This series of essays will obviously be a list of my favorite scary movies. I think that goes without saying. But I need to set a few ground rules before you dive in. This will only take a few paragraphs and then we can get on to the meat and potatoes of the piece.
First, yes I will be using properly linked Wiki pulls to give the movie plots. Yes I’m doing it because I’m lazy but I’m also doing it because these essays are about why and how I was scared by each of these movies and not the plots. If you’re not okay with that then I suggest you read no further. If you have no problem with it I think we can have an enjoyable reader/writer dialog.
Second, these are about what I find scary not what you find scary. We may agree on some of the criteria but like all lists of favorite things it’s a subjective and malleable thing. You may or may not agree with my reasoning but in the end each of these selections have left their dark mark on me.
Third, NO ZOMBIES! I love my zombies more now than I did when I was young. But I’ve done an entire series just about the living dead and rehashing that subject just isn’t in my wheelhouse. Nothing scares me more than zombies but I’m keeping them off this series.
Okay Boils and Ghouls those are the rules, let’s do this thing.
My mother always encouraged my love of the horror genre. I may have mentioned this in an earlier essay, or maybe not but, I’m old so sue me. Maybe she didn’t actually encourage it but she never attempted to dissuade my fixation on something that scared the piss out of me on a regular basis.
Not long after we moved in with my grandparents in Dayton my mom started the practice of recording movies for my brother and myself to watch. Often the films she chose were odd and off beat comedies or legal/criminal thrillers she knew we’d enjoy. But every now and then she’d decided to record a selection of horror. They weren’t always good, hell most of the time they sucked, but when she picked right she was amazing.
But on one historic night she knocked it out of the fucking park.
We woke up on a fall Saturday morning in 1988 to several tapes. Stored on the magnetic ribbons were a clutch of movies I love to this day. They were Vindicator, a movie about a dead man kept alive and controlled by an advanced exoskeleton. The Stuff, a horror comedy which owes its existence to The Blob in all the good ways. Night of the Creeps… I’m not saying this one will be higher on this list but I’m not NOT saying it either. And last but not least one of the goriest movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life, Re-Animator.
For the record I will say this, mom hesitated before she let us watch it.
But in the end we watched it from beginning to end more than once that weekend. And true to form I was terrified following each viewing. The movie left me feeling uncomfortable and stayed with me for decades.
At University of Zurich Institute of Medicine in Switzerland, Herbert West brings his dead professor, Dr. Hans Gruber, back to life. There are horrific side-effects, however; as West explains, the dosage was too large. When accused of killing Gruber, West counters: "I gave him life!"
West arrives at Miskatonic University in New England in order to further his studies as a medical student. He rents a room from fellow medical student Dan Cain and converts the building's basement into his own personal laboratory. West demonstrates his reanimating reagent to Dan by reanimating Dan's dead cat Rufus. Dan's fiancée Megan, who already thinks West is creepy, walks in on this experiment and is horrified.
Dan tries to tell Dr. Alan Halsey, who is Megan's father and dean of the medical school, about West's success in reanimating the dead cat, but the dean does not believe him. When Dan insists, the dean infers that Dan and West have gone mad. Barred from the school, West and Dan sneak into the morgue to test the reagent on a human subject in an attempt to prove that the reagent works, and thereby salvage their medical careers. The corpse they inject comes back to life, but in a frenzied, violent, zombie-like state. Dr. Halsey stumbles upon the scene and, despite attempts by both West and Dan to save him, he gets killed by the reanimated corpse, which West then kills with a bone-saw. Unfazed by the violence and excited at the prospect of working with a freshly dead specimen, West injects Dr. Halsey's body with his reanimating reagent. Dr. Halsey returns to life, but in a zombie-like state.
Dr. Halsey's colleague Dr. Carl Hill, a research-oriented brain surgeon, takes charge of Dr. Halsey, whom he puts in a padded observation cell adjacent to his office. He carries out a surgical operation on him, lobotomizing him. During the course of this operation, he discovers that Dr. Halsey is not sick, but dead and reanimated.
