Tag Archives: Jeffrey Combs

LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Abbott, , David Gale, Robert Sampson

PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.Still from Re-Animator (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.

COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that ‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films[1] to come from the golden ’80s.

With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.

Stuart Gordon was a director of an avant-garde theater troupe, and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

  1. Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand. []

READER RECOMMENDATION: MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH (2013)

Reader Recommendation by Bryan Pike

DIRECTED BY: Don Thacker

FEATURING: Adrian DiGiovanni, , Danielle Doetsch, Pete Giovagnoli, Ken Brown

PLOT: Ian Folivor, a depressed and reclusive 30-something, finds himself taking advice from a fungal growth in his bathroom after a failed suicide attempt.

Still from Motivational Growth (2014)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The film’s lead impossibly suspended horizontally while sucking greedily from a wall-mounted fungal teat, followed closely by the animatronic mold itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: That the protagonist communicates with a talking fungus is strange enough to warrant potential inclusion, but for a movie limited to the confines of an apartment this film takes on a truly epic and bizarre scope, with spore-induced hallucinations involving infomercials and B-grade science fiction TV shows, demonic TV repairmen, a bathroom murder and dismemberment, a sweet romantic sub-plot and by the film’s close, genuine questions as to what of the preceding 104 mins was real or imagined.

COMMENTS: “The Mold knows, Jack, The Mold knows…”

Normally when considering the first feature of an independent film director one makes allowances for certain technical shortcomings: out of focus shots, poor film stock, a bump in a dolly shot or two, things obvious to the seasoned film viewer but which are ignored in good faith and focus given to the storytelling or performances. There is no such necessity in this film, there are no such flaws to note. In terms of technical craft alone this is easily the most impressive debut I’ve seen from any feature director; the rich and developed performances and storytelling are equally impressive.

The aforementioned fungal teat sequence, the circuitous, overhead crane shots of Ian on his filthy couch, and even a quasi-bullet time shot of the lead falling in the bathroom; are all ambitious, complex shots which are executed effortlessly. The grimy, festering detritus of Ian’s depression made manifest in the scattered garbage filling his apartment is an impressive feat of art direction.

I’d classify it as an absurdist, theatrical, sitcom take on Enter the Void, at least in the sense of a post-death hallucinatory journey (or is it?). It features a shut-in who attempts suicide and is then given a new lease on life by an enormous fungus growing in his bathroom. “The Mold”, an animatronic puppet voiced by Jeffrey Combs, guides our protagonist back to a clean, regular life—if sucking from wall-mounted fungal teats, altercations with demonic TV repairmen, and dream sequences involving infomercials can be considered “regular”.

The puppet for “The Mold” is a refreshing break from the digital in our overly-CGI’ed times, reminiscent of the impressive practical effects from 80’s films like The Thing or The Howling. Jeffrey Comb’s assured, mellifluous voice is the perfect contrast to the wired, intense performance of Adrian Giovanni. The 8-bit music, while fitting the period (early 90’s) and the aesthetic of Thacker’s Imagos production company, is occasionally jarring compared to the action on screen. Although varied and amusing, the TV infomercials playing on Ian’s unit, “Kent” are perhaps the weakest aspect of the film; this satire of vapid and bombastic TV programming has been done better elsewhere, notably Fight Club, or, let’s be honest, the better moments of SNL. To Thacker’s credit it would be difficult at this stage to bring something fresh and inventive to such satire, given the sheer glut of both modern television programs and subsequent parodies.

Ian also merges with these TV programs in some kind of day dream or hallucination, with television’s Kent accusing Ian of betrayal, saying that he “looked after him” long before (the Mold?) did. In the overall context of the film it remains unclear whether Kent is a separate character and rival to the Mold for Ian’s allegiance. Is Kent—who often uses the same language as The Mold—merely an extension of it? The ambiguity employed is merely distracting, rather than serving as an engaging mystery within the film.

