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Exclusive: Jeffrey Combs Looks Back at Re-Animator and Ahead to His Newest Projects

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Exclusive: Jeffrey Combs Looks Back at Re-Animator and Ahead to His Newest ProjectsFor those of you who have yet to see Stuart Gordon’s superb 1985 Re-Animator and its 1989 sequel, Bride of Re-Animator, allow me to introduce you to Doctor Herbert West, the titular Re-Animator, portrayed by the one and only Jeffrey Combs. What is Combs up to these days? We were lucky enough to catch up with him for an exclusive interview to find out.

Before we look forward, however, let’s take a quick look back at Combs’ career:

Through his seriously questionable research and macabre experiments in Re-Animator, Combs’ Doctor West pioneers a serum that brings dead tissue back to life – often with disastrous consequences. Playing a man dangling so precariously on the edge of genius and lunacy -“I will not be shackled by the failures of your God!” – is no cakewalk for any actor, but Jeffrey relished the challenge, turning out one of the most entertaining madman performances in the history of horror cinema, before later reuniting with Bride of Re-Animator director Brain Yuzna for 2003’s slightly disappointing Beyond Re-Animator. Such talents were also noticed and snatched up by one Peter Jackson in his 1996 supernatural comedy The Frighteners. So impressed was Jackson with Combs’ mad cap re-animating antics, he cast him in the role of Milton Dammers, a psychologically fractured FBI agent investigating the occult. With celebrated work in science fiction like regular roles in the Star Trek franchise, Combs’ passionate and loyal fan base is not just in horror – apologies to the Trekkies among you for the horror focus here; this is Dread Central after all!

Now on with the interview:

Combs tells us of his latest projects, “I voice Ratchet in the Transformers: Prime series, which is way cool. I have a few movies in post right now. Motivational Growth, which is a very creative and heady film about a young man who begins getting advice from the mold that’s growing in his bathroom, and Would You Rather, the story of a sadistic gazillionaire who invites a group of very desperate people to his mansion to play a deadly game of ‘Would You Rather’. Intense and riveting with great performances by a cast that really brought their A game.”

Over his career Combs has established a large and enthusiastic fan base – we asked him just how he handles being a horror icon.

“It’s very rewarding when people get psyched when they meet me, but honestly, most of the time I am anonymous. A lot of my work is in character or in make-up. I am not my characters. Most of the time I’m just a non-descript suburban dad going to the store to get milk.”

With some of the most acclaimed and celebrated titles in horror cinema getting the reboot treatment these days, it seems merely a matter of time before studio executives turn their attentions to Re-Animator (or any of the Gordon/Yuzna films for that matter). We asked for Comb’s view on the matter.

“I think it speaks to a need for safety. Movies are expensive, and in this down economic climate investors, production companies and studios are reluctant to put their money behind something untried and/or innovative. It’s the philosophy of ‘the brand’. If a title already has built-in recognizability, the money people feel more secure. But I think there’s a real stifling of creativity that goes hand-in-hand with that choice.”

“Yes, I expect every day to hear that Re-Animator will be rebooted. It’s only a matter of time. They will convince themselves that they can improve upon the original. Update it. Make it accessible to today’s movie-goer. It’ll be intensely edited with loads of CGI effects and fail in its capturing of the spirit and verve of the original. Sound familiar?”

With new actors stepping into such iconic roles – Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Freddy Krueger to name but one – we asked Combs about the prospect of fresh blood stepping into the shoes of Herbert West and if he would ever consider playing West again.

“Actors don’t necessarily know they’re stepping into iconic roles. I didn’t. I was just doing the best I could under the circumstances with my particular skill set. The iconic stuff comes if all the other elements (and there are many) of the film are fortunate enough to come together as a complete piece of cinema.”

“Last year I saw the stage musical version of Re-Animator directed by Stuart Gordon here in LA. ‘Surreal’ would be the word to describe my response to seeing it. Very odd to see someone else do a role you are most known for.”

“I would attempt Herbert again, but only if the script explored West at the age I am now, of course, and delved into his past and conveyed that his work has progressed. And….. if they paid me A LOT!”

He has worked closely with both Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna for the Re-Animator films, body-horror classic From Beyond, Castle Freak, Necronomicon: Book of the Dead and was cast in the role of Edgar Allan Poe in the Masters of Horror episode “The Black Cat”. We wondered if a mutual love of H.P. Lovecraft brought them all together.

“I do enjoy working with both of them. They are old friends at this point. Honestly, though, we did not come together because of a shared passion for Lovecraft. They did, I’m sure, but I’m just an actor who went to an audition and was right for a role. I didn’t even know who Lovecraft was when I was cast.”

How soon did the success of Re-animator take effect on his way of life?

“In truth, the initial success of Re-Animator inhibited my career in other genres to some degree, I think. At the time Re-Animator was looked down upon by the industry. It didn’t come out of the studio system. It was put out unrated, which gave it an allure for horror fans but was thought by the mainstream industry as not being legit or artful. I seem to recall that some casting directors (mostly women) felt it was cheap, demeaning to women and crass. If a casting director thinks that about your film (without even seeing it), then you aren’t going to get in on their casting. I recall some frustration with that at the time. Of course, more Lovecraft and horror projects came my way because of Re-Animator’s success, but I really wanted to branch out and do projects in other genres. Have a variety, you know?”

Exclusive: Jeffrey Combs Looks Back at Re-Animator and Ahead to His Newest Projects

So what was it like for you the first day on the set of Re-Animator? Must have been a hell of a surprise to make horror cinema history…

“It was shot in 18 days. That’s pretty quick. Didn’t really have time to relish in the moment. Do the scene, and on to the next. At the time I truthfully felt that since it was low budget, the chances of it breaking through were diminished. I felt lucky to get the role and get some time on a set so I could explore film acting, which at that point I hadn’t done very much of. It was a complete surprise to me that it transcended its humble budget. Even though the movie has made millions, at this point I have made very, very little on the film. Not a new story, I guess.”

On how he would compare his performances in horror to his other roles such as Star Trek:

“I don’t compare them. Each script and each role has its own requirements. I do the best with what I have to work with.”

We asked which of his performances he’s most proud of…

“I have a few favorites. Re-Animator, of course. The Frighteners. Peter Jackson is a deity, and I have the fondest memories of working with him and being in New Zealand. From Beyond was not fun to make, but it was shot in Rome so that was really delightful. I like Love and a .45, which is a fairly obscure lovers-on-the-run film. It wasn’t a horror film, and my role was juicy and sassy. “The Black Cat”, of course. And who knows…. maybe one of the two movies in post I mentioned earlier will break out. I enjoyed making both of those.”

It seems he doesn’t like to look back at his own work…

“No, I don’t really do that. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of something on TV, but I generally avoid watching myself. Too self-conscious. Too self-critical.”

Finally we asked if he watches many horror films these days and if there’s anything special out there that has caught his attention.

“I don’t generally watch a lot of horror. Like any other genre it can be fabulous and it can suck. I think storytelling has taken a real backseat to graphic assault and methamphetamine editing. Moviemakers aren’t interested in character development. They think it takes too much film time. We have to get to the effects. They have a bizarre cerebral film formula they go by. We must have a huge death five minutes into the movie! It’s just odd and wrong-headed to me. If you don’t have a sense of who the people are in a story, then you have no emotional interest in what happens to them. These days it seems like it’s all video game flash. Just set ’em up and knock ’em down as spectacularly as you can without any concern about who they are or where they’ve come from or what they might be aspiring to. I’m also not a big fan of what I call ‘humiliation horror’. Films filled with torture. Boring. Sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Exclusive: Jeffrey Combs Looks Back at Re-Animator and Ahead to His Newest Projects

Our deepest thanks go to Jeffrey for taking the time to speak with us, and here’s hoping we’ll be seeing him gracing genre screens again soon!

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Hell Night Blu-ray Review – Mischief & Mayhem At Mongoloid Manor

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Starring Linda Blair, Peter Barton, Suki Goodwin, Vincent Van Patten

Directed by Tom DeSimone

Distributed by Scream Factory


1981. Prime time for the slasher film, when studios were more than content to pump out one after another since production cost was often so low. The downside, though, was that many wound up being formulaic and, eventually, forgotten. Time has allowed the cream to rise to the top of that crop and while Hell Night (1981) isn’t among the best it does stand out due to some novel choices made by director Tom DeSimone and executive producer Chuck Russell, the man responsible for some of the most consistently entertaining horror films of the ‘80s. A dilapidated mansion, oozing with gothic atmosphere, stands in place of a college campus or generic forest setting. Characters are dressed in formal costume; a stark departure from typical ‘80s teen garb. The film is half haunted house, half crazed killer and there is a not-entirely-unexpected-but-definitely-welcome twist at the end providing a solid jolt to a beleaguered climax. Fans are rightly excited to see Hell Night makes its debut in HD, though the final product is still compromised despite Scream Factory’s best efforts.

It’s Hell Night, every fraternity brother’s favorite evening; when new recruits are tormented in hazing rituals from, well, Hell. Peter (Kevin Brophy), president of the vaunted Alpha Sigma Rho house, comes up with the brilliant idea to have four pledges – Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Denise (Suki Goodwin), and Seth (Vincent Van Patten) – spend the night in a decaying mansion. But this isn’t just any old house, as Peter regales a rapt audience – this is where former owner Raymond Garth killed his wife and three malformed children before hanging himself, sparing only the life of his son, Andrew, who was rumored to reside within the place after the murders. The pledges enter Garth Manor and quickly pair off, with Marti and Jeff getting intellectual while Denise and Seth take a more physical path.

A few hours pass and Peter returns with some of his bros, planning to initiate a few good scare pranks they set up earlier that week. The chuckles don’t last long, though, because Jeff and Seth quickly find the shoddy wiring and poorly placed speakers rigged upstairs. What they don’t know is that there is an actual killer on the loose, and he just decapitated one of the girls. Leaving the labyrinthine home proves difficult, with Marti & Jeff getting lost within the catacombs beneath the estate, evading their mongoloid menace however possible. Seth, meanwhile, has to scale a massive spiked fence if they hope to get any help way out here. Wait, didn’t Peter mention something about Andrew having a sibling?

The production team on this picture was a beast, and I’m convinced that’s the chief reason why it came out any good at all; specifically, the involvement of Chuck Russell and Irwin Yablans. I give a bit less credit to director Tom DeSimone, who up to that point (and after it) filled his filmography with lots and lots of gay porn; storyline and direction are usually secondary in that market. Hell, they even had Frank Darabont running around set as a P.A. which is just a cool fact because nobody listens to P.A.s on a film set. Music is just as important, too, and composer Dan Wyman is a synth master who worked with John Carpenter on his early films. His score here is reminiscent of those lo-fi masterpieces.

Solid atmosphere and rounded characters make all the difference. Instead of a roster of stereotypical sophomoric faces the bulk of the film focuses on four individuals with personality and a bit of depth. Blair makes a good turn as the bookish good girl type, while Barton is a charming match for her mentally, showing interest in more than just a drunken hookup. Denise and Seth are both superficial, and their interactions inject the most humor into the film. Denise continually calling Seth “Wes” is one example. A good horror film gets the audience invested in who lives and dies, and while I won’t go so far as to say these are exemplary characters the script does make them three-dimensional and not so paper thin.

The 1.85:1 1080p image is sourced from a 4K restoration of an archival 35mm print with standard definition inserts. This is a step up from Anchor Bay’s old DVD but not by leaps and bounds. Colors attain greater saturation and definition is tightened but the picture looks awfully soft too often and the jump between HD and SD footage is plain as day. The print displays vertical scratches and white flecks. Black levels are decent but there is clear room for improvement across the board. To their credit this is the best image Scream Factory was able to produce but fans should temper expectations going in because this is not a pristine picture by any means.

There is nothing wrong to be found with the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, which does a fine job of carrying the dialogue alongside Dan Wyman’s sinister synth soundtrack. Direction is limited and the presentation is routine, but no problems were detected and the track capably supports the feature. Subtitles are available in English.

Here is where Scream Factory does their best to make up for the shortcomings of the a/v presentation: a ton of extra features.

