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Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 2)

In the prologue scene of Re-Animator, Herbert West is shown at the brain research institute of the Zurich Medical University. He has obviously just tried his formula on his mentor Dr. Gruber who is now screaming in agony. The alarmed security personnel can only witness Dr. Gruber’s eyes popping out of his skull. West declares “the dosage was too large,” excusing Gruber’s reaction, but not his own behaviour because in his opinion he “gave him life” (Gordon 1:53). Dr. Gruber’s gruesome demise sets the pace for the further development of the story. Accompanied by a music score that resembles the main theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, anatomic sketches of the human head in radiant colours scroll across the screen as the opening credits roll. The “eerily abstract credit sequence of Vertigo” crosses the viewer’s mind, too (Worland 247). “These Hitchcock allusions serve as a wry distancing device that reiterates the sense of genre history evoked by West the mad scientist, and hint at a witty undercurrent,” observes Rick Worland (Worland 247). It is details like these that account for the movie’s “reflexive humor and intense self-examination” (Dixon 71). Wheeler W. Dixon rates Re-Animator

a genre film that is fully cognizant of its ancestry; it takes the conventions and rules of the horror genre and breaks them into wildly configured shards of thematic material, pushing the normal audience tolerance for gore, and for outrageous plot exposition, past the boundaries that still, even in 1985, were rigidly enforced by audience expectations. (Dixon 71)

The first scene after the opening sequence introduces Bruce Abbott as Daniel Cain, an ambitious medical student at Miskatonic University, trying to save a woman’s life in the emergency room. Even though the electrocardiogram already displays a flatline, Cain continues the resuscitation attempt. Recognising his effort was in vain, he is disappointed by himself. Cain is presented here as caring and dedicated to his profession, even though another doctor calls his optimism “touching, but a waste of time” (Gordon 5:42). When Cain arrives at the morgue, he meets Herbert West for the first time. Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Dr. Carl Hill, the remaining protagonists, are presented as well in this scene. When addressed by Halsey, West does not look at the dean. His overt disinterest in being introduced to other people is a first sign of his otherness. While Halsey, Hill and Cain are talking to each other, West turns his back on them. Instead of joining the conversation, West immediately accuses Hill of plagiarising the work of his former mentor Dr. Gruber. Summing up the doctor’s findings, West professes that Hill’s “work on brain death is outdated” (Gordon 8:57). This short dispute is Herbert West’s initial attack on Miskatonic’s corporate hierarchy. He not only puts Hill’s expertise in question, but also his authority when he debunks him in front of the college dean. Additionally, Whyte’s above mentioned fear of scientists relying on other scientists’ discoveries rather than their own research results, is expressed here (see Whyte 205). Dr. Hill is alleged to claim the ideas of Dr. Gruber his own results instead of presenting new facts. West’s “disdain for the protocols of professional hierarchy” continues during Dr. Hill’s lecture (Newitz 81). While the professor is conducting an autopsy in front of the class, West interrupts him by breaking a pencil in order to express his disagreement with Hill’s theories about the human brain. Hill explains “it takes desire, an obsessive desire” to examine its function (Gordon 16:28). Before he can conclude his remark, he is interrupted by West again. In the course of the plot it becomes clear that West is very determined to bring up this particular obsessive desire mentioned by Dr. Hill. However, he is not willing to share his findings with his rival.

Shortly after West has moved in with Cain, his new roommate gets suspicious of the odd student. When Cain discovers his girlfriend Megan’s dead cat in West’s refrigerator, he also notices a small bottle of a fluorescent green liquid. Interrogated about the dead cat and the substance, West becomes nervous and threatens Cain. He signifies Cain that he would be loosing his profession at the medical school if the dean finds out about the relationship between him and his daughter Megan. West’s extortion proves to be successful as Cain gives in. He does not want to take the risk of being thrown “out of the profession on moral ground,” even though West and Cain are students “near the bottom” of the school’s hierarchy (Gordon 24:00; Newitz 81). The same night Daniel finds out about Herbert’s secret research in the laboratory set up downstairs. There he discovers West in the middle of a fight with the cat he just reanimated. “All life is a physical and chemical process,” explains West (Gordon 27:31). His serum can reactivate this process on a dead being and hence he is profoundly convinced he “conquered brain death” (Gordon 28:03). West’s theory contradicts Dr. Hill’s statement about the function of the brain because Hill holds the presence of will and desire in the brain responsible for the sustainment of life. Thus, the struggle between the two mad scientists is based on their conflicting theories, namely “biological process and psychological will” (Newitz 79).