The only other complaint one could make of the film are that the level of technical innovation and impressive camera feats drop off towards the end (though this is more a reflection of the story taking prominence over on-screen auteur flourishes at that stage), and that the ambiguous ending leaves one feeling dissatisfied. At various points during the film it is hinted that Ian is dead (or at the very least that “someone” has died) and that our film experience is a hallucinatory afterlife trip inside Ian’s head. But this is arguably the least satisfying outcome or final premise for the film. Isn’t the buildup towards Ian’s “improvement” and the possibilities this direction takes us in (i.e. what are the Mold’s designs for Ian within the larger world outside the apartment?) more intriguing than “oh, Ian’s dead and this is him working things out in the afterlife as his corpse is consumed by mold”? I may have simply been hoping for a different film based on the initial premise than what transpired.

Ultimately, despite these minor misgivings, the film remains an impressive and vastly entertaining debut feature that rewards subsequent viewings for more details as to the nature of what we’ve witnessed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…you can categorize Motivational Growth under “The Weird,” and I mean that as a true compliment.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contmeporaneous)

CAPSULE: FROM BEYOND (1986)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel, Ken Foree

PLOT: A pair of mad scientists develop a device that activates the dormant human pineal gland, allowing them access to “the beyond.”

From Beyond (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Beyond is a solid little cult-y 1980s B-horror, but it just barely cracks the “weird” barrier. As wild as it seems when Jeffrey Combs is running around with a penile pineal gland waving from his forehead, in terms of strangeness, Beyond is a dim echo of Gordon’s prior Lovecraftian update, Re-Animator (1985).

COMMENTS: Let’s just get this out of the way first: From Beyond has to be the pinkest horror movie ever made. I don’t know what the Beyond is like, but based on the light that streams from its world into ours when the barrier between the two is breached, I am guessing that it’s a gay disco. An aquatic gay disco, since those who come over from the other side are wet and glistening, and the native inhabitants, whom you can see floating around our dimension once your pineal gland has been stimulated, look like eels and jellyfish. To From Beyond‘s credit, this crazy coral color scheme works; because we’ve never seen gooey monsters from beyond flushed by a hot pink incandescence before, it’s genuinely abnormal. Lots of things about From Beyond are abnormal, in fact, like the pineal-irradiating Resonator made from a couple of giant tuning forks and one of those plasma balls you can buy from Spencer’s gifts. Or Jeffrey Combs, somehow zombified after his hair has been sucked off by a giant worm, slurping people’s brains out through their eyeballs (what’s his motivation?) Or the evil pink blob-head from Beyond using his psychic powers to convince Barbara Crampton to don a skintight black leather corset and matching thong (I think I understand his motivation). From Beyond finds a near perfect tone for this sort of material. It’s completely absurd, but it always takes itself seriously, trusting the audience to sort out the humor from the horror without big signs pointing at the jokes. Shamelessly made to capitalize on the success of 1985’s Re-Animator, From Beyond is another modernized, R-rated H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with nerdy Combs as an apprentice mad scientist and sexy Barbara Crampton as the love interest (Crampton and Combs were the Bogie and Bacall of slime-spewing, boundary-pushing mid-1980s H.P. Lovecraft adaptations). Here, Crampton is given a larger and more serious role as a criminal psychiatrist whose obsession with the strange case turns her into something of a mad scientist herself—although she still provides plenty of eye-candy once she lets her hair out of that bun and ditches the glasses and buttoned-up-to-her-chin blouse. Combs is a competent actor, but there’s not much to his character here. Gordon had not yet figured out that this actor is wasted unless he’s playing some variation of Herbert West, a malevolent nerd with a God complex, rather than just some good-natured schlub in a Miskatonic U. T-shirt. Although From Beyond pales a bit in comparison to its immediate predecessor—and it would have taken a miracle to recreate Re-Animator‘s mix of carnage, black comedy and general outrageousness—this one is still a good time for horror fans looking for cheap thrills delivered with otherworldly panache.

