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Jeffrey Combs, Reanimator - Part One
In the first of our three-part profile, the actor recalls the film that made him a reluctant horror star.
By Anna L. Kaplan
February 17, 2000
Back in the '80s, when horror had succumbed to the formula of stalk-and-slash psychos chasing hapless teenager, along came a film that truly revitalized the genre: REANIMATOR. Amidst the film's over-the-top horror, the performance of Jeffrey Combs brought a clean, clear precision to the obsessive character of Herbert West that sliced through the blood and gore to make a memorable impression on enthusiastic fans. It was a case of almost being too good, for the role typecast him during the early phase of his career as a genre performer. The multitalented and versatile actor had hoped for a diverse career when he trained in drama at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts and at the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead, he wound up, at least initially, doing horror pictures.
His very first was FRIGHTMARE in 1982, which starred Ferdinand Mayne (Count Krolock in Roman Polanski's DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES). The film originally had a different title, the irony of which is not lost on Combs. 'The original title of that movie was HORROR STAR, because it was about an old horror star that died,' explains Combs. 'This fan club of his goes and abducts his bodysort of based on an old story about John Barrymore. When Barrymore died, Errol Flynn and those guys went and took his body, set it up and had a partykind of gruesome. These guys took that idea, and so that was the original title of that movie, HORROR STAR. Now that I'm totally ensconced in horror, it was sort of prophetic.'
He won the role in the picture because his brown hair matched that of a prop head the producers already possessed. He laughs, 'How did I get the role? In the beautiful ways that Hollywood operates, and the absolute, marvelous tact and artistry of the director. He told me afterwards. The character in the movie, at the end gets his head cut off. They had a special-effects, rubber head with brown hair. Rolling in motion, I guess it would look like me, because it had brown hair. All of my training and all of my angst boiled down to the fact that, 'Yeah, cast him, because his hair is the same color as the dummy head we have.''
It actually got even worse than that, when Combs character, Stu, lost his head. Recalls the actor, 'After that character's head had been cut off, it rolled down the stairs and across the living room, out the front door, down the front steps, and landed on the front lawn. The crew dug a hole in the ground, a hole big enough for me to lie in, and placed cardboard down with a hole in it, for me to put my head in, and then covered that. They placed rubber makeup on my head to make it look as if my head had been lopped off, and then they covered it with dirt and leaves, so it looked like it was the ground. Then the bird trainer shows up with a raven or crow and says, 'He's perfectly trained. He hasn't eaten all day, so he is very hungry, so he will do what I want. We will put a little meat on the top of your head, and he will fly out of the house and land on your head.' That's the shot we want. I said, 'Well, you won't put meat in my hair. No, you are going to put some sort of yarmulke-type affair on the back of my head, because the camera is in front of me. You can put the meat on that. Then when he pokes it, he doesn't poke my head.' 'Fine,' he said. 'Now the only thing is that, he's hungry but also is lured by bright objects.' He had this big ring on, a big, cheesy, fake emerald. He held up his knuckle with the ring there, and the bird went and gnawed it to death. That was kind of alarming. After he showed me this and the bird guy went away, the director immediately went up to me and said, 'Jeffrey, I want you to have your eyes open for this scene. Even though you are dead, your eyes will be open.' I was never very good at math, but I could put two things together: bright objects, eyes opennot a good combo. So 'Action.' Bird flies out, eyes open, bird lands on my head, one gulp, the meat on my yarmulke is gone. Then he sees the stuff on my neck, the makeup, waxy makeup, glistening with blood, and jumps down and proceeds to eat that, and then hops forward and is giving my eyes a pretty good look. That's when I ducked my head underneath the cardboard. They got enough for the shot.'
This was definitely not what Combs had envisioned when he embarked on the acting life. He picked his college training carefully, so as to learn all aspects his craft. He explains, 'I went to a small community college in central California, which had the most phenomenal theater department, called Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. The theater was sort of based on the Guthrie in Minneapolis. It had a thrust stage, and a visionary as an artistic director. Some incredible people went through there, lots of people that have gone on to Broadway and won Tony's. Some great directors went through there. I worked with Harry Hamlin. Robin Williams worked there one summer. I did many a show with Bob Blackman, who does the costumes for STAR TREK. It was absolutely amazing. I went there three years. They had a real unique program where they would ask like a dozen of us to stay and just be in shows. I figured I'd handled quite a bit of hands-on training just by doing, but I needed to have some straight-ahead acting classes. I started auditioning, and I got accepted by University of Washington in Seattle, in an actor training program. It was an elite satellite of the drama department of the Universitya three year program. Out of that I started doing regional theater. Even before I graduated, I got a job at the Old Globe in San Diego. I did quite a number of summers and shows down in San Diego and Arizona, and Southcoast Rep in Costa Mesa, and Mark Taper Forum. When I went to San Diego, I was surprised, because I didn't think of myself as particularly strong in verse and Shakespeare. I was always a very good physical comedy actor; not to say I couldn't do drama as well, but that was my strength. I thought I was weak with the classics. But having worked at the Globe, it was yet another tool in my tool chest, another asset. Even when I moved to L.A., I kept myself sustained artistically and also financially by getting theater gigs. That's where my base was, where I had connections, because it takes awhile to get to know people in this big town.'
