Charactor Actors: Genre Icon Jeffrey Comb

Autograph April 2010

Jeffrey Combs as Dr. herbert West in Re-Animator.

For fans of horror and science fiction, Jeffrey Combs is a man who needs no introduction. The mention of his name conjures up a number of memorable characters he’s played over the years, but the one role Combs is most often identified with—and probably forever will be—is that of Dr. Herbert West in the 1985 cult classic, Re-Animator.

“A lot of happy accidents made that piece come together,” he says. “The casting was great, it’s directed with such energy and honesty, the editing is great, the music’s spot-on…. A lot of things have to come together in order to make a movie something special, and at that early point in my career, I thought that’s just how things would go. Having done a lot of movies since then, I know that’s not the case. It’s a very hard and mysterious alchemy to put together a wonderful movie like Re-Animator.”

The success of the film and its two sequels led to more genre work for Combs, including a memorable role in the 1996 horror/comedy, The Frighteners. Although the movie was a big studio production starring Michael J. Fox and directed by Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson, Combs feels the film never had a fair chance to succeed.

Jeffrey Combs in Nevermore.

“It was put out at the wrong time with the wrong ad campaign,” he explains. “It came out in the middle of July—which was boneheaded and dumb because it’s really kind of a Halloween movie—and I don’t think the studio knew what it had. What they sold was a happy, live-action Casper starring Michael J. Fox. All of the hardcore horror fans said, ‘That’s not something I’m interested in,’ and halfway through the film, the people who thought that it might be a nice date movie said, ‘Oh, my God, this is going someplace dark we didn’t expect.’ The studio kind of did a disservice to both audiences.”

Although Combs has become a modern day genre icon, mainstream recognition has proven to be more elusive. “It’s very frustrating in a lot of ways because the industry likes to put you in a box, really fast,” he says. “In one way, the underground notoriety of Re-Animator has kept me working, but in another way it locked me out of a lot of things…. I have to constantly remind myself that at least I was known for something. There are a lot of really great actors out there that never catch that.”

These days, Combs is also becoming known for portraying writer Edgar Allan Poe in the one man play, Nevermore. The production was inspired by an episode of the Masters of Horror series called The Black Cat, which reunited Combs with the writer, Dennis Paoli, and director Stuart Gordon of Re-Animator.

Photo of Combs and Trini Alvarado from The Frighteners.

“Long before The Black Cat came along, I read a biography of Poe and I was really taken with his pathos, his genius and how self-destructive he was,” Combs says. “He was a historical figure that had never been examined on film. I told Stuart, ‘I’d like to play this guy,’ and he came to me about a year and a half later with a script. Dennis and Stuart realized they could make the story a mix between Poe’s fiction and the real-life man who wrote it. Poe is sort of America’s Van Gogh, a self-destructive individual who was destroyed by his own madness and yet left us great things. It was an awesome responsibility to portray him, and I had a tremendous amount of pressure on me to convey him as clearly as I could. I’m very proud of how it turned out.”

The Los Angeles production of Nevermore has earned Combs raves from critics and audiences. In fact, it was so successful that there’s talk of touring across the country. You can check out Combs’ Web site, to see a list of conventions he will be attending. Unfortunately he no longer signs through the mail. Perhaps 2010 will be the year that people take notice of Combs, and he will be relegated to genre obscurity…nevermore.

About Steve Cyrkin, Editor

Steve Cyrkin is the editor & publisher of Autograph, and focuses mostly on forgery, market and consumer protection issues.