Dr. Hill goes to West's basement lab and tries to blackmail him into turning his reagent and notes over to Dr. Hill so he (Dr. Hill) can take credit for West's discovery. West offers to demonstrate the reagent, and puts a few drops of it onto a microscope slide with some dead cat tissue on it. While Dr. Hill is peering through the microscope at this slide, West decapitates him with a shovel, snarling "plagiarist!" as he drives the blade of the shovel through Dr. Hill's neck. West then reanimates Dr. Hill's head and body separately. While West is questioning Dr. Hill's head and taking notes, Dr. Hill's body sneaks up behind him and knocks him unconscious. The body carries the head back to Dr. Hill's office, with West's reagent and notes.
Exercising mind control over Halsey, Dr. Hill sends him out to kidnap Megan from Dan. While being carried to the morgue by her reanimated father, Megan faints. When she arrives, Dr. Hill straps her unconscious body to a table, strips her naked, and sexually abuses her, shoving his bloody, severed head between her legs. She wakes up in the middle of this experience.
West and Dan track Halsey to the morgue. West distracts Dr. Hill while Dan frees Megan. Dr. Hill reveals that he has reanimated and lobotomized several corpses from the morgue, rendering them susceptible to mind control. However, Megan manages to get through to her father, who fights off the other corpses long enough for Dan and Megan to escape. In the ensuing chaos, West injects Dr. Hill's body with a lethal overdose of the reagent. Dr. Hill's body mutates rapidly and kills West, who screams out to Dan to save his work.
Dan retrieves the satchel containing West's reagent and notes. As Dan and Megan flee the morgue, one of the reanimated corpses attacks and kills Megan. Dan takes her to the hospital emergency room and tries to revive her, but she is quite dead. In despair, he injects her with West's reagent. As the scene fades to black, Megan returns to life and screams.
I know what you’re thinking after reading the movie synopsis, but Josh you said no zombies and this is clearly a zombie movie. Well yes and no, to me this is more a medical/scientific horror film than a straight zombie movie. Yes there are zombies in it, some pretty fucking awesome zombies if you want to know the truth. But at the end of the day it just doesn’t watch or feel like a zombie film.
This movie holds up more than twenty-five years after it was made. There are many reasons for this but the number one reason I love this flick is the acting of one Mr. Jeffery Combs. Jeff is my all-time favorite character actor. He’s played more roles I’ve loved than any other actor living or dead. I think it may be a safe bet to say he will be on this list again.
Herbert West is one of the most entertaining yet disturbing characters in horror. He’s simultaneously the protagonist, the antagonist, and the comic relief. I’m sure he could have been played by another actor but I doubt any other would have done half of the job of Jeff Combs.
The Original Story
I am going to make a controversial statement.
Just remember that I am a fan of all things Lovecraft with the exception of his xenophobia and racism. I love his style, I love the way he uses language, I love the way he builds tension and mounting horror, and more than anything else I love how Mr. Lovecraft can leave an ending dark and obfuscated without making me sorry I read it.
Okay enough delay, here it goes.
Re-Animator is currently the best adaption of Lovecraft’s work to film… period.
Before you start throwing things at me remember I have a bone saw and I KNOW how to use it! Yes I know Re-Animator is not a truly faithful book-to-movie transfer and there have been major changes made to the story but in the end it embraces the spirit if not the literal story of the tale.
Let me give you the plot of the original story for comparison.
"Herbert West—Reanimator" is a short story by American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. It was written between October 1921 and June 1922. It was first serialized in February through July 1922 in the amateur publication Home Brew. The story was the basis of the 1985 horror film Re-Animator and its sequels, in addition to numerous other adaptations in various media.
The story is the first to mention Lovecraft's fictional Miskatonic University. It is also notable as one of the first depictions of zombies as scientifically reanimated corpses, with animalistic and uncontrollable temperament.
