Friday, October 8, 2010

Bride of Re-Animator (Yuzna 1990)

If there is one set of themes that tends to recur in horror films above all others, its sex and sexual orientation. In classic horror films, it often appeared as subtext; in more recent horror, it has often become rather blatant. Just this month, I reviewed Dracula’s Daughter (Hillyer 1936), in which the vampirism of the title character has more than a hint of homoerotic overtones, and I am sure before this month is over I will come upon a few more films in which sex and sexuality will be addressed, be it through metaphor, allegory, and/or direct discussion.
Of course, when it comes to the presence of sexual orientation issues in horror films, more often than not the films tend to be regressive and conservative in their presentations and explorations. Yes, there are plenty of films that are more progressive in discussing (an exploiting) sexuality, and the complex processes of viewer reception and identification provide a multitude of readings of even the most regressive of these films. I still believe however that it is more than fair to say that many horror films tend to try and reinforce the simplistic and wrongheaded notion of “homosexuality bad, heterosexuality good…and normal!” So thank God for the flawed-but-compelling Bride of Re-Animator (1990), Brian Yuzna’s straight to video sequel to Stuart Gordon’s 1985 classic Re-Animator. As the title indicates, Bride of Re-Animator riffs on the themes and concepts of the playful and complex Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935), a film which itself expanded and subverted the themes and concepts presented in its famed predecessor. In Bride of Re-Animator, Yuzna has crafted a film in which presents almost all forms of sexuality as confused, dangerous, and destructive, with the “salvation“ from these destructive relationships and impulsive coming from an unlikely source. Oh, and the film is a darkly funny and fun blast as well.
Bride of Re-Animator picks up months after the events of the original film, with Dr. Herbert West (Jeffery Combs) and Dr. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) making the most out of the dead bodies piling up in a Peruvian civil war. Forced back the city of Arkham in the United States as the war becomes too dangerous for them, they resume acting as Doctors at the Miskatonic University. West’s obsession with reanimating dead tissue takes on a new dimension when he decides that he can make a new life out of separate body parts, and to ensure Cain’s assistance in this new endeavour, West proposes a particular project for them to work on: creating a woman out of the heart of Dean’s lost love Meg. Things become tricky for West and Cain however as a police Lieutenant (Claude Earl Jones) intrudes in on their lives, a friend from Peru, Francesca (Fabiana Udenio, of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery [1997] fame) shows up to romance Cain, and Dr. Graves (Mel Stewart) discovers a jar of the regenerate fluid, as well as the head of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale).
The key to the film’s exploration of sexuality is the character of Dan Cain, whose romantic desires are, to say the least, confused. Dan in this film is defined by three key relationships, first and foremost among them his lost love Meg, who died in the previous film. For Dan, his love of Meg is an obsession with death itself, and when the notion of creating a woman out of the parts of others arises, his obsession takes on a further dimension of necrophilia. Heterosexual relationships thus become tied with death, and it is no coincidence that it is Dan’s desires that lead to most of the death and destruction in the film. This destructive side of heterosexuality is further supported in the “relationship” between Lt. Chapham and his re-animated wife, who spend most of the film attempting to kill one another (Chapham had already killed his wife in events preceding the film). This rebuilding of Meg thus becomes the crux of the relationship between Cain and West, and the attempt to create new life in the absence of women gives this relationship shades of a homosexuality (I say shades, because West has a distinctly asexual streak to him as well, though I shall get into that further on). When Dan early on tries to break off his work with West and leave their home, the scene is shot and performed in a manner evocative of quarrelling lovers, raging at each other one moment and speaking tenderly another about creating a new life. Granted, its new life being built out of dead body parts, but the point stands. Even their living arraignment, a home for the two of them out in the cemetery away from the rest of civilization, carries a hint of romantic domesticity about it.
Chief among these overtones of a coded homosexual relationship between the duo is West’s reactions to Dan’s third key relationship, that with Francesca, the most clearly romantic and explicitly sexual. From the start of the film till its conclusion, West is alternatively dismissive of Francesca and threatened by the risk she posses towards his relationship with Dan, a feeling that is mutual on Francesca’s part. The rivalry between the two is some of the film’s strongest material, allowing West to get in more than a few excellent deadpan one-liners (“Think with the big head Dan, not the little one.”), as well as underscoring the homoerotic subtext of West and Cain‘s relationship. While the narrative structure of the film is typical of the genre and somewhat predictable, the film plays with the audience’s expectations as to what the cause of the horror, and our salvation from said horror, lies. In turn, the film’s examination of sexuality becomes