For 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?”
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.”
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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