Shout! Factory’s new From Beyond release on its Scream! Factory sub-label ports over all the special features from the old MGM edition (including the commentary with Gordon, Combs, Crampton, and producer ) and adds several new interviews, along with a second commentary from scriptwriter Dennis Paoli, who reads some of Lovecraft’s original story. This “Collector’s Edition” is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack only (neither format is currently being sold separately).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…lacks the single-minded weirdness of Gordon’s first film, but it does establish him in the tradition of Hollywood horror directors who really try – directors including James Whale, Tod Browning and Roger Corman.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ATTIC EXPEDITIONS (2001)

This post was originally lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010; the article was partially recovered from Google cache, and the rest of the text was recreated. Sorry, original comments were irretrievably lost in cyberspace.

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Kasten

FEATURING: Andras Jones, Seth Green, Jeffrey Combs, Beth Bates, Ted Raimi

PLOT: Awakening from a dream to find himself on an operating table, an amnesiac is

Scene from The Attic Expeditions (2001)

informed that he is a schizophrenic murderer who has been committed to a private institution and is now being sent to a halfway home—nicknamed “the House of Love”—to be rehabilitated.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Attic Expeditions sounds echoes of some (better) weird movies: Jacob’s Ladder (in the way that the script offers different possible explanations for the protagonist’s hallucinations, and jerks the viewer back and forth between those theories) and Donnie Darko (in that it seems the director intended to tell a fantastical story that “made sense” on a literal level, but lost control of the story when he took it one paradox too far).  An interesting, confusing, out-of-control picture, it’s as fascinating for its misses as for its hits.  It falls just short of a general recommendation, but it is recommended to anyone interested in psychological, mindbending horror seasoned with heaping doses of confusion and who isn’t a stickler for great acting.  This is the kind of curious, singular picture that could wind up filling one of the final slots in the List.

COMMENTS: Trevor Blackburn may be a schizophrenic murderer, or he may be an amnesiac sorcerer, or he may be the victim of an unethical psychological experiment; or he may be all three.  It’s impossible to tell, especially since The Attic Expeditions is full of contradictions and contains segments where the timeline suddenly resets and the action repeats itself with slight variations.  The mystery promiscuously throws out clues, but every possible explanation for Trevor’s woes seems chained to its own refutation.  Trevor is an unreliable narrator in triplicate: he’s a definite amnesiac, a possible schizophrenic, and, to top it all off, his state-appointed guardian appears to be deliberately playing with his loose grip on reality.  Psychiatrist Dr. Ek (played by Jefferey Combs as a variation on Herbert West as a pot-smoking, skin-popping headshrinker) uses Trevor as a case study for an experiment in Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ATTIC EXPEDITIONS (2001)

CAPSULE: PARASOMNIA (2008)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:  William Malone

FEATURING:  Dylan Purcell, Cherilyn Wilson, Jeffrey Combs

PLOT:  A young woman named Laura suffering from Klein-Levin Syndrome falls prey to the

Still from Parasomnia (2008)

mental control of a mesmeric killer, Byron Volpe. A young man named Danny happens upon Laura at the hospital and kidnaps her to try and save her from Volpe’s influence.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Parasomnia isn’t weird.  The real life condition certainly is, but the film is messy, disorganized and inconsistent.  The parts which are clearly intended to be weird just call up memories of other, better films.  It is a bad movie, and there are one or two moments when it almost stumbles upon weirdness thanks to its own sheer clumsiness; but even then it’s not bad enough to make it championship material.

COMMENTS: Sweet Mother of Pearl, this is a bad, bad movie. I went into it full of optimism. The opening scene has Sean Young, looking good, making a very brief cameo as Byron Volpe’s wife; she takes a phone call from her murderous, mesmerist husband and immediately jumps off a balcony. This was a smart move on her part as she then didn’t have to appear in the rest of this interminable travesty. The opening credits are also very stylish. It’s all downhill from then on.

The film is so messy and inept that I assumed it was the director’s first effort. I was surprised to find that, amongst other work, he had directed an episode of the “Masters Of Horror” series and the 1999 version of The House On Haunted Hill. Parasomnia is clearly a low budget work, but that isn’t the problem. Production values are quite high, even though the dream scenes are unimaginative. What lets the film down is the terrible plotting. And it is terrible. There are many examples of the Saturday morning serial, “and with a single bound, he was free”, plot devices. Detectives disappear just when they’re needed, handcuffs suddenly become elastic, professional medical personnel behave like witless fools.