An audio commentary track features actress Linda Blair, director Tom DeSimone, and producers Irwin Yablans & Bruce Cohn Curtis.

“Linda Blair: The Beauty of Horror” – This is a recent discussion with the actress, who covers her run in the genre in addition to diving deep into this film’s difficult production.

“Hell Nights with Tom DeSimone” – Shot on location at the Garth Manor (actually Kimberly Crest Estate in Redlands, CA), DeSimone reflects back on shooting the film there over 35 years ago.

“Peter Barton: Facing Fear” – The actor offers up expected discussion, covering his career in horror and navigating the Hollywood scene.

“Producing Hell with Bruce Cohn Curtis” – This covers more of the behind-the-scenes work that went into making the movie.

“Writing Hell” – Screenwriter Randy Feldman offers up some insight into his process for creating the story and writing the script.

“Vincent Van Patten & Suki Goodwin in Conversation” – The two actors, who have not seen each other in quite some time, sit down together for a back-and-forth discussion.

“Kevin Brophy & Jenny Neumann in Conversation” – This is another chat conducted the same way as Van Patten & Goodwin.

“Gothic Design in Hell Night” – Art director Steven Legler talks about his process for turning Garth Manor into how it is seen on film; evoking the right chilling atmosphere.

“Anatomy of the Death Scenes” – Pam Peitzman, make-up artist, and John Eggett, special effects, scrutinize each of the film’s kill scenes and discuss what went into achieving them.

“On Location at Kimberly Crest” – DeSimone guides viewers on a tour of the “Garth Manor” as it can be seen today.

A theatrical trailer, two TV spots, a radio spot, and a photo gallery are the remaining features.

Special Features:

  • NEW 4K Scan of the film taken from the best surviving archival print
  • NEW interviews with actors Linda Blair, Peter Barton, Vincent Van Patten, Suki Goodwin, Kevin Brophy and Jenny Neumann
  • Audio Commentary with Linda Blair, Tom DeSimone, Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis
  • Original Theatrical Trailer & TV spots
  • Blu-ray Disc Exclusives:
    • NEW interview with Director Tom DeSimone
    • NEW interview with Producer Bruce Cohn Curtis
    • NEW interview with Writer Randolph Feldman
    • NEW – Anatomy of the Death Scenes with Tom DeSimone, Randolph Feldman, Make-up artist Pam Peitzman, Art Director Steven G. Legler and Special Effects artist John Eggett
    • NEW – On Location at the Kimberly Crest House with Tom DeSimone
    • NEW – Gothic Design in Hell Night with Steven G. Legler
    • Original Radio spot
    • Photo Gallery featuring rare, never-before-seen stills
  • Hell Night
  • Special Features
4.0

Summary

“Hell Night” overcomes being lumped in with standard slasher fare thanks to dripping atmosphere, unique production design, and characters that elicit some empathy. The a/v presentation leaves much to be desired but a plethora of bonus features softens that blow.

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Video: The Shape of Water Q&A with Guillermo del Toro and Doug Jones at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre

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This past weekend at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA betwixt a double screening of The Shape of Water and the classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the former’s director Guillermo del Toro (and star Doug Jones) sat down to discuss the latter’s influence on the film, Gill-man sex, “one sock movies,” his career in the genre, and more with moderator Jonah Ray, and we were there to film a portion of it.

Our sincere thanks to American Cinematheque general manager Dennis Bartok for extending the invitation.

For more Cinematheque screenings, visit the official website here.

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The Open House Review – Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

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Starring Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins

Written by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote

Directed by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote


Mere weeks, even days, after effusively beating Netflix’s original horror content drum (The Babysitter, Before I Wake, Creep 2), I’m here to confirm that The Open House is emptier than an vacant bomb shelter. Cold, unappealing and thoughtlessly plotted to the point where “generic” would have been an improvement. From the moment we’re welcomed into Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote’s scripted imprisonment, it’s nothing but loose floorboards and busted plumbing. The home invasion genre has rarely been navigated with such little attention to detail, asking for our suspension of coherent storytelling early, often, and without earning the right to be deemed mindless genre fun. Not even Ty Pennington could save this extreme renovation disaster.

