it has everything from black humor to extreme gore to titillating sexuality. Combs made his career with his twitchy performance here and Crampton made a great scream queen.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too over-the-top for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of gore and ghoulishness, with plenty of nudity and sex. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore; not for kids in the least.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The special effects department went through 25 gallons of fake blood during the shoot.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A recent re-release of the movie on Anchor Bay includes a 12-part documentary feature on the making of the movie as well as the controversy surrounding it, and a PDF version of the original H.P. Lovecraft short story for those equipped with DVD-ROM on their computers.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs