Not only were these two loose adaptations of Lovecraft works by the same director, Stuart Gordon, but they also starred both Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton.
I’m not going to try to avoid spoilers here, so you have been warned.
In Re-Animator, Herbert West, newly arrived in the US from his stint in Europe (I keep thinking Switzerland) researching ways to re-animate corpses, decides to test his methods on his roommate’s cat. The news of his success (however problematic) gets out and soon the professor who West has actively antagonized is trying to take over the project with dire concequences.
In From Beyond, Crawford Tillinghast is assisting Dr. Pretorius in conducting research to stimulate the senses we don’t normally have access to. Tillinghast manages to see weird figures from another world, which kill Pretorius. Tillinghast ends up in an asylum for this, but a young psychiatric doctor wants to get deeper into the mystery and brings Tillinghast back to the house, where they meet Pretorius’ new form.
First, I have read much of Lovecraft’s bibliography, but that was a long time ago – we’re talking nearly 30 years. I mostly remember just impressions and those have probably been colored by pop culture osmosis by then. So, don’t expect me to be an expert on his work.
Second, It seems quite hard adapting Lovecraft. He uses language which is hard to present in images (there are many things which are ‘unspeakable’ in his works). Many of Lovecraft’s ideas might not be very palatable to modern audiences either. The stories are often quite short as well. In these particular cases, From Beyond is very short at only seven pages (a common movie script is about a page per minute) and Herbert West – Reanimator wasn’t much liked by Lovecraft himself, but he wrote them, because they paid well.
While Stuart Gordon never became a household name, he did start out strong. These are his two first theatrical features. He had directed a TV movie many years before, but that was it. I haven’t seen much of his filmography after these two. Dagon, another Lovecraft adaptation, didn’t really impress, and I have Edmond waiting for me to find the time to get to it (I have about 100 movies on my windowsill waiting for.. summer vacation, iguess). Gordon’s most widely known work is actually Honey I Shrunk the Kids, which he wrote and was supposed to direct, but couldn’t handle the studio. He around a year ago.
Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton might not be household names either, but they are working actors (Crampton did take a few years off, but was convinced to return to acting for the excellent You’re Next). They have both done a little bit of everything, but based on these movies, you wouldn’t exactly think Crampton has spent much of her career in various soap operas, although only one at the time these were made in the mid-80s. At the time they had some credits, but neither was that experienced, at least on film. They might have had theatrical experience, though. I know at least Combs has done a lot of that as well.
The movies can’t have been easy for the actors, especially Crampton, who definitely deserves commendation for the way she threw herself into these roles. She did get the Saturn award for her work on From Beyond. (Actually, both movies also won Saturn Awards for Best Horror and Best Make-Up, very deservedly as well). Besides the nudity (and often very awkward nudity at that), there’s the make-up, which can’t have been comfortable for the actors who had to endure it, especially Ted Sorel as Pretorius.
Both of these movies have strong themes around ethics of science. West is looking to better humankind by finding a way to re-animate bodies, but Pretorius just seems to want to find a new way to pleasure himself in his work. In both cases their work also has horrible consequences.
West is a pretty traditional mad scientist, but he is also very sympathetic. He is frustrated by the inability of his superiors to see the importance of his research, so he has to conduct it in secrecy, only trusting his roommate, because he was found out. He does break the ethical code used in science by using corpses, who have not volunteered themselves, but since that doesn’t really hurt anyone, that’s fine. Well, it does hurt a lot of people in the end, when his serum works, but not in the intended way.
I’m not sure Pretorius was quite sure what he was looking for, but he did find a very extreme new pleasure. Like West, he also hurt a lot of people, but unlike West, Pretorius doesn’t really mind, if he can just get what he personally wants. He is actually more than ready to sacrifice humankind just to feed his own perverse desires. In fact, after learning a bit about the Beyond, he is pretty much planning on turning the whole world into his own playground.
Re-Animator isn’t really the usual cosmic horror of Lovecraft. Cosmic horror is about the meaninglessness of human existence. It’s about how we are just lowly insignificant parts of the universe, which can be wiped out easily at any time by any number of cosmic threats and in the big picture this wouldn’t even mean anything. From Beyond is pretty much exactly about that. In the end, Pretorius is only the seduced by some unknown force into what he is doing. He just happened to be a very willing subject.
Re-Animator is more unique in Lovecraft’s work in that it’s about humans being the threat. It was written in early 20s, just a few years after The Great War, which is still remembered largely for chemical warfare, but it was also the first major conflict to feature tanks (as far as I understand it) and lead to the violent death of tens of millions of people, as well as the start of he Spanish flu or more precisely 1918 influenza pandemic (as it was known as the Spanish flu mostly because the Spanish were the only ones to accept it’s existence), which killed even more people, much of which could have been averted by at least some action by the governments. In a world like this, it’s very understandable that you will see the bad side of humans. They didn’t even have any idea about nuclear weapons…
Finally, I have to say that From Beyond isn’t really a comedy. I just felt like writing about it along Re-Animator, which on the other hand is clearly a comedy. While I don’t remember much about it, it was supposedly, in Lovecraft’s mind at the very least, a parody of Frankenstein. Of course, you do need to have a pretty… flexible sense of humor to see this movie as funny, but it is.