Laura, our “sleeping beauty,” suffers from parasomnia, a sleep disorder that causes her to doze most of her life away. She is also a patient in the worst hospital in the Western world. People are allowed to wander in and out without anyone raising an eyebrow, much less an objection. Danny goes there to visit a friend who is in for “drug rehab.” He’s spending his last days before release polishing the doorknobs that he has taken from all the doors in the hospital. The staff know about this but seem to view it as an amusing eccentricity, rather than a dangerous security risk. On his friend’s recommendation Danny goes down to the “psycho ward” for a gawp at the inmates, including the famous killer Byron Volpe. Volpe is so dangerous that he is kept in Guantanamo Bay style restraints, hanging arms outstretched. His head is hooded because his terrible power is in his gaze. This doesn’t really explain how he convinced his wife to jump off the balcony, over the phone. Nor does it explain how he manages to control Laura when she leaves the hotel. What Volpe is doing in a hospital next door to Laura isn’t explained either; why isn’t he in some maximum-security facility where the nurses won’t run squealing from him at meal times?

Danny is on his way to goggle at Volpe when he spots Laura and wanders into her room to gaze creepily at her. When the doctor arrives you’d be forgiven for expecting him to call security. No, of course not; he proceeds to tell Danny all about Laura even though he’s willingly admitted that he’s just some random guy who’s wandered in off the streets. As if this wasn’t a serious enough breach of privacy, Danny is then allowed to come and visit her whenever he wants. The arrival of some doctors from a sleep institute prompts Danny to kidnap Laura before she can be transferred to their facility.

Once Danny has Laura home, he undresses her and sponge bathes the unconscious young woman. Maybe I’m alone here, but this is not a character I want to identify with. I can’t help but feel that we are meant to see Danny as our romantic hero, rescuing the damsel from the uncaring arms of the medical profession. Step back, though, and he’s a guy who has convinced himself that he has a bond with an unconscious woman with limited experience of the outside world. To further the relationship he kidnaps her; completely unprepared to care for her either emotionally or clinically, he takes her to his apartment, undresses her and fondles her naked body in the name of cleaning her. The next day he shovels cornflakes into Laura’s sleeping mouth, before leaving her sitting up, unrestrained, in a dining chair with the TV on “in case she wakes up”! Then he goes out for the day. What a guy, right? In the evening he even stops off at a bar on the way home, seemingly unconcerned that his charge could be lying in a puddle of urine with a broken neck.

And the film goes on and on like this. To make up for it the weirdness factor would have to be 11, but it’s nowhere near. There are a few dream sequences where Laura finds herself chased by Volpe-inspired creatures through a wasteland of mirrors, but there is nothing original about the scenery or the creatures. The other source of intentional weirdness comes near the end of the film. Volpe has escaped from hospital, thanks to more blithering incompetence on the part of the staff. For some reason best known to himself, he has kidnapped two female musicians, a violinist and a cellist. (I only mention this because one of the weirdest aspects of the film is how these women manage to play full orchestral arrangements on just two string instruments; but I digress). A series of agile leaps of logic and contrived plot devices leads to Danny being handcuffed to a chair, and Laura having a pair of feathered wings crudely grafted to her back. They are imprisoned in the workshop of Danny’s drug-addled friend, who spends his time out of hospital making musical automata. These creations take center stage during the climax of the movie; they are intriguing and stylish, but ultimately just window dressing.

