Friday, September 9, 2011

There's West For The Wicked

JEFFREY COMBS

He isn't a star that befits his talents, but Jeffrey Combs is an icon...at least in certain circles.  His greatest claim to fame is being Herbert West in the Re-Animator films (Re-Animator, Bride of Re-Animator, and Beyond Re-Animator).  Also, he is known to Trekkies/Trekkers for his appearances in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.  It's a point I leave to my Trekker/Trekkie friends as to what actor has appeared in so many Star Trek series without being in the original itself. 

While in retrospect one should celebrate Mr. Combs' birthday by talking about Mr. Combs himself, for better or worse he's become so identified with Herbet West that it seems disingenuous to reflect on Jeffrey Combs without delving into this character.  However, I think it shows that Combs is such a good actor that he can take a character and make him the only person you identify the character with.  It is a dangerous thing for an actor: as good as Anthony Perkins was, Norman Bates haunted his entire post-Psycho career.   It's that dreaded 'typecasting'.  Combs has managed to avoid it (at least on Star Trek), but I don't understand why he isn't a bigger star. 

Side note: I mention Perkins because not only did Psycho curse him with a limited number of offers that did not take advantage of his abilities, but because as good an actor as Vince Vaughn is no one bought him as Norman Bates.  Likewise, if there were ever a remake of Re-Animator, as good as any actor hired, I doubt he would be embraced like Jeffrey Combs has been (unless of course, Combs appeared in a cameo). 

I think Combs is a wildly under-appreciated actor in that he is able to take such a crazy character like West and make him...dare I say, almost endearing.  It takes a special talent to have you so believe a character that the flaws he has (like, say, bringing back the dead) can be seen just as almost mere eccentricities.

This is a character who by all means is insane: he brings back people from the dead (and it always goes wildly wrong).  However, we don't think of him as particularly evil because he doesn't do it for a malevolent purpose.  Granted, he doesn't do it for a benevolent purpose either.  His motivation is simple: for the same reason people climb mountains--because it's there.  In an odd sense, I think of Herbert West as a very Ayn Rand-ian hero: self-interest is as close to motivation as I can find.  I can't say "rational" because he's clearly irrational.

The fact that Combs is a relatively small man (only 5'7" according to IMDB) makes him even more impressive in that for such a small man he is able to bully everyone else around him to do his bidding (no matter how demented it may be or how their moral compasses point otherwise).  I recall that in Beyond Re-Animator so many people appeared to tower over him, but he was clearly the one in charge. 

Truth be told, West is really the perpetual optimist.  No matter how often his experiments go awry, no matter how many times the end results of his projects go disastrously wrong, West still keeps at it, convinced of his own genius and that eventually he'll get ONE right.  

Yet I digress.  Jeffrey Combs is a good actor.  He has taken a wholly demented character and made him someone we can almost cheer for (I say almost because the whole thing really is bonkers).  Not a lot of actors can take someone like a Herbert West and make him a fascinating person.  Combs has played West perfectly straight, never winking at the audience that we're having a laugh at West's expense.  I'd say that Combs as an actor is in on the joke, but his performance as this lunatic is one where he can say the most ridiculous things and make it sound as if this character doesn't realize how funny it sounds. 

I've seen Re-Animator only once but I would still put it up as one of my favorite horror films because not only is there the requisite gruesome gore, but there's also a wicked sense of humor in it, mostly due to Combs' performance as this "mad scientist" so thoroughly uninterested in the living (especially in how he behaves with others) but fascinated in bringing the dead back for no real reason other than that he can do it.  That's the thing about West: he doesn't have any background about missing his parents or a long-lost love he wants to bring back.  He just wants to bring back the dead because he wants to show he is able to do so, damn the results or consequences.

In short, Jeffrey Combs has created a truly iconic character to where no one else can play the part.  That is something few actors are able to do.  Whether it's a blessing or a curse depends on how one handles it.  Boris Karloff made peace with the legacy of Frankenstein, while George Reeves was haunted until his death with that of Superman.  Sir Sean Connery transcended James Bond while Daniel Craig appears so irritated with the idea that ANYONE might think of him as 007 he keeps going to other films in a mad effort to remind us he is an ACTOR, not a character.  I think Combs has no qualms about being tied to Herbert West and the Re-Animator series. 

With that, I wish a Happy Birthday to Jeffrey Combs.

2 comments:

  1. Anthony Perkins played Norman Bates in Psycho, not Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins was Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, that is correct. I don't know how I got Perkins and Hopkins confused, except both played now-iconic villains. Thanks for pointing it out; corrections have been made.

    ReplyDelete

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