Combs adds, 'I wanted, still want, a more diversified career. But this town is a very difficult one in terms of allowing that. You are a car; that's what you areyou are a model and a year. If they can label that model and year as what it is, it makes their job so much easier. You are just a horror actor. 'That's what he does.' Fortunately I have done enough to prove that that's not the case, but the mind set is there. It's human nature. They just have to think that way.'
Combs had no idea, after FRIGHTMARE, that he would go on to do many, many more horror films, often based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft. He would reach cult fame status playing Herbert West in one of those movies, RE-ANIMATOR, in 1985. Remembers Combs, 'When I got RE-ANIMATOR, I remember in my audition that the director said, 'You know, this is based on an H. P. Lovecraft story.' I bluffed, 'Oh, yeah.' I'd heard the name, but it could be a romance novelist for all I knew with a name like Lovecraft. It could have been Henrietta Puice Lovecraft. I am certainly not an aficionado, but I've read some of the short stories. People have talked to me about, over the years, various projects based on this or that Lovecraft novel or short story. So I have looked through and read different stories for different reasons. You want to see what something is based on, what the general idea of it is.'
How did Combs get to be Dr. Herbert West, and what did he think of the script? He says now, 'I was doing a play that the casting director had seen me in. When I first auditioned, it was a very low budget movie. I read it, and I thought it was bloody and gruesome. But I thought it was an interesting character and, if I did get it, an opportunity for me to work in front of a camera. That really was where my focus was at that point. It was not, 'God, I have to do a horror movie.' It was, 'I want to get in front of a camera and learn.' I saw it as an opportunity. I honestly thought that no one would ever see it.'
Combs gradually realized that the film was metamorphosing into something else entirely. He says, 'I remember the director of photography, Mac Ahlberg. He had done quite a lot of movies, not only in Sweden, but here in America, and he pulled his eye away from his eye piece and said, 'You know, I think this movie is going to be something special.' But where it really hit me was when I went to, for lack of a better word, the cast and crew screening/premiere. Before that, I had seen a rough cut, a compilation of everything that had been shot, like a two and a half hour movie. The movie originally was very heavily focused on the love interest. There were a lot of scenes between the girl and the guy. Herbert West was kind of a peripheral character. That was the version that I had seen. I didn't know all the great choices that they would make. One of the unsung heroes of that movie is the editor. His name was Lee Percy. He was really strong about, 'we've got to jettison this, and let's focus on what is really cooking here, and what is really interesting.' It's a very short movie, really, to his credit. When I went to that screening, it was pandemonium. I couldn't get out of the lobby. There was really a buzz at the theater. Then [costar] Bruce Abbott and I and [director] Stuart Gordon decided we would go to the opening Friday in Hollywood. When we got there, there was a line, down all the way to Grauman's Chinese Theater, and around the block, to go see RE-ANIMATOR. The review had come out that day.'
Combs continues, 'The reviews were raves, or vehemently opposed to the gruesomeness. Roger Ebert liked it; Gene Siskel did not. Some months later, they did a show about sleepers out on video, things that have come out on video that maybe you missed in the movie theater. All of sudden they were both singing the praises of RE-ANIMATOR, which I thought was kind of interesting. I wasn't there, but also they showed a midnight showing of it at Cannes. Roger Ebert was there, and he liked it a lot, and Cannes went nuts about it.'
Combs was not really prepared for this. He says, 'It didn't necessarily do me any good, because it was an outside the kingdom hit. It had the buzz of the critics. Pauline Kael put it in her top ten. But I have always had the feeling that it didn't mean anything to the established Hollywood power base. It was peripheral. It was a gross little thing that was out there, and they wouldn't stoop to that. It was like we were like the bastard cousin or something. It never turned into, 'God that actor is great. Get him in here for this project or that project.' But I didn't hire a publicist. Why should I? It never even occurred to me. This is the first movie that I ever really starred in out of the box. It had a small release. Cassettes were in their infancy. It was really an early hit with videocassettes. That's where mainstream America saw that movie, not in a movie theater unfortunately, which is quite an experience. It's like ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. It's a very audience participatory experience. But everybody saw it on video.'
One reason for rekindled interest in RE-ANIMATOR now is that it is referenced in last year's celebrated movie AMERICAN BEAUTY. Notes Combs, 'A lot of people hear the title. It's mentioned in AMERICAN BEAUTY twice. There is a visual homage to it too, near the end when the girl is lying down and he [Kevin Spacey] is going to have his way. She's lying down and his head comes into frame, sort of like the head giving head scene; the head kind of floats in.
Regarding this kind of memorable, graphic imagery, Combs adds, 'RE-ANIMATOR was put out un-rated. They did not go to the ratings board with it, because they knew if they did, it would not be the movie that it is. We were over in Italy making FROM BEYOND, and they threw together an R-rated versiona greedy, throw-together on the part of the distributor, not on the part of the producers and the director. It threw back in scenes that had been cut. It's just ridiculous. If you go to Blockbuster you aren't going to see RE-ANIMATOR. Because of Blockbuster's policies, you are going to see the R-rated version.' Combs suggests that anyone wanting to see the real RE-ANIMATOR should visit a small video rental store.