Parasomnia left me with a bad taste, not just because it stole two hours of my life but because there’s a greasy trail of misogyny throughout the whole thing. Danny is not a modern day Prince Charming, he’s a creepy pervert, as bad in his own way as Volpe is in his. The scene which sticks in my mind is Danny taking Laura out for an ice cream, which she has never encountered before. She paddles it around on the café table before rubbing it all over her face and grinning at him childishly. Danny observes that he’s going to have to bathe her again. This would be nasty if Danny was the villain of the piece, but we’re clearly meant to sympathize with him. In case we’re in any doubt as to where our sympathies should lie there’s a little epilogue to reassure us that this relationship was meant to be. It ties in with a rambling early scene in which Danny and a friend discuss music. The friend reappears in the last five minutes with a record that he promised to give to Danny. As Danny and Laura float together in a life support tank, the song blasts out over the closing credits, but it certainly didn’t say “Happily Ever After” to me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…before the film has you checking your watch, bam—the finale scampers onto the screen like a giddy, pale barn spider, meshing Malone’s broken-doll obsessions with Beksinski art (Tool fans take note). It’s a weird blast of subdued energy and a sickly sumptuous spectacle to behold, and leaves you wishing there was so much more of Malone’s bizarre vision on view throughout the story.”–Chris Haberman, Fangoria (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Brian Yuzna

FEATURING: Jeffrey Combs, Jason Barry, Elsa Pataky, Simón Andreu

PLOT: A brilliant young med school graduate gets himself assigned to the institution

Still from Beyond Re-animator (2003)

where Dr. Herbert West is imprisoned so that he can enlist the good doctor’s assistance in continuing his forbidden experiments in reanimating the dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Beyond is a welcome third installment in the Re-Animator saga that continues the series’ tradition of going way over-the-top, but though it’s deranged, nonsensical fun, it’s not even the weirdest entry in its own franchise.

COMMENTS: Fans of the taste-challenged Re-Animator series should be pleased with this charmingly grotesque third sequel, which zips along briskly with a delightful disrespect for logic to a phantasmagorically bloody zombie prison riot finale.  Jeffery Combs, now middle-aged but still looking like a eternally perturbed boy genius, returns as Dr. Herbert West to inject his deadpan wit into the proceedings while the world goes mad around him.  A large part of Dr. West’s mad charisma comes from the fact that he’s constantly sowing seeds of chaos by pushing forward into realms where man was not meant to meddle, then staring at the carnage with a slightly befuddled frown as yet another reanimated corpse unexpectedly turns homicidal.  Obsessed and opportunistic, he’s a nerdy Dr. Frankenstein with an unabashedly amoral streak, who always emerges from his own foul ups unscathed while his unlucky companions end up in the charnel house.  West’s experiments on rats in prison have led him to believe that he can use electricity to restore the souls of re-animated corpses and keep them from killing off the nubile women who always happen to be standing around whenever a new zombie pops up.  This time around, it’s a Doogie Hauser-esque young prison MD who risks everything to help West better the lot of mankind by mixing up a new vat of glowing green reanimation juice, but through a long string of unfortunate occurrences ends up getting kickboxed about the head by a hot zombie dominatrix for his troubles.  Even though this entry aims more for comedy than horror, the atmosphere is eerie: what’s spookier than a half-abandoned post-riot prison, with sounds of massacres echoing in the background while burning toilet paper rolls cast the shadows of iron bars on gray stone walls?  The crazed climax gives us about as many zombie-hyphenates as any reanimated corpse fan could hope for: zombie-rats, zombie-girlfriends, a half-zombie, zombie-vision, zombie-fellatio.  There’s also a pill-popping prisoner who gets hooked on reanimation fluid, leading to the flick’s most bizarre and surreal gag, and a “cockfight” that must be seen to be believed.  All in all, Beyond Re-Animator should leave your lower jaw hanging reasonably close to the ground, which is all we ask for in any movie with “Re-Animator” in the title.

Technically inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, though not at all uncanny, Beyond Re-Animator is set in mythical Arkham, Massachucets.  To get that New England ambiance down perfectly, Yuzna hired a team of regional filmmakers—guys like screenwriter José Manuel Gómez and executive producer Carlos Fernández—guys with mucho dinero, who understand that an authentic Massachusetts prison looks exactly like something you’d find on the outskirts of Barcelona.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…leads to a wonderfully degenerate 30-minute final sequence that involves not only lotsa gore and f/x but also some genuinely surreal visual wit.”–Jonathan Holland, Variety (contemporaneous)