Pulp is as pulp does, but sometimes its context is the pivotal factor — take Stuart Gordon’s outrageously uncomfortable, justly famous 1985 classic “Re-Animator,” adapted from a nothing Lovecraft story (cowritten by Gordon, career snickering cheese-master Dennis Paoli and theater vet William Norris). The indie-made movie, which initiated the still-seething stream of cheap Lovecraft filmizations, was very much a creature of its time — released tentatively and briefly into busy multiplexes and the last few real urban grindhouses left by the mid-80s, “Re-Animator”‘s ludicrous gore, humor and theatrical elan zoomed right over most audience’s heads, and so it sank unceremoniously (and despite a glowing, albeit characteristically clubfooted, review by Pauline Kael).
Ah, but by 1985 VCRs were just becoming standard operating equipment for most homes and dorm rooms, and VHS-renting video stores were cropping up like mushrooms on every street corner, ushering in the era of low-cost, low-impact, risk-allowing movie choices, and therefore the now-market-dependent principle of scantly released features finding new audiences on video. Gordon’s film found a new audience in a big way — generations of shelf-scrounging renters discovered this ghoulish hopfest, and then passed on the good news, so that by now it has accumulated five straight-to-video sequels and ripoffs, including the upcoming “House of Re-Animator,” which brings Gordon back to the franchise for a scenario set in the White House.
Gordon was one of the original founders of the experimental Organic Theater group in Chicago; his dalliances with movies have been erratic, with “Re-Animator” remaining his premier achievement. (It beats out his recent David Mamet adaptation, “Edmund.”) “Re-Animator” is such a fierce, energetic, high-flying concoction that every aspect of it feels like a well-tuned joke — from its timeless, TV-tinged university setting to the iconic acting to the balls-out comic gore, which predated Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2” by a few years, and in any case set a new standard for discomfiting dismemberment satire. Lovecraft’s young intern Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, in a performance that should’ve made him a household name, not just a psychotronic favorite) is a megalomanic wacko with a reanimating serum he tests out at every opportunity, resulting in crazed, out-of-control corpses staggering about, body parts (including intestines) perambulating on their own, and, in the film’s most Dantean set-piece, the defilement of a young blonde’s naked body (Barbara Crampton paid her dues here, but never cashed in) by a long-tongued severed head held by its own headless body. It’s delirious, unpretentious chutzpah of a kind that no one — not even Gordon — has been able to tap reliably since. The ersatz sequel, “From Beyond” (1987), is almost as transgressive and hilarious, but after that, the magic was gone.
Scabrous fun of a newer stripe, Álex de la Iglesia’s “The Perfect Crime” has this nasty Spaniard, in a crowd of nasty Spaniards, going more and more glitzily commercial. De la Iglesia made a splash in the mid-90s with “Acción Mutante” (1993) and “Day of the Beast” (1995), inventively offensive genre blasts barely released here. Since, he’s apparently become an ironic Hitchcockian-Tashlinian, evolving into his country’s most daring camp satirist after Almodóvar (when Almodóvar bothers with satire). This aggressively misogynist murder fantasy is set entirely within a department store, the ladies’ section of which is the kingdom of vain, womanizing sales-god Rafael (Guillermo Toledo). Everything is changing-room-nookie bliss until a contest for the position of floor manager is upset by a rubber check, and a scuffle produces an accidental corpse; butchery, blackmail, skullduggery and hijinks ensue. De la Iglesia has no fear of tastelessness — the demonization of the cast’s only plug-ugly woman (a lovelorn schemestress played by Mónica Cervera) would be cheap and insulting if it weren’t for the film’s speed, wit and generally low view of humanity.
“Re-Animator” (Anchor Bay) and “The Perfect Crime” are both currently available on DVD.