Lovecraft originally serialized the story in Home Brew Vol. 1, No. 1–6, an amateur magazine published by his friend George Julian Houtain.
"From the Dark"
The narrator is a doctor who went to medical school with the titular character. Informing the reader that Herbert West has recently disappeared.
The narrator goes on to explain how he met West when they were both young men in medical school, and the narrator became fascinated by West's theories, which postulated that the human body is simply a complex, organic machine, which could be "restarted." West initially tries to prove this hypothesis, but is unsuccessful. West realizes he must experiment on human subjects. The two men spirit away numerous supplies from the medical school and set up shop in an abandoned farmhouse. At first, they pay a group of men to rob graves for them, but none of the experiments are successful. West and the narrator go into grave robbing for themselves. One night, West and the narrator steal a corpse of a construction worker who died just that morning in an accident. They take it back to the farmhouse and inject it with West's solution, but nothing happens. Later an inhuman scream is heard from within the room containing the corpse which forces the two students to instinctively flee into the night. West accidentally trips over a lantern and the farmhouse catches fire. West and the narrator escape. The next day, however, the newspaper reads that a grave in potter's field had been molested violently the night before, as with the claws of a beast.
Some time has elapsed since West and the narrator resurrected the corpse of the accident victim. Since the farmhouse burned down, West has been unable to perform many of his experiments, and as college Dean Halsey refuses to allow him access to human cadavers and the university's dissection lab, his research has been stunted. West has a stroke of luck, though, when a typhus epidemic breaks out and West and the narrator are called to help tend to the many dying victims. West, now finding himself consistently surrounded by the dead and the dying, begins injecting his patients with a new serum, which has no greater effect than causing some of the bodies eyes to open. Eventually, Halsey succumbs to typhoid, and as a final act of twisted respect for his former rival, West steals his corpse to reanimate. West and the narrator take Halsey's body back to West's room at a boarding house, where they inject it with West's new serum. Halsey does in fact reanimate, but is inexplicably less intelligent and more violent than their previous experiment. Halsey beats West and the narrator into unconsciousness and then embarks on a killing spree, beating and murdering over a dozen people before finally being apprehended by the police. The cannibal murderer is soon committed to an local mental institution.
"Six Shots by Moonlight"
Now licensed doctors, West and the narrator have gone into practice together as the physicians in the small New England town of Bolton, purchasing a house near the town's cemetery; so as to have consistent access to corpses. Still intent upon successfully reanimating a human being, West and the narrator claim the body of a black boxing champion, who died of a head wound in an illegal back-alley street fight. The men gambling on the fight arrange for West to dispose of the body, as it clears them of any crime; West happily agrees and he and the narrator hurriedly take the body back to West's lab and inject it with another new serum. When nothing happens, West and the narrator take the corpse out to a meadow and bury it. Several days later, there are reports around town of a missing child. The mother dies during a fit of hysteria, and the father tries to kill West in a fit of rage that West could not save her. That night, West and the narrator are startled by an aggressive pounding on their back door. Opening the door, West and the narrator come face to face with the corpse of the boxer, covered in mildew and dirt, hunched over at the back entrance. Hanging from his mouth is the arm of a small child. Almost instantly West empties an entire revolver into the beast.
"The Scream of the Dead"
Sometime after West killed the reanimated boxer, the narrator returns home from vacation to discover the perfectly preserved corpse of a man in his and West's home. West explains that during the narrator's absence, he perfected a type of embalming fluid that perfectly preserves a corpse as it is the moment the chemical is injected into the bloodstream; injected at the precise moment of death, the chemical prevents decomposition from even beginning. West reveals to the narrator that the dead man in their home is a traveling salesman who had a heart attack during a physical examination; as the man died before West's eyes, he was able to preserve it with the embalming fluid and has been waiting for the narrator to return so that the two of them can reanimate the body together. West injects the man with his latest serum. Signs of life gradually begin to appear. When the narrator questions the man he mouths words with seeming rationality and intent. Just before the man returns to a final death he begins screaming and thrashing violently, revealing in a horrible scream that West was in fact his killer.