Dylan Minnette plays Logan Wallace, a track star and student who must find closure after watching his father fall victim to a fatal car accident. It is his mother Naomi’s (Piercey Dalton) idea to spend a little time away from their suburban home – escape those painful memories – so they retreat to her sister’s luxurious mountain getaway. The catch? It’s in the process of being sold and open houses are on the regular, so Naomi and Logan must vacate their temporary premises on certain days. It’s after one of these very showings that Logan begins to notice slight changes around the house, and he fears that an unwanted visitor may be in their midst. Guess what? He’s right.

To understand how little The Open House cares about conscious blueprinting, just read the poster’s tagline. “You can’t lock out what’s already inside” – right, but you could have prevented them from coming in, or checked the house to make sure they weren’t squatting, or explored numerous other possibilities to avoid this scenario. The mansion’s realtor allows prospective buyers to come and go but it’s not her job to make sure no one’s hiding in the basement? Naomi can’t even keep track of the *single* visitor she lets look around the house? It’s infuriating to see so many people neglect safety out of forced coincidence because the script couldn’t rationalize the killer’s entry any other way – a confounding strike one.

This is also a film that admits no reasoning for why its own murderer has targeted the Wallaces, or why he stokes a violent fetish when it comes to open houses. We never actually see his face, just his imposing handyman-looking attire, nor do we savor any kind of tangible backstory (his family died during their own open house and he suffered a psychotic breakdown – just give me *something*). His undefined form never demands curiosity like John Carpenter’s “The Shape” once did, because scripting is nothing more than bullet notes for basic horror movie necessities. Here he is, your bad guy – too bad he’s introduced without fear, handled without originality and unable to characterize beyond torturous kidnapper dotted lines. He’s just, you know, a guy who sneaks into open houses and kills – COMPLETE WITH A FINAL PAN-IN ON AN OPEN HOUSE SIGN WHEN HE MOVES TO HIS NEXT TARGET [eye roll into infinity].

Every scene in The Open House feels like an afterthought. “Ah, we need a way to build tension – how about a senile local woman who lives down the street and wanders aimlessly into frame?” Overplayed and in no way suitable to most her inclusions, but sure. “Oh, and we need inner conflict – what about if the breaker-iner steals Logan’s phone and frames him for later acts?” I mean, didn’t Logan canonically lose his phone even before Naomi’s mid-shower water heater issues – but sure, instant fake tension. “How are people going to believe the killer is always around and never blows his cover – think they’ll just buy it?” No, we don’t. Worse off, his cat-and-mouse game is dully repetitive until a finale that skyrockets intensity with jarring tonal imbalance. This closing, dreadful end without any sort of redemptive quality. More abusive than it is fulfilling.

If there’s anything positive worth conveying, it’s that Minnette does a fine job shuffling around as a character with severe sight impairment. The killer makes a point to remove his contacts as a final “FUCK YOU,” just to toy around a bit more, and Minnette frantically slips or stumbles with nothing more than foggy vision. Otherwise, dialogue finds itself ripped form a billion other straight-to-TV Logo dramas about broken families, no moment ever utilizing horror past a few shadowy forms standing in doorways after oblivious characters turn away. You can’t just take an overused subgenre and sleepwalk through homogenized beats…case and god-forsaken point.

Even as a streamable Netflix watch, The Open House is irredeemable beyond fault. The walls are caving in on this dilapidated excuse for home invasion horror, benefiting not from the star power of a temperamental Dylan Minnette. I have seen most involved players here in far better projects (Minnette’s stock has rightfully been skyrocketing, Matt Angel in The Funhouse Massacre, etc), but this is bargain bin theatrics without a fully formed idea. A nameless villain, doomed nice guy (Sharif Atkins), woefully unaware plot advancement – all the worst cliches found in one rage-quit worthy effort. Anyone who makes it through deserves an award…or a dunce cap.

  • The Open House
1.0

Summary

Unless you’re irrationally afraid of cold showers, The Open House fails to deliver on a premise that can be summed up by no more than two lines of text.

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