increasingly surprising and sophisticated. While the film is structured around Dan’s need to resolve his conflicting desires, this confusion becomes the instigator of the film’s horror. In turn, Dr. West becomes the source of security and stability in the face of this horror. Yes, West is obsessive, his work dangerous, and he engages in more than a little manipulation to achieve his ends, but that does not change the fact that he is the most rational and proactive character in the film. Consider: Dan is an emotional mess in the film, and it is his confusion and selfish obsession with reversing Meg’s death which places Francesca in danger. Similarly, when a cancer patient similar physically to Meg dies, Dan is too busy explaining how he see’s Meg in this woman to notice she is dieing, and makes the situation worse when he botches cutting into her chest in order to try and save her life. Chapham furthers this point as we at first meant to feel some sympathy for him given his wife’s state as a re-animated corpse, until West points out that Chapham himself killed his wife through physical abuse (leading to perhaps my favourite line of the entire film: “Dan, he’s a wife beater! Use the gun!”). As such, Dan’s claims that West is more interested in seeking out fresh meat for his experiments rather than helping patients ring hollow, particularly when we are shown evidence that directly contradicts Dan’s beliefs. When a soldier dies at the film’s beginning, West actually shows frustration at the man’s death when Dan is clearly not looking, before he decides to test his regeneration fluid on the man. Not too long after, West risks his own wellbeing to save Dan’s life, and later on still, West continues to work on saving a patient’s life after Dan’s crippled emotional state leads to her death. The worst thing that can be said of West is that he is a cold pragmatist after the fact. Given this, West and his clinical views about life and death are less horrific than the alternatives presented in the film, and from here, the film can be read as a subversive attack upon supposedly normative heterosexual relationships by revealing, in a coded manner, the destructive side of heterosexuality. However, I’m not certain that this is entirely the case, as the idea of West as being a coded homosexual does not entirely hold up. To begin with, while Dan supposedly is working with West to further the work, we are most often presented with West working alone while Dan is off doing just about everything and anything else. When the Bride of the title comes to life, and looks at Dan as its creator, West repeatedly rejects the notion of anyone else save himself as the creator, a point that is hard to argue given what we witness onscreen. If West can be read as anything, it is as asexual, with asexuality as being upheld as an ideal and infinitely less destructive form of reproduction, free of the emotional trappings of any other form of sexuality. Of course, you have probably just read everything and are asking one question, and one question alone: is the film any good? To that, I give a resounding yes, though the film does suffer from some flaws. The film is an energetic piece that occasionally oversteps its available resources as a low budget sequel, but shows great confidence in its quest to entertain. Brian Yuzna provides a solid hand as director this time out, perfectly balancing the tone of the film as a whole and giving his actors room to take center stage. Stylistically, Yuzna too often attempts to imitate his predecessor Gordon rather than attempting to imprint his own stamp on the proceedings, though this attempt at consistency with the first film is appreciated.
Given that it is a Re-Animator film, questions inevitably turn to the effects, and I am pleased to say that they work for the most part, offering some inventive stop motion work and all the gore expected of the film. Occasionally, the low budget roots do show through, from the awful flying head effect for Dr. Hill at the film’s conclusion, to the inability to even show an onscreen shooting, with a sound effect substituting for the absent practical effect. Given the low budget of the film and how much is achieved onscreen for such little money though, it is hard to fault the filmmakers for such minor flaws. The film’s greatest strength though, as it was in the first film, is Jeffery Combs as Herbert West, as he walks the fine line between deadpan seriousness and melodrama. Given the meatiest material to work with, Combs gives this role nothing less than his all, and continues to make West not only one of the most beloved horror cinema icons, but the best mad scientist character of the past thirty years. Even as other components of the film occasional failing to work as they should, Combs is always on hand to deliver another magnificently over-the-top speech or contemptuous smack down on those around him. The rest of casts’ work ranges in quality. Bruce Abbott is fine as Dan Cain, though his shifts between Dan’s different mental states are occasionally clunky and reveal his limitations as an actor, while the returning David Gale is wasted in the film, as Carl Hill really has little to do overall until the final third of the film. Fabiana Udenio is honestly given nothing to do except be shocked at what happens around her and provide gratuitous nudity, and Mel Stewart does the best he can as a plot device. Still, Bride of Re-Animator is a more than worthy sequel to the classic original, offering more than enough fun, horror and intellectual meat for film lovers despite its flaws. Will the third film, Beyond Re-Animator (Yuzna 2003) carry on this level of quality? We shall soon see.

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