"The Horror From the Shadows"
Five years have passed since West temporarily reanimated the traveling salesman and West has joined the Great War as a means to procure more bodies. Now serving as a medic in Flanders during World War I, West has gone beyond the point of simply trying to reanimate corpses; his experiments now include isolating parts of the body and reanimating them independently in an attempt to prove the machine-like quality of the human body. On the battlefield, West befriends his commanding officer, Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, also a medic, and shares with him his theories and methods on reanimation. Shortly thereafter, Clapham is killed as his plane is shot down (along with the pilot, Lt. Ronald Hill). West immediately begins work on his body. Clapham was nearly decapitated in the crash and West finishes the job and injects the trunk with his serum, the head being placed in a vat (West could not use Hill's body as it was torn to pieces in the crash). The corpse comes to life and begins thrashing violently, reliving its last moments of life. Clapham's severed head begins to speak from across the room, shrieking out, "Jump, Ronald, for God's sake, jump!". Just then the building is destroyed by a bomb shell. West and the narrator survive, but there is no sign left of their commanding officer. The two men assume that he was vaporized in the blast, although West is since known to speak fearfully of a headless doctor with the power of reanimation.
A year after returning from World War I, West, now described by the narrator as degenerating even further in his thinking, has moved into a house which is directly connected to an ancient system of catacombs which served as tombs for early settlers. One night reading the newspaper, West comes across an article detailing a series of strange, seemingly nonsensical events involving a riot at an insane asylum. A wax-headed man (Clapham) followed by a group of disturbing-looking followers carrying a box demanded that the "cannibal" killer (Halsey), who was locked up in the asylum 16 years prior, be released to them. Witnesses claimed that his voice came not from himself, as his lips or wax face did not move, but he seemed to speak as if ventriloquist. When the invaders were refused exchange for the killer, they took him by force. West spends the remainder of the night in a near catatonic state until someone comes to the door. The narrator answers it only to find a group of men. One of the figures presents the narrator with the large box, which the narrator then gives to West. West refuses to open the box and insists that they incinerate it. The two men carry it to the basement and burn it. As soon as the box burns, the zombies tear through the wall of West's home via the catacombs to which it is connected. Leaving the narrator alone, the zombies soon attack West. Realizing that his own death is imminent, West allows the zombies to disembowel him. As an final insult, Major Clapham-Lee decapitates West's corpse before leading his army of zombies off into the night. The narrator does not reveal much to the police about the missing Herbert West, and the information he does reveal they refuse to believe since the catacomb wall seems intact and undisturbed. He is forever haunted, considered mad, by his knowledge of what transpired and the lack of resolution regarding the raised corpses.
The story Herbert West Re-Animator is really good. Lovecraft was never happy with it but in the end it’s one of his best known and loved stories. It has its technical flaws, the thing was written between the world wars so I think we can cut him some slack, but it still rocks.
Just an additional bit of information before moving on. The audiobook version was read by the one and only Jeff Combs. He did a masterful job, if you have no desire to actually read the story I recommend downloading and experiencing the audio version, you won’t be disappointed.
Why It Scares Me
Once you sift through the gore, violence, necrophilia, and zombie cats (seriously that cat was scary as hell) Re-Animator is the story of mad science gone wrong. The film and the original source material are the spiritual decedents of Frankenstein. This 20th century retelling of the classic tale of forbidden knowledge and monstrous consequences terrified and excited me to new and unexpected levels.
Zombie cats bent on murder. A dark morgue full of psychotic reanimated corpses raging against the living. A headless doctor performing oral sex on a young woman. The pathos of a daughter and her living dead father. Exploding guts and prehensile intestines combined with a bone saw through the chest.
Do you really need to ask why I love this movie?