On Thursday night I went to see “Re-Animator” the musical. It was part of The New York Musical Theater Festival and is on its way to fame and fortune at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The musical was based on the 1985 cult classic film, with a script derived from an H.P. Lovecraft story, which was, in turn, obviously inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Storytellers inspired by other storytellers in a daisy chain of variations on similar themes.
The theme of “Herbert West — Reanimator” (H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 story) is monstrous. The cool and calculating genius medical student, Herbert West, develops an obsession with reanimating the dead. After experiments with assorted smaller animals, he determines that the formula that will achieve his goal is species specific, so the only way to explore reanimating humans is to work on human subjects. The story follows Herbert West’s dangerous failures — and even more dangerous successes — through a post-medical school typhoid outbreak, onto the battlefields of the First World War and ultimately to his demise.
The story is told through the eyes of West’s assistant/best friend. A young doctor enamored with West’s intelligence and both drawn to his friend’s cold realism and revolted by his complete lack of any spiritual curiosity. The unnamed narrator participates each step of the way, even as he begins to fear West’s ambitions.
H.P. Lovecraft gives much more graphic descriptions of West’s reanimation process than Mary Shelley shared in her classic. The details of how the young doctors procure corpses are astonishingly realistic. It was a time when legitimate medical researchers found it difficult to find corpses for study. (Think Burke & Hare.) The grave robbing is chilling. It’s also blatantly racist — another vestige of the period.
“Herbert West — Reanimator” is a strange read and monstrous read. The narrator, ambivalent about religious doctrine, but still too curious to resist, tries to ask a momentarily revived dead man about death. The single thread of humor in the story is the soon-to-be-dead-again man’s response — “Help! Keep off, you cursed little tow-head fiend — keep that damned needle away from me!”
Now, “Re-Animator” the musical is another thing. It’s jokes, funny lyrics, sight gags and dancing corpses. If you get to see it, be aware that the first few rows are in the “splash zone.” Gallons of fake blood fly out into those seats and I wasn’t convinced that the complimentary rain ponchos would do the job. In the vein of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Toxic Avenger,” check the festival circuit to see the new MONSTER on stage.