Rent it now: Chicago theater star Stuart Gordon’s ‘Re-Animator’

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Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon’s debut film, “Re-Animator,” was an audience-divider in 1985, because of the way it mixed over-the-top gore and comedy.

Lots of people want their horror movies straight, but I’ve always liked pictures that mix thrills and laughs.

Deadly serious horror pics like John Carpenter’s early 1980s remake of “The Thing” or more recent gore-fests like “The Ruins” tend to leave me cold because they never acknowledge the basic silliness of a movie that goes, “Boo!”

The thing that makes “Psycho” so much fun to watch the second or third time around is all of the little jokes Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano planted especially for the repeat viewers, lines such as Norman Bates’s, “Mother isn’t quite herself tonight.”

When the low-budget “Re-Animator” debuted in 1985, it played the dumpy theaters that usually showed straight-on slasher movies, but word quickly spread that Gordon had mixed gross-outs and slapstick comedy in a unique manner. The result was one of the very last pre-video cult movies.

The movie got a big boost when The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael saw it and raved: “The picture is close to being a silly ghoulie classic — the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is.”

Gordon based the film on a story by H.P. Lovecraft about a demented medical student named Herbert West who becomes convinced he has found a serum that can re-animate dead animals.

The Chicago director rounded up theater actors who knew exactly how to play this borderline material. Kael was right to compare the results with the work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York during the early 1980s.

As Kael wrote 25 years ago, “Stuart Gordon’s debut film carries something intangible from live theatre. The mockery here is the kind that needs a crowd to complete it; ideally you ought to see it with a gang of friends.”

Gordon continued to work in film, but he never found the same mix of over-the-top violence and laughs. Most of his follow-ups to “Re-Animator” have seemed forced.

Joe Meyers

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