Accordingly, both do not team up and work together, but rather than that each of them does his own individual research. However, Dr. Hill’s ideas are allegedly stolen from Dr. Gruber, and later from West when he takes his serum. Yet, his experiments are conducted by himself without the assistance of other scientists. Thereby, both obtain their individuality and oppose William H. Whyte’s concern. Whyte is anxious about scientists who give up their creativity by working in teams subordinated to corporate demands and thus restricting their talents (see Whyte 205). Herbert West not only breaches the guidelines of Miskatonic Medical School, but he also wants to keep the results of his research his secret. Neither is he one of Whyte’s envisioned “well-rounded team players,” nor does he bow to “organization loyalty” (Whyte 205). Even though Herbert West’s experiment puts himself and others in danger, his efforts express a progressive attitude that takes a stand against rigid institutional hierarchies and debatable work ethics. Conforming to the common stereotype of the mad scientist, “West must subordinate personal feelings for scientific good” (Charney 165). Cain, his girlfriend Megan and her father Dr. Alan Halsey consider West odd at best, but “he calls himself a true scientist willing to accept the challenge of overcoming ethics for the common good” (Charney 165).

…TO BE CONTINUED.

Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 1)

An abnormal brain is blamed for the failure of an experiment when it is implanted into a corpse’s skull in James Whale’s classic horror movie Frankenstein. The creature’s violent misconduct is accordingly associated with its brain dysfunction. In Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator from 1985, the brain assumes centre stage again. This time, the focus is on “mad doctors who exist in a world where the mind has become so fetishized that brains are literally leaving their bodies behind” (Newitz 70). Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a medical student who appearantly stops at nothing in order to act out his drive to research. As a result of his reckless efforts to reanimate every corpse he can get hold of, he not only wreaks havoc at the facility he is working for, but also disrupts the hierarchic structure of Miskantonic Medical School. The idea “of returning the dead to life . . . isn’t exactly new territory, but Gordon’s fascination with the flesh and bone mechanics of the process raises the film above the level of a Frankenstein retreat into an area distinctly its own” (Dixon 70). Re-Animator is an adaptation of a short story originally written by American horror novelist Howard Phillips Lovecraft in 1922. In his works, Lovecraft often refers to the fictional place of Miskatonic University located in Arkham, Massachusetts. Although the motion picture considerably varies from Lovecraft’s original story, it is still considered to have a “genuine Lovecraftian feel” (Dixon 70). In regard to its impact on the horror genre, Bruce G. Hallenbeck points out that Stuart Gordon made “the first truly successful Lovecraft film, one that influenced a whole sub-genre that is still prevalent today” (Hallenbeck 142).

Herbert West, an arrogant medical student whose experiments explore the reanimation of dead bodies, is the main protagonist of Re-Animator. Linchpin of his research is a fluorescent green liquid which can bring corpses back to life if injected into the subject’s brain. His serum is not quite mature yet and has some side-effects,  e.g. in some cases it makes the revived bodies turn violent against themselves or others. After some bodies are successfully reanimated, it turns out the substance also works on single body parts. In a key scene of the movie, West’s rival Dr. Hill (David Gale) is decapitated by the mad scientist, just to have his headless body and his separated head reanimated again. In a post-mortem act of vengeance, Dr. Hill’s head uses his hypnotic powers to command a band of reanimated corpses against Herbert West, inciting “an all-out war between brains and body parts” (Newitz 79). The graphic depiction of this scene and similar others is exemplary for the film’s “over-the-top Grand Guignol violence” (Dixon 70). Yet, the separation of brain and body in the movie serves another purpose beyond shocking the audience: it is a metaphor for the replacement of mental labour by manual labour because it portrays how a body can still perform certain tasks even without a brain.

In his book The Organization Man, William H. Whyte criticises the American economy of the 1950s for “systematically stamping out individuality . . . and that this loss of individuality would eventually be ruinous to both the individual and the corporation” (Nocera vii). He therein “described how people not only worked for organisations but how they belonged to them as well” (Beder 60). “Organization men and women subordinate their own values to the needs of the institution or system, and sublimate political impotence with harmless personal enrichment activities,” explains Shapiro (Shapiro 104). The book was a major success when it was released in 1956. Whyte believed “that scientific innovation would be greatly diminished if companies stopped hiring scientists who were free-spirits and even renegades” (Nocera vii). As Sharon Beder writes in her article, Whyte revisited his thesis in the 1980s, claiming “little had changed: ‘The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations . . . The people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before’” (Beder 60). In consideration of the social ethic of the “organization life,” Whyte theorises about what would happen if the same ethic was applied to the scientific sector:

(1) scientists would now concentrate on the practical application of previously discovered ideas rather than the discovery of new ones; (2) they would rarely work by themselves but rather as units of scientific cells; (3) organization loyalty, getting along with people, etc. would be considered just as important as thinking; (4) well-rounded team players would be more valuable than brilliant men, and a very brilliant man would probably be disruptive. (Whyte 205)

Whyte’s outlook on the scientific sector depicts a dismal scenario assuming that scientists had to subordinate their individuality—and thus their creativity—to corporate interests in case their mental work is undervalued. As a closer look at the plot of Re-Animator reveals, the mad scientist breaking ranks is a metaphor for the struggle against the fears expressed by Whyte. Herbert West’s disrespect for senior scientists is only one aspect of his revolt against subordination.

…TO BE CONTINUED

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