I've actually seen this one a good number of times, having owned it a total of three times now (thankfully all, to the best of my recollection, unrated versions), nevermind repeated viewings with new people and of new editions for myself. I was originally not sure what I thought of the film, as it felt incomplete or a little too goofy or something to me the first time around. I'm not sure what it was really, probably just that it felt like I should've seen it before considering my tastes and hadn't, so it felt wrong for it to be "new." A flimsy explanation, but it will have to do.
We open in Zürich, a collection of doctors bursting into a room to find a young man crouched over a man gurgling and screaming, his face chalk-white in death. He stands as they all scream, his eyes beginning to bulge until they burst in great founts of gore. Oh yes, it's going to be one of THOSE movies. Prior to Peter Jackson's classic Braindead (known stateside as Dead Alive), this was likely the goriest film yet made. But considering the basis of this film is that that young man, Herbert West, has created a reagent that re-animates dead tissue regardless of whether it is whole, that ought not be a surprise. West (Jeffrey Combs, in the role that made him famous, and an icon to genre fans) moves into the apartment of Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) on the campus of Miskatonic University, to attend medical school there and further his experiments. Bruce is slowly and reluctantly drawn into West's experiments, despite the reservations (to put it mildly) of his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), daughter of the Dean (Robert Sampson). West comes into conflict with instructor Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), a hypnotist and intellectual thief who disagrees with Herbert on how long it takes for brain death to occur. Their experiments spiral out of control as Herbert's conflict with Hill escalates and their test subjects manifest extremely violent impulses.
This is a classic as horror films go, and there's really no questioning that, I must say. The effects are quite well done for the budget (though I'm notoriously lenient on horror when it comes to effects if they choose [or were forced, in the case of films prior to CGI] physical effects) and they manage to be gruesome enough to wiggle the stomach (or completely upset it for those who have weaker ones) without being disturbing enough to be unfunny. Oh, did I forget that part? It's a black comedy, or at least a dark one, with Combs in his defining performance managing to bring to life and crystallize the nervy, arrogant, egotistical, amoral little scientist with a quick and acerbic wit about him. Combs easily steals the show in this role, despite the fact that Abbott has probably got the greater amount of screen time and is the clear protagonist. But, writer/director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna obviously knew this, or the people they hired for advertising did, because they covered even the original poster primarily in images of Combs as West rather than any other characters. Gordon has developed a history for films like this, and for adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories–of which this is one–and he began both of them here. With the sexual content (including the notorious "visual pun"…which I won't explain further) it's obvious there was deviation from Lovecraft's story, and the generally modern (or, more accurately, 1980's) feel concretes it. It's not intended as that kind of adaptation, though, rather as a spiritual one, and a parody of horror movies as Lovecraft heavily referenced and nearly parodied Shelley's Frankenstein. In line with this, Charles Band (he of Full Moon Entertainment!) wrote a score that very obviously nods (vigorously, possibly snapping its own spinal cord…) to Bernard Herrmann's score for Hitchcock's Psycho. Band has been criticized for this by many (including Leonard Maltin), but he admits to doing it deliberately and as a sort of joke, which makes perfect sense for the film. It ends up slightly more synthetic and more manic than Herrmann's classic score, which is entirely appropriate here. It never stood out to me as a problem, and works quite well to bring us into the tone of the film in my opinion.
The construction and editing of the film, as well as Gordon's direction, only improve with every viewing I have of the film, as it becomes more and more clear what he intended to do with the film over time. And even aside from Combs performance, we also have a fantastic one from David Gale as the manipulative, creepy Dr. Hill, who eventually even ends up more manipulative and creepy than he starts out–and even there his incompetent arrogance and manipulation are bothersome enough. It's interesting that Gordon uses him to manifest a strange sympathy in us for West, who by all rights is a self-absorbed, self-righteous jerk with no morals and interest only in the advancement of science–no matter the cost. It could be argued that the theoretical benefits are worth some great measure, but it's a stretch when compared to the costs.
But the philosophy of this simply doesn't matter, because this is a hugely entertaining film, and that is what DOES matter. See it, if you haven't. Carry a paper bag if you happen to be squeamish–but see it anyway.