There is much that is different between H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West – Reanimator” and the movie “Re-Animator” directed by Stuart Gordon. The movie version takes from the written story the two main characters, the idea of reanimation, and certain key gruesome incidents. It then creates a new story all set in the medical program at Miskatonic University- the first setting of the written tale. It also adds some new characters and changes others so that the same players continue throughout the film. Even though the scope, timeline, and some settings are much scaled down in the film it is a wonderful adaptation. The choice of the screenwriters to tell the story within a smaller world adds an intimacy and continuity to characters that the book lacks.
One major difference in “Re-Animator” is the addition of a female character that is a key player in the plot and outcome of the movie. Most of Lovecraft’s stories lack prominent female characters. Stuart Gordon’s film adds the character of Megan Halsey played by Barbara Crampton. She brings an element of sexuality and adds the interesting problems that arise from a relationship with the main character, Bruce Abbott. Not only does Megan act as the “real world” rational for Bruce, she is also the daughter of the Dean of Miskatonic University where Bruce and West are medical students. This adds an element of normalcy and established society that pulls the main character in one direction while Herbert West pulls him in another outlandish one.
What the written story has that the film version does not is a longer time span that shows us how Herbert West changes. Even though Herbert West has a hidden deep sense of unease he becomes a cold calculating Joseph Mengele through his obsession with his research. In the short story we witness his descent into brutal disassociation while the movie creeps us out as we witness what he is capable of because of it. Jeffery Combs is perfectly cast as the analytical and removed experimenter- the very definition of mad scientist. His total disregard for human feelings in his search for the perfected reanimation serum is so outlandish that it becomes comical. This humor works throughout the movie and gives it a dark comedy edge that is sickeningly pleasurable.
The written story is a hair-raising grotesque read which makes us question what exactly is permissible in the name of medical science. How would our beliefs and morals change if regenerated tissue could live on with intelligence once normal living functions cease? The movie adaptation is a solidly told and gleefully gruesome thrill ride full of evil wit that leaves us wanting more but ends